Twenty months into the uprising in Syria, with the death toll reportedly exceeding 37,000 and news reports showing that violence in the country is spiraling even further out of control, it is no wonder that the thorny issue of foreign intervention is constantly revisited.
Akil Hashem, a former brigadier general in the Syrian military, is also one of the loudest proponents of foreign military intervention in Syria.
Hashem joined the Syrian army in 1962 and served for twenty-seven years. Half of this time he spent as the commander of a platoon. He later became the commander of a regiment then commander of a tank battalion, and in 1976 he was made the head of operations of a tank brigade.
After he was labeled ‘disloyal’ he was transferred from the field units to teaching positions.
Speaking to the Majalla, Hashem discusses his own experience in the Syrian military under Hafez Al-Assad, and reveals how this has informed his position on the current crisis in Syria.
The Majalla: What happened after you were reassigned to the military teaching post?
I taught for three years in the tank college in Homs, and then the last ten years of my career as a professor in the higher military academy. I was teaching strategy, operation theatre, art of war, and military history. First I was the head of the department for research and military studies and for the last two years I was the dean of the faculty of military history. In 1981, I came to the belief that I am not serving my country, I am not serving the army, I am not serving the people: I am just a tool serving the government of Hafez Al-Assad. So I decided to leave.
I had no options or alternative, I just wanted to get out of the military, even though I was just a teacher and not involved in any act against anybody. I applied four times for my early retirement—the first three in 1981, 1982, and 1985—and was rejected every time with a threat from the chairman of the joint chief of staff who said, ‘Don’t apply for retirement, we will not agree.’
I applied for last time in 1989. I was so firm in my application. The general Ali Aslan met with me and tried to convince me not to resign. In the end they were forced to grant my status as a civilian on 1 July 1989. Two months later I left the country and went to the United States.
Q: Do they usually make it difficult for high-ranking members of the military to leave?
Yes, but I was very well known because I had taught around 4,000 officers, most of them high rank between majors and colonels, and most of my students were influential officers in military or intelligence.
Although I managed to leave the country two months after my resignation, usually a high-ranking officer cannot leave the country before two years because they carry too much information that could jeopardize the security of the country.
I returned to Syria eight years later because of the health of my mother, who was living with me in the US. I left America, left my children, left my wife, my place, left everything and went back to Syria to live with her until she died. When I tried to return to America to see my family, I found out that I was not allowed to leave. I had already exceeded the age that one needs of permission to leave the country, but in my case they had extended it. They had to get me back from the airplane and delayed the flight until they had retrieved my suitcase. Then they called me to the military intelligence [office], where they confiscated my two passports (US and Syrian) and investigated me for about a year and a half until they found out that some reports written against me were false. In 2004 they gave me back my passport, apologized, and let me leave. I never returned.
Q: In your opinion how do the governments of Hafez and Bashar differ?
I wasn’t in the military when Bashar came to power, but during the time of Hafez I witnessed day by day the changes he made. He managed to make the military and security forces loyal to him through three elements: first by sectarianism, second by corruption, and third by the huge system of surveillance and monitoring of everyone in the country—especially of the officers—by the intelligence forces.
I was labeled as a disloyal officer, so it was required by the security personnel within the units that I served to report monthly on all my activities, my friends, and where I go. That was between 1968 until 1989, so for twenty-one years these people were writing reports on all my activities.
Q: How do they judge someone as disloyal and how did they come to label you as disloyal?
It’s very easy in the government of Syria to be accused [of being] disloyal. If somebody writes a report about you, even if it’s false, you will be guilty until you are proven innocent. I was labeled from the very beginning but the significant moment came was when I was transferred to the teaching position.
That was in 1976 when my division, the Ninth Armored Division, was sent to the eastern borders with Iraq. At the time there was a military conflict, actually not between Iraq and Syria, but between Saddam Hussein and Hafez Assad. A few things happened. A pilot from the air force defected with his airplane and an officer defected, and there were so many incidents that the military intelligence headquarters in Damascus sent a wire to the commander of the division and asked him to send them a list of all the officers deemed a threat to the security of the military, those who might defect, who might participate in a military coup, or something like this.
The commander of the brigade (of which I was the head of the operation) . . . put my name as one of the officers who might be a threat. We had had personal disagreements because he was lazy and corrupt.
I was the head of operation, meaning the one who is responsible for all the planning the training—everything, so he couldn’t let me go because he depended on me, but he found this opportunity to hurt me. Because of my military reputation—I went through two wars before, I was injured, I had so many medals I was a very successful officer—they didn’t discharge me or put me in jail. The only option was to put me in the teaching position where I can’t do anything because a teacher in the military academy has no authority over anything at all. I didn’t have authority over the guy who stood at my office door and brought me the mail or the coffee. And that’s how I spent the last thirteen years of my career.
Q: When did you first oppose the government? Was it after you had left the army?
I was against the government from day one, when Hafez Al-Assad took power, but I was also reckless and careless because I spoke out a lot, although only within my very trustworthy inner circle of friends. Some of them were arrested later on and didn’t reveal anything about me. One very close friend of mine—we met up in a restaurant in Damascus one night until midnight discussing all the horrible things about government—[the] next morning he was arrested. After he was released a year and a half later, he told me that three times he had this ‘party’—they called it party—it was a torturing session, three times he was tortured for one reason: ‘Tell me about Akil Hashem, what do you know about him, how does he think, what does he do.’ But thank God all my friends were really trustworthy.
I later became involved in discussions about the government with civilians, especially during the period I spent in Syria before my mother died. Since the beginning of the revolution I have been deeply involved publishing articles, taking part in interviews for the media, et cetera.
I have a connection inside Syria with the fighters, with the opposition figures, and I advise everybody. They ask me about so many things because of the lack of military knowledge of military strategy, so I am involved in this but I have no certain position, I am not part of the Syrian National Council (SNC) or any other faction.
Q: How far is the army sectarian?
During his thirty years of rule, Hafez Al-Assad managed to establish two huge loyal units, the Fourth Armored Division and the Republican Guard, and these two huge units contained maybe 45–50,000 soldiers and personnel from all ranks. These two units were all volunteer personnel, unlike the regular army divisions, with 70 percent or less of them from the military compulsory service. Secondly, 80 percent of the personnel of these two units were Alawites.
Thirdly, these two divisions were provided with the best and newest models of military equipment of arms and tanks and armed vehicles. They had priority, while priority is really supposed to go to the divisions stationed on the Golan Heights front. Also they had more benefits than the regular army—their salary was one and a half times more—and they put in their mind that ‘you are the government, you can do anything in this society you can get anything you want,’ so they have this ego that we are the government.
Also we have the four major intelligence agencies—military intelligence, the air force intelligence, the state security, and the political police. Their personnel total around 150,000. This number isn’t matched by any other country. Eighty percent of them are Alawite; most of the officers and the heads of these agencies and their branches are Alawite. All of them were connected directly to Hafez Al-Assad and now Bashar Al-Assad, contrary to the law [by] which the political police should be answerable to the minister of the interior and [by] which the air force intelligence has to be part of the military intelligence, and both should be answerable to the chairman chief of staff, not the president. The only agency answerable directly to the president by law is the state security [apparatus]. This was established during Hafez Al-Assad’s time.
All those in this huge establishment—all connected directly to the president—are also tasked with spying on each other, removing any inside threat from these agencies. Hafez put all these troops under a huge net of security personnel monitoring every move, every person, everyone.
Then there is the regular army. The Syrian army is huge: seven armored divisions, three mechanized divisions, two special troop divisions, two air defense divisions, and two air force divisions, plus the Presidential Guard. Their main source [of recruits] depends on the military compulsory service, and this reflects exactly the diversity of the ethnic or religious groups in Syria and sectarian groups. Because Sunnis are 70 percent of the population, it means the personnel in the regular divisions would be 70 percent Sunni, so Hafez Al-Assad could not do the same as with the elite divisions and the Presidential Guard. Instead he concentrated on the officer corps. The majority of the officers who graduate every year from the military colleges are Alawite.
When I was under monthly surveillance there were about two thousand or three thousand officers like me. They also monitor the loyals before the opponents, because loyals have the high positions in the military and in the intelligence.
Hafez created this huge establishment of military and intelligence forces to guarantee that he would stay in power. The only threat was when his brother, who was supposed to be the main force behind him, turned against him in 1983. After two years of bloody conflict, Hafez managed to eject his brother out of the country and regain the control and loyalty of his Fourth Division replacing his brother with two sons, Basil first (and when Basil died, Bashar), and the other, Maher.
Q: How is it that the Syrian army has yet been unable to defeat the rebels?
First of all, this establishment that Bashar inherited and mismanaged; this establishment is completely corrupt. When people are corrupt they will not be smart and careful and lead as if they are not corrupt because they will just look out for their own benefit, to get just as much as they can from using their position. Second, even though the balance of power is in favor of the government in equipment and numbers — There 300,000 in the military and 150,000 in intelligence; with the Shabiha, half a million; and no more than 100,000, which may be an exaggeration, on the freedom fighters’ side — The freedom fighters believe in the cause, they have the will to sacrifice no matter what, and they have the courage. The government forces lack these three elements completely. They don’t believe in their cause, they lack the courage, and they don’t want to give any sacrifices.
After all these atrocities after all this bombing and shelling—it has never happened in the history of Syria—Assad could not manage and he will never manage to put an end this revolution. But on the other hand, the freedom fighters will never get the upper hand over this government; this will go on and on. This is why I was the main advocate for the international military intervention since the beginning of the revolution.
This is a very tragic situation and there is no way of properly arming the rebels. From a military point of view, from a strategic point of view, the only way is to solve this mess in Syria is to intervene and the smallest level of intervention would kill this government right away.
Q: How have you come to the conclusion that intervention is the best approach?
I know the government very, very, well. From day one I said this government will not stop killing people unless somebody superior to it in power forces it to stop. And all the events after that, for eighteen months, proved my theory and analysis. I knew from the very beginning that there would be no way for the rebels to have the upper hand militarily.
The whole Syrian territory is still now under government control. There are many spots that are free from that control, but the major highways, the major places, are not so defectors can’t do anything except defect individually. No one could defect with a whole unit because the air forces would find and kill them straight away. The smallest level of intervention, establishing a safe zone, would turn the situation militarily and politically upside down because in this safe area the freedom fighters would be very capable of defecting in whole troops.
If there is a safe area then these defectors will defect with their arms, they will have the time to regroup themselves to create a military chain of command to be supplied by weapons and train and from that area liberate the rest of Syria as it happened in Benghazi.
Intervention could come in four forms. First, an air and missile strike where there would be no need for a human to be involved as this uses unmanned weapons—cruise missiles and drones. This would target all the communication of military intelligence and the military headquarters and the places where the government troops are positioned. Second is establishing a partial safe area. Third is imposing the no-fly zone all over Syria. Fourth and last is a complete intervention as it happened in Libya with everything except one thing—no foreign ground troops on Syrian soil.
Q: In Libya, NATO acted as the air force for the rebels—but in Syria the rebels are not as unified. If NATO were to destroy the Syrian military, what would happen next?’
Afterwards, we cannot anticipate what will happen. It will be open for all options. There are no critics to Syrian intervention except loyalists to the government. I heard so many people criticizing the intervention and using the example to prove their point and they are wrong. Because they said, ‘Libya will be conquered, Libya will be divided,’ and now we see Libya is still one country, Libya has no occupying foreign troops and they had a democratic election, and a peaceful transition of power from the transitional council before. Yes, there was some chaos, there were some militia who refused to give up their arms, but this is the nature of revolution. Some people will express their opinion peacefully and some people will go to their arms. This will be a transitional period. A couple of years later everything will settle down and Syria will be a free and democratic country.
Q: Ban Ki-moon said there can be no military solution, and NATO has also stated that there will be no military intervention in Syria. What do you say to this?
There is very big proof that someday the Western countries will find themselves forced to intervene. If Bashar Al-Assad committed a huge massacre like in Srebrenica and killed 9,000 to 10,000 people in one strike—and this could happen—what would the international community do? Suppose the Syrian government supported Hezbollah in chemical weapons and Hezbollah used it against Israel, what would the international community do? There are so many possibilities that the international community will find itself forced to intervene and I can tell you for sure that the military plans for intervention are already ready, done, a hundred percent, and this is a contingency plan in case this happens and in case that happens, because the military don’t wait until the politicians make the decision to intervene and then start planning. If the government decides to intervene then the plan is ready and can be executed within a couple of days. Still, I hope there will be an intervention.