ArticlePDF Available
Why was the Arab Spring successful in
Tunisia but not in Syria?
Title: Final Thesis
Haya Tinawi
Bachelor Thesis POL30300
School of Political Science and International Relations (SPIRe)
University College Dublin (UCD)
Dublin, Ireland
Word Count: 6,493
ABSTRACT................................................................................................. 3
1 INTRODUCTION
2 THEORY/ LITERATURE REVIEW
2.1 Military government relations:
2.1.1 Theoretical Framework
3 METHODOLOGY
3.1 Case Study: Tunisia
AFFAIR 
3.1.2 MILITARY ETHNIC COMPOSITION AND FAMILY TIES
3.1.3 MILITARY SPENDING & POLITICAL POWER
TABLE 1. BUDGETS OF THE DEFENSE AND INTERIOR MINISTRIES
3.2 Case Study: Syria
3.2.2 MILITARY ETHNIC COMPOSITION AND FAMILY TIES
3.2.3 MILITARY SPENDING
BIBLIOGRAPHY 
APPENDIX 1: MOST- SIMILAR SYSTEM DESIGN (TUNISIA & SYRIA)
The main focus of this study is the Arab Spring. The Arab Spring affected almost all countries in the Arab
region. This paper will focus on two countries in particular Tunisia and Syria to study the reason behind
the different outcome of this uprisings. The research question of this paper is ‘Why was the Arab Spring
successful in Tunisia but not in Syria?’. The Tunisian case is known to be one of the most successful in
the region, while the Syrian case is one of the worst; as it led to a conflict that’s still going on today and a
civil war. The factor that’s going to be focused on to discuss the reason for this different outcome in both
countries is Military Government relations. By going through theories about military defections and
loyalty many argue on how an increase in economical support and political power, is more likely to keep
the military loyal to the regime (Barany, 2011; Svolik, 2011; Albrecht, 2015; Nassif, 2015b; Makara,
2013), other theories suggest that militaries who are ethnically the same as the regime are more likely to
stay loyal to the regime (Barany, 2011; Lutterbeck, 2013; Makara, 2013; Makara, 2016; Bellin, 2012).
Thus, this paper will discuss three main points; old policies towards the militaries, ethnic composition
within the military and military spending. The chosen method is a comparative method; the paper will go
through case studies of both countries to discuss those points extensively. The final result of the paper
suggests that the differences in the military-government relations in Tunisia and Syria are related to the
different outcomes of The Arab Spring uprisings.
Keywords: Arab Spring, Military government relations, Ben Ali, Al Assad.
The question that’s being addressed in the research paper is ‘Why was the Arab Spring successful in
Tunisia but not in Syria?’ What reason led those countries to have re-charted paths of this revolutionary
wave in different directions despite their similarities? The Arab Spring is the most important uprising
event that occurred in the Middle East. More than six years ago, Tunisia launched the spark of change in
the Arab world. It was followed by Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Syria. The common denominator among the
people of all these countries was their desire for freedom and living in dignity and the overthrow of their
I want to thank my supervisor Dr. Stephanie Dornschneider for her guidance throughout the process of writing this
authoritarian regimes; this suggested that we are facing one Arab spring whose paths and mechanisms
will be similar to the establishment of democratic systems that respect freedoms and respect the will of
their peoples. However, the specificity of each of these internal and regional countries has re-charted the
paths of this revolutionary wave in different directions, as evidenced by the mechanisms reached in each
country. The revolution was broken in the face of the counterrevolution in some of these countries, and
some of them turned into armed war, like what had happened in Syria.
In light of all these changes, the Tunisian experience, despite all the obstacles, seems to be the most
inspiring and perhaps the most successful experiment, some also argue that ‘Tunisia could well turn out to
be the country where the Arab Spring both was born and died’ (Kumar Sen, 2015). The Tunisians
succeeded not only in overthrowing the authoritarian rule represented by the former regime of President
Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, but through a difficult path, they managed to maintain a path of peaceful
democratic transformation, enabling them to hold fair legislative and presidential elections and drafting a
consensus constitution that would preserve the gains of the revolution.
The reason for choosing these two countries in particular for this question is mainly for their very similar
situations before and at the start of the uprisings and their vastly major outcome in the end. The two
countries are similar in the way they both have presidential ruling systems, and they both had
authoritarian regimes before the Arab Spring and also people in both countries were protesting for the
same reasons. However, the outcomes for the Arab Spring in both countries were different as Tunisia was
able to achieve democracy while Syria is still under authoritarian rule (see Table.1).
This paper will focus on one of the most important and crucial reasons behind the different outcome of
the uprising in both countries which is military government relations (Barany, 2011; Lutterbeck, 2013;
Makara, 2013; Bellin, 2012; Svolik, 2011; Albrecht, 2015). Regarding the military government relations,
it’s argued that the military in Tunisia played a big role for the success of its revolution by taking the side
of the people which aided in its success (Masri, 2017), while in Syria the military took the side of the
government. This resulted in having a different outcome. Also, they both had different paths historically
in terms of the military structure. In Tunisia, the military was kept politically separate (Bellin, 2013)
while in Syria the regime made sure to have the military on his side by giving power to the minorities
(Shias and Alawites) (McLauchlin, 2010). To discuss this factor, the paper will go through three sections
to analyze it. First, it will discuss the old policies towards the militaries in which it will discuss the
attempted coups the two regimes went through and their behaviour towards them. Second, it will discuss
ethnic composition and family ties within the military. And finally, the paper will analyze the military
spending in both countries. After analyzing these factors, the paper will conduct whether or not there is a
vast difference between the two countries in handling the military and whether or not it could be said to
be one of the reasons for the success of the uprising in Tunisia and its failure in Syria.
By reviewing theories, the most outstanding argument that has been drawn from different scholars and
literary works is Military Government Relations. This section analyzes two points regarding the military
government relations that will be used later on to do a comparison of both countries, it will also suggest a
hypothesis for this paper.
One of the main difference that led Tunisia and Syria to have different paths in the Arab Spring is the
reaction of the Military in each country. There are many studies that talk about the role of the military in
authoritarian regimes and the role of the authoritarian leaders against the militaries, Kohn (1997) argued
that the military role in autocracies are focused on internal order and security where the military is
‘preying on society rather than protecting it’ (Kohn, 1997, p.141). Svolik (2012) argues in chapter 5 that
authoritarian leaders strategically integrate military forces into internal security and everyday repression
to ensure and sustain the longevity of authoritarian rule and to quell the dissident.
2.1.1 Theoretical Framework
In the two countries Syria and Tunisia, the militaries had the opposite reaction to the protests of the
uprisings. The former in which the military stood on the side of the government against the people and the
latter in which the military defected and stood on the side of the people against the government. There are
many theories that discuss the reasons behind the defection of the militaries against the regimes in
uprisings and protests. One of the strongest arguments made by literatures is that the militaries who are
granted greater economic support and political power by the government are more likely to stand by the
government’s side against mass protests (Barany, 2011; Svolik, 2011; Albrecht, 2015; Nassif, 2015b;
Makara, 2013). Vice versa, the militaries that are denied political power and underpaid are more likely to
defect from the government to stand on the side of the people (Brooks, 2013b; Makara, 2013; Makara,
Barany (2011) argued that if the regime is providing the army with the political and socioeconomic
demands and the soldiers are well paid then it’s more likely for the army to take the side of the regime and
protect it. Svolik (2011) argued that militaries should be given political power and resource in order to
suppress the protestors on the side of the regime. Albrecht stated that regimes can gain the military’s
loyalty by ‘buying off the officer corps by granting them economic privileges and opportunities for self-
enrichment’ (2015, p. 39). Most authoritarian regimes tend to ‘purchase the military’s loyalty with
economic incentives and patronage unavailable to the rest of the population’ (Makara, 2013, p. 336), by
granting the military an increase in economic spending and other benefits like good housing and health
services ‘attempts to give the military a stake in its continued survival’ (Makara, 2013, p. 336). Brooks
talked about Tunisian’s case in particular, she argued that the reason for the defection in this country is the
marginalization of the military, in other words, the lack of the funding and political power; it ‘did not
maintain sizable commercial economic enterprises; nor did its officers enjoy the same perquisites or ready
access to key positions in state institutions or the private sector upon retirement’ (2013b, p. 210).
Another very important theory about military loyalty and defection discussed is the military ethnic
composition. Many researchers have argued that the composition of a military is a very important factor
in studying the defection and loyalty of militaries in mass uprisings, the studies suggest that militaries that
have things in common with the protestors are more likely to defect, while militaries that are ethnically
the same as the regime are more likely to suppress the protestors on the side of the government, they are
also more likely to stay loyal to the regime (Barany, 2011; Lutterbeck, 2013; Makara, 2013; Makara,
2016; Bellin, 2012).
Bellin argued that when the military leaders ‘are linked to regime elites through bonds of blood or sect or
ethnicity’ (2012, p.133), then ‘the fate and interests of the military's leadership become intrinsically linked
to the longevity of the regime’ (2012, p.133). Authoritarian regimes especially in the Middle east ‘often
exploit communal identities when building their armed forces and promoting officers, granting particular
favor to “communities of trust” with close ties to the regime’ (Makara, 2013, p. 337), the community of
trust ‘can vary based on context, with family, tribe, and sect’ (Makara, 2013, p. 337). Barany studied the
role of the militaries in the Arab Spring, he stated that ‘ethnoreligious differences within the armed forces
may mean much in one country and little or nothing in another’ (Barany, 2011, p.25), this is applied on
Tunisia and Syria, where ethnoreligious differences in Syria mean so much in terms of the military
behaviour against the protests as it is affected ‘by the sectarian and ethnic rifts that exist in society at
large’ (Barany, 2011, p.28), while in Tunisia, due to the lack of ethnoreligious difference in the country at
large, it didn’t really mean anything according to the actions of the military.
This argument leads to the testable hypothesis.
Hypothesis: The differences in the military-government relations are related to the different outcomes of
The Arab Spring uprisings in Syria and Tunisia.
As both countries are very similar in almost all aspects but the outcome of the uprisings; the Most-
Similar System Design is the most efficient application for this scenario (Check Appendix.1). This paper
will be using a comparative method and case study to deepen through both cases. It will study both cases
deeply to evaluate their similarities and how this contributed to both uprisings. In this section, military
government relations will be discussed through three points which are old policies toward the militaries,
ethnic composition and military spending. The section will go through these points extensively to either
accept or reject the hypothesis stated above.
These three points are hugely important when comparing the military government relations in the two
countries. Literature focuses very extensively on these points when studying coup-proofing and
defections. The old policies towards the military are important when studying the military actions in both
countries as it gives an overview of how both leaders took a different path in dealing with the army. By
examining the actions of the regimes, the militaries’ reactions can be identified or predicted (i.e. if the
military was marginalized, it would have a larger incentive to defect and vice versa). The Military ethnic
composition according to literatures; is one of the most effective coup-proofing plans. Bellin argued that
‘where the military is organized along patrimonial lines’ (2012, p.133) then ‘military elite becomes deeply
invested in the regime's survival and perceives regime change as possibly ruinous’ (2012, p.133). By
studying where each country stands in terms of the ethnic composition of the military, the connection
between it and the regime can be identified. If there’s a sect, ethnic or tribal similarity between the two,
then the military will most likely stay loyal to the regime. Military spending is an essential factor to see
where each military stand. Many literatures state that ‘The economic realm’ (Albrecht, 2015, p. 40) and
economic spending are essential for gaining the military’s loyalty (Barany, 2011; Svolik, 2011; Makara,
2013). By analyzing the military spending of each country to check whether they were underpaid or
overpaid and whether they provided with economic benefits, the theories and arguments can then be
applied on both countries to identify their military-government relations and military actions.
The uprisings in Tunisia started when a young Tunisian (Mohamed Bouazizi) set fire to himself on Friday,
on 17th December, 2010 in front of Sidi Bouzid's headquarters in protest against the confiscation of his
fruit and vegetable vendor by police after slapping him. Mohamed Bouazizi's actions sparked protests in
the city to sweep the rest of Tunisia's cities and the MENA regions, which many called the absolute spark
of the Arab Spring revolutions (Fahmi 2011). The most important factor in this analysis of the reasons of
the success of the “Arab Spring” in Tunisia is the role of the military. Seven years after the Arab Spring,
Tunisia was the only country left on the road to democracy. To explain Tunisia's success story, researchers
often refer to the Tunisian army, which, unlike other armies in the region, the military in Tunisia has
supported the revolution of its country and the subsequent transition to democracy. After being
marginalized in the state under the rule Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s regime, the army had no incentive to
prepare or return to the authoritarian past of Tunisia.
When the first Tunisian president, Habib Bourguiba, came to power in 1956, he was encouraged by the
coups he saw in Egypt, Syria and Iraq to keep his army weak and under the control of the police and the
National Guard (Grewal, 2016). Bourguiba kept the military away from the political sphere, he
‘prohibited the officer corps the right of political association, preventing them from playing a role in the
regime’s dominant 60 political party, thereby denying them access to an important institution of elite
politics in Tunisia’ (Brooks 2013a: 209).
The army was further marginalized under the rule of the second Tunisian president, Zine El Abidine Ben
Ali. In 1987, when Ben Ali took over power in Tunisia after the arranged coup “Tunisian coup d'état” on
President Bourguiba, he became worried about having the same fate as the previous president. In 1991,
Ben Ali accused the military of ‘an alleged coup plot’ (Klaas, 2019). Abdallah al Kallel (Minister of the
Interior) claimed that ‘more than 200 military officers were conspiring with Islamists of the Ennahda
movement’ (Klaas, 2019). This was known as the “Barraket Al-Sahel Affair”. However, all this was made
up to get rid of the military threats that might follow later after Ben Ali’s rule. He was insecure from the
military’s actions, having got to the ruling chair through an arranged coup on Bourguiba. In an interview
with one of the victims with one of the victims of this incident Mohammad Ahmad (Head of the
Intelligence and Security Department), he stated that on 22 nd of May 1991 he was summoned to attend a
meeting of the Department of Military Security, to find himself directed to the Ministry of the Interior and
subjected to intensive investigations and to repeated questions about his relationship and participation in
the coup d'état and what took place in the meeting of “Barraket Essahel”. He also claimed that ‘The state
prepared this scenario and fabricated a virtual and fictitious meeting of a group of officers with the aim of
beating the Ennahda movement and powerful military figures’ (Muhadhab, 2012).
In 1992, the year after the Barraket Al-Sahel Affair, the Ben Ali regime allocated more spending of the
national budget of Tunisia to the Ministry of Interior than for the Ministry of Defense. The Ministry of the
Interior was given 9.7% of the budget while the Ministry of Defense was given 5.9% (Nassif, 2015a).
This case was continued on through the years of Ben Ali’s rule which this paper will look at more
intensively in the Military Spending section. After this Affair, Ben Ali started to marginalize the Tunisian
military and relying more heavily on the national security and police force.
Tunisia’s military had the advantage of running without the impediments of its social structure due to its
‘small and relatively homogeneous population’ (Masri, 2017) in which ‘sectarian tensions are nonexistent’
(Masri, 2017). Tunisia’s population is composed of ‘99 percent Sunni Muslims’ (Masri, 2017), while the
other 1 percent is made up of other different religious groups like Christians and Jews. Thus, this
homogony between the groups has led the Tunisian identity to not be ‘defined by religion, which is more
individual than an ethnic issue. The pull of sectarianism is absent, as is-to large extent-tension between
the governing and governed over religion’ (Masri, 2017).
Due to Tunisia’s homogeneous society, ethnic favouritism wasn’t a factor in the formation of its military
unlike the case in Syria, the Tunisian military is actually known as one of the most institutionalized in the
Arab region, and it’s known that it’s not formed based on the regime’s ethnic or religious group, however,
people are appointed based on meritocratic principles and achievements. Droz-Vincent argues that ethnic
composition in the Tunisian military is the most important factor that caused it to stand with the people
against repression (Droz-Vincent, 2011).
Lutterbeck (2011) stated that there are two main factors for the different action of the military on
uprisings in different countries ‘first, the connection between the armed forces and the regime in power;
and second the relationship between the armed forces and society at large’ (2011, p.171). He also argued
that when there’s a weak relationship between the military forces and the population it results in a
‘stronger response against anti-regime uprisings’ (2011, p.171) and vice versa. The Tunisian military had
a weak relationship with Ben Ali’s regime, there weren’t any ethnic or communal ties, therefore, there
wasn’t an ethnic loyalty between the two, which resulted the military to have a weak response against the
uprisings, in fact, it chose to stand with the people against the regime.
The Tunisian Military, unlike most militaries in the Arab countries, is not patrimonial (closely connected
with the regime through ethnic or tribal means) but in fact highly institutionalized. It has a weak
relationship with the government and very independent from Ben Ali. It also has a strong relationship and
connection with the society, especially that the army is a conscript force, which has mostly been drawn
from ‘economically depressed areas and thus most likely shared the grievances which fuelled antiregime
demonstrations in Tunisia’ (Lutterbeck, 2011).
The military in Tunisia wasn’t closely connected to the regime through tribal or ethnic means, therefore,
their relationship was weak. However, the relationship between the military and society was strong as
both were examining the same hardships. The military was hugely marginalized under the rule of Ben Ali
and Bourguiba, most military forces were suffering economically. Thus, the military had more in common
with society than it had with the regime.
The Absence of traditions in military intervention in Tunisia played a very big rule for the success of the
uprising. ‘For a variety of historical reasons, the military developed into an apolitical and professional
entity not invested in the survival of Ben Ali’s regime.’ (Bellin,2013). Habib Bourguiba, since the
beginning of independence from the French colonial authorities, has kept the army out of power in order
to avoid bitter experiences in the Mashriq, such Baathism in Syria. He ‘relied on his base in the Neo-
Destour party to build his political infrastructure and expressly directed resources away from the military
in order to discourage the possibility of a coup.’ (Bellin,2013) This produced a civil political life
independent of the military establishment even under the rule of the patriarchal Bourguiba. The General
Rachid Ammar’s (Chief of staff of the Tunisian Armed Forces) position in the revolution has helped
significantly its success. He ‘forbade his men from firing on the demonstrators, and in the streets of Tunis
many demonstrators are said to have sought shelter from police gunshots behind the military’s tanks and
armored vehicles’ (Lutterbeck, 2011). The refusal of General Rachid to help Ben Ali during the uprising
‘was momentous in the unfolding of the revolution. It appears to have been a decisive factor in the
president's departure from the country’ (Angrist, M.P. 2013). According to Bellin: ‘the military leadership
forthrightly expressed its support for the country’s transition to democracy and vocally embraced the
notion of civilian supremacy. It also eschewed the practice embraced by other militaries attending regime
change of carving out unaccountable authoritarian enclaves that survive the transition. (Bellin,2013).
Thus, the military of Tunisia ‘was the “product, not the progenitor” of its Independence.’ (Bellin, 2018)
Looking at figure.1, there’s a significant decrease on the military spending at the end of the 1990s, this
could be as an excuse on the alleged coup that happened in 1991 to marginalize the military even more.
There’s also an obvious decrease in the spending in the early 2000s, this decrease continues so until 2010
when the uprisings in Tunisia erupted. After 2010, there was a slight increase in spending. From this
graph, the most visible finding that could be concluded from this figure is that there’s a very obvious
decrease in the spending on the military in the last few years before the events of the Arab spring occurred
there’s a 2.2% difference in the military spending from 1998 to 2010. This gives the evidence that the
military has been marginalized, especially with the accusation of the alleged coup to get rid of important
militia figures. All these factors are reasons for the military defection in Tunisia during the uprisings of
the Arab Spring.
 !
Source: Stockholm International Peace Research Institution, SPIRI Military expenditure by country as percentage of gross
domestic product 1988-2018, last accessed April 10,2019, Available at: ,$-..///$&.$$.'.0$.)
For two decades, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali has distinguished the police force both materially and
politically, leaving the army suffering from a lack of funding and military equipment and away from
political power. By the time it was overthrown in the 2011 revolution, the Ministry of Defence budget was
half of the budget of the Interior Ministry (Grewal, 2016). In table 1, we have the spending of Tunisia on
both the defense and interior ministries in the early years of the Arab Spring. The interior ministry is
mainly responsible for the finance of the police force and national security; The Defense Ministry is
responsible for the budgeting of the military. From the evidence below, there’s very clear evidence of the
difference in budgeting between the two. There was almost a double amount of spending on the police
force than the military in 2011, there’s a difference of 643 Million of Tunisia Dinars in 2011. There’s clear
discrimination between the two. This continues so to the following years where the budgeting towards the
Interior Ministry is almost the double of the defence ministry, in 2012 there’s 839 Million difference and
in 2013; 902 Million. This shows that the government left the military with a lack of funding and
marginalized especially against the police force. The government of Tunisia has invested more money on
the police force on purpose to keep the military weak to protect itself from any upcoming coups.
However, this has led the military to stand against the government with the civilians when the uprisings
erupted in Tunisia during the Arab Spring.
2011 807 - 1450 -
2012 1046 30 1885 30
2013 1233 18 2135 13
AVERAGE - 24 - 21.5
Source: Al Bawsla [The Compass], ‘Marsad Mizania’ [Budget observatory], last accessed April 10,2019, Available at:
The marginalization of the military in the early 1990s after being accused and of and an alleged coup and
the capture of more than 200 officers, the decrease in the spending on the military in the late 1990s until
2010 when the uprisings took place and finally the discrimination of the military against the police force
in terms of budgeting; all these reasons have led the military to not think twice about having to decide
between choosing what side to be on when the revolution took place. The military in Tunisia was
marginalized through the years, it lacked funding and couldn’t participate in the political life of the
country; this didn’t give the chance for the military but to stand on the side of the civilians during the
uprisings to gain back its power.
In Syria, unlike Tunisia, the military did not act in favour of the people during the revolution, but rather as
an army of the ruling family, it contributed to using violence against its people. It was the only revolution
in which the military took the side of the regime very strongly (Alrowaiti, 2017). Unlike Tunisia, the
majority of the Syrian army remained loyal to Al-Assad’s regime, and there were only a small number of
soldiers and officers who defected, some of the military units who have defected created the Free Syrian
Army (Lutterbeck, 2011). However, these defections have ‘remained relatively limited, and have thus far
not been able to mount a serious challenge against the Assad regime and its security forces’ (Lutterbeck,
2011). The Assad’s military forces were very strongly able to control the protests and revolution as they
‘forcefully cracked down on the popular uprising’ (Lutterbeck, 2011).
The Syrian case is similar in many aspects to the Tunisian case. Both presidents ruling families took
power through an arranged coup by the militaries and internal oppositions. Hafez Al Assad (Bashar Al
Assad’s father) was a defense minister before he arranged a coup on Nour al-Din al-Atassi (The president
in Syria at the time) in 1970 as ‘he staged a limited coup d'etat in Damascus, seizing control of newspaper
offices and the radio station and releasing political prisoners’ (Kerr, 1973) in February 1969. Hafez relied
on the militia members who helped him to reach the ruling chair in Syria, however, he wanted to get rid
of all threats that might cause him losing his position similar to what Ben Ali did in Tunisia. Hafez Al
Assad then passed the rule to his son in 2000 after his death. Also, both presidents in both countries
accused powerful militia members of a coup to get rid of all threats and secure their ruling chair, however,
both presidents took different and separate ways of arranging the Military government relations after
these incidents.
Looking back in history, Hafez Al Assad when planning the coup, he wanted to get rid of all threats just
like Ben Ali, to make sure that he gets to the goal that he’s aiming for which is to be the president of the
country. One of the people who had a powerful militia position at the time is Salah Jadid who was the
Assistant Secretary-General of the Baath Party and ‘continued to have a significant following in the army’
(Kerr, 1973). In 1970, Al Assad ‘forced out Jadid’ (Quinlivan, 1999) after arranging an intra-coup against
him and fellow members in the military and Baath party then he ‘assumed sole in power, he and his
fellow Alawites were virtually in complete control of the principal positions of power’ (Quinlivan, 1999)
This also was called ‘The corrective movement’ in which at the same time Hafez arranged a coup against
Al Atassi and became president at that time. There’s a clear similarity between the two countries as both
presidents reached the office by a coup and both had insecurities from militia members with powerful
positions. Ben Ali and Al Assad also both reacted the same in getting rid of the people who they believed
are imposing threats by imprisoning them.
However, the two countries took separate ways of handling things after settling in their positions as
presidents. In Syria, Al Assad regime took an opposite action to what Ben Ali did to the military. Ben Ali
as discussed above marginalized the military, Al Assad did the opposite thing, Hafez made sure to
strengthen his relationship with the military and made it his ‘right hand’ by strengthening the army
through economic spending on weapons and materials, also by appointing the highest positions in the
military to close family members and people of Alawite ethnicity which will be discussed below.
Syria is made up of many different sects and religious groups which altered the way of this revolution and
resulted in turning the path of this uprising from a democratization process to conflicts and disputes
between different ethnic groups and to what extent a civil war. Syria is traditionally a heterogeneous
country with ethnic and religious minorities account for more than 40% of the population. It consists of
‘Sunni, Shi’a, Christians, Alawites, Druzes, Ismailis, Palestinians, Kurds, Circassians etc’ (Lefèvre 2013).
Syrian social identity is composed of Sunni Majority, the Alawite community makes up only 12% of the
population (Silverman, 2012) (Alrowaiti, 2017) ‘while approximately of 70% of the Syrian people are
Sunni.’ (Alrowaiti, 2017).
Looking back in history, after Syria gained its independence from the French colonialization in 1946, the
Sunni majority got to control the country. However, the state was followed by ‘severe instability, with a
series of coups and counter-coups and an increasing ethnification of politics culminating in the Alawite
minority’s consolidation of power in 1966 under the leadership of Hafez Al-Assad’ (Silverman, 2012).
Bashar Al Assad (Hafez’s son) after the death of his father inherited the rule of the state.
During the time of Hafez al Assad rule, unlike what Bourguiba did, he made sure to have the military by
his side by giving Alawites the most important roles in the military Although they are a minority, Alawites
hold most political positions and disproportionately fill the ranks of military commanders and security
chiefs. Even though the Sunnis were given economic opportunities under the regime rule, however, the
Alawite/ Shiaa controlled the highest positions in the security sector (Silverman, 2012), it is estimated
that ‘over 90% of the key commands in the armed forces and security apparatus are held by Alawis’
(Brooks, 2013a) & (McLauchlin, 2010: 341) to ensure their support. The ruling family of Syria made sure
to fill ‘high-ranking political and military positions with trusted members of their family and religious
sect as part of a 'coup-proofing' plan’ (Quinlivan, 1999).
As mentioned above in the literature review, the Assad family made sure to have the support of the
military by giving the highest positions to members of the family and people with Alawites ethnicity. The
Syrian army was always kept very ‘closely connected to the regime in that they are firmly controlled by
the Alawite minority’ (Lutterbeck, 2011). The Al Assad’s family made sure to gain the support of all the
Alawites minority by giving them the higher positions in the country, it’s estimated that between 80% to
90% of the officer corps are Alawites (Zisser, 2001). Also as mentioned above, most of the militia
members are exclusively Alawites and close relatives to Al Assad’s family (Lutterbeck, 2011).
The composition of the Syrian armed forces shows that its main objective is to prevent coups or popular
rebel movements from overthrowing the regime through a centralized system that limits the ability of one
or even two military commanders to act effectively against the state. The handing over of the most
important and sensitive centers of the Alawite community, and making the majority of the regular army
prevent the large segment of the population of the state, i.e. the Sunnis, from the rebellion and maintain a
great loyalty within the army to the supreme leader of the country; there is a natural fear within the
Alawite sect in Syria that any coup that overthrows the current upper government may completely oust it
from power and turn its members into second-class citizens. Therefore, the regime exploits the sectarian
structure of the country to protect its position, with the help of a ring of security and military leaders. The
composition of the Sunni-dominated reserve forces, composed of regiments, battalions and a few
brigades, appears to be dispersed in a limited number of units, limiting their ability to organize a coup.
The security forces have added a lot of immunity to the system, as these devices spy on each other to
monitor any movements of rebellion and suppression in the early stages.
The ethnic composition of the military in Syria has aided hugely in the loyalty of the military to the
regime and the failure of the uprisings. By structuring, and giving Alawites and family members the
highest positions in the military, the regime made sure to retain their loyalty throughout the mass
The spending on the military in Syria is known to be relatively big where the ‘budget for the armed forces
(6.4% of GDP) is roughly over three times higher than world’s average (2% of GDP)’ (Khatib & Sinjab,
2018). The Assad’s regime allocates a big portion of the national budget to the Ministry of Defense to
empower it and ensure its loyalty. Members of the National Defense Force in Syria, especially the ones
with higher positions have very high wages compared to other sectors. In an interview with a Syrian
military expert, he stated that many of the Defense Force members’ salaries have increased from $200
before the war to nearly $4000 after the war, which has created a new social economic class in the
country (Khatib & Sinjab, 2018). The militia members and security forces have been given positions in
the economic life of the country, they have been given opportunities to hold shares in businesses, even
some petrol stations in the country have been gone from publicly owned to certain members of the
National Defense Force (Khatib & Sinjab, 2018). These all are attempts by the government to retain the
military’s support.
After the Arab Spring started there has been an increase on the spending of weaponry in Syria, especially
with the aids given from regimes supporters like Russia and Iran. Thera have been use of extensive
weaponry to fight the Free Syrian Army and take back the ISIS controlled areas. It’s also worth noting
that the regime has been using chemical and heavy weapons to suppress the uprising. ‘In June 2011, the
Syrian army for the first time deployed helicopter gunships equipped with machine guns to disperse pro-
democracy protests in the town of Maarat al Numaan, killing numerous people’ (Lutterbeck, 2011).
If we were to look at the military spending (Figure. 2) in Syria and compare it to Tunisia, it can be seen
that there also has been a shift downwards on the spending overall through the years, especially after
2003. However, looking more closely to the years close to when the uprisings have begun in 2010, it can
be seen that there was actually an improvement in the spending on the military as the graph is sloping
upwards from 2008. The spending on the military has gone down by almost 2%, however, it’s still more
than the world’s average spending. Comparing the military spending in Syria in 2010 when the uprisings
started it was almost 4.1%, while in Tunisia it was around 1.7%. There’s a significant difference in the
spending of the military between the two countries. the regime in Syria spends more than 2% than what
the regime in Tunisia does.
Source: Stockholm International Peace Research Institution, SPIRI Military expenditure by country as percentage of gross
domestic product 1988-2018, last updated 2019, ,$-..///$&.$$.'.0$.)%'&%
There aren’t any strong numerical evidences on the spending of the Interior Ministry to compare it to the
Defense Ministry. According to Omran Strategic Studies, it stated that to compare the ministry of Defense
spending with the Ministry of the interior The Assad regime has weakened the Syrian Ministry of Interior
in favour of strengthening the security apparatus loyalty to protect its regime more than the police. Since
his arrival, Hafez al-Assad has reduced the powers of the ministry and weakened it through a series of
structural amendments to the legislative and administrative structure of the ministry (Omran Center,
2018). Unlike what Ben Ali did, Al-Assad regime made sure to reduce the spending on the Interior
ministry and increase the spending on the military, it strengthened its relationship with the military
through an increase of spending. Thus, as a result, the Ministry of Interior in Syria suffers from real
problems at the level of material resources and logistical equipment. This can be seen clearly seen
through the weakness of material resources, which is noticed in the equipment of police units, and the
lack of good mechanisms, they often use the taxis to carry out their duties, and the buildings are old and
many of them rented and unfit to be police units. The low salaries and long hours of work resulting from
the weakness of the Ministry of Interior budget in general compared to the budget granted to the Defense
Ministry in Syria. Which led to a sense of resentment and dissatisfaction by the elements of the Internal
Security Forces. (Omran Center, 2018)
The military in Syria was never marginalized under the rule of the Al Assad family, unlike under the rule
of Ben Ali. In fact, the ruling family in Syria made sure to strengthen the military to make sure that it will
always stay loyal to the regime. The regime in Syria has succeeded in its plan by strengthening the
military rather marginalizing it, as in the Arab Spring the military stood on the side of the government and
it didn’t defect. Even though there were some defections, however, they weren’t major and didn’t affect
the power of the government. Al Assad’s rule had a similar start to Ben Ali, but they both took different
actions in handling the military and this ended up with one of the most important factors to the success of
the uprising in one country and its failure in another.
The question that has been discussed is Why was the Arab Spring successful in Tunisia but not in
Syria?’. The paper has focused on the Military government relations in answering this question in which a
hypothesis suggested that ‘The differences in the military-government relations are related to the different
outcomes of The Arab Spring uprisings in Syria and Tunisia’. To discuss whether or not this hypothesis is
valid, the section above went through three main points to compare the militaries of both countries (see
Appendix.2). The first point is old policies towards the militaries, in both countries when the regimes got
to the office have experienced some kind of coup, both regimes had similar reactions where they both got
rid of all threats imposed on their power, however, both regimes took separate ways in handling the
military after these incidents. Ben Ali’s regime marginalized the military and kept it away from political
power. Al Assad’s regime took the opposite actions in handling the military, the regime was strengthened
and given increased support. The second major important point that was discussed is the ethnic
composition of the military. In contrast, the two countries are very different in their social structure. Syria,
which is composed of many different sects and ethnic groups, while Tunisia is composed of mainly one
major group. The Ethnic composition in Syria has played a major role in the military behaviour and
contributed to the loyalty of the military towards the regime. Due to the social structure in Syria (Sunni
majority and Shiaa Minority) the Assad’s regime knew exactly how to take advantage of this situation
while forming the military. Being an Alawite leader which is a sect of the Shiaa ethnic group, he made
sure to appointed the most powerful and important positions to the Alawite minority and family members
to gain its trust loyalty, so the military structure can’t be said to be patrimonial. However, in Tunisia, the
ethnic structure of the military isn’t similar to the Syrian case as the society is mainly composed of Sunni
Muslims, thus, the sectarian divide wasn’t present. The regime in Tunisia couldn’t take advantage of the
ethnic structure in Tunisia in gaining the loyalty of the military. Finally, the military spending; in Tunisia,
Ben Ali’s regime kept the budget of the military really small, the spending of the military was even less
than the world’s average of 2%. Ben Ali spent more on the Interior Ministry, which focuses on the Police
force. In Syria, the regime spent extensively on the military. The salaries of the National Defense Force
have increased especially the years after the uprisings. and unlike Tunisia, Al Assad spent more on the
Defense Ministry than the Interior Ministry.
It can be seen that the military behaviour in both countries were very different, in Tunisia it played a very
big role in the success of the uprisings by defecting from the regime. The Tunisian military took the side
of the people and refused to attack protestors. While in Syria it took the side of the government and stood
against protestors, it also used extensive weaponry on demonstrations.
By going through all the points, we can conclude that the differences in the military-government relations
in both countries are related to the different outcomes of the Arab Spring uprisings, therefore, we can
accept the hypothesis stated above.
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