The Syrian Arab Army was mostly a conscript force with only about eighty thousand professionals in its ranks. At the start of the war, much was made of the “defections” of thousands of officers, but these were mere conscripts who never wanted to be in the army in the first place, and would also have done anything to escape conscription in peacetime. The professional ranks, meanwhile, are still very strong and religiously pluralistic. When the Syrian opposition talks about a future pluralistic Syria, they fail to realize that while they may theoretically be pluralists in Geneva, Washington and Vienna, their representatives on the ground are allied with the most sectarian terrorist groups the Middle East has ever seen.
The Syrian Arab Army has held its own for more than five years; its numbers might have been depleted, as is normal for any wartime military, but a close glance at its military reveals that its core, perhaps unexpectedly to many, is Sunni. The current minister of defense, Fahd al-Freij, is one of the most decorated officers in Syrian military history and hails from the Sunni heartland of Hama. The two most powerful intelligence chiefs, Ali Mamlouk and Mohammad Dib Zaitoun, have remained loyal to the Syrian government—and are both Sunnis from influential families. The now-dead and dreaded strongman of Syrian intelligence, Rustom Ghazaleh, who ruled Lebanon with an iron fist, was a Sunni, and the head of the investigative branch of the political directorate, Mahmoud al-Khattib, is from an old Damascene Sunni family. Major General Ramadan Mahmoud Ramadan, commander of the Thirty-Fifth Special Forces Regiment, which is tasked with the protection of western Damascus, is another high-ranking Sunni, as is Brigadier General Jihad Mohamed Sultan, the commander of the Sixty-Fifth Brigade that guards Latakia.
The Syrian Arab Army is also the only Arab army with multiple Christians serving as generals. The most famous of these was Daoud Rajha, the Greek Orthodox army chief of staff. The two most influential Lebanese Christian leaders, now on the verge of becoming the next president of Lebanon, are Michel Aoun and Suleiman Franjieh, who are also allies of the Syrian Arab Army and President Assad. Deir al-Zour is an entirely Sunni city which has held out against ISIS encirclement for two years—and is commanded by the Druze General Issam Zahreddine.
The fact remains: The moderate Syrian opposition only exists in fancy suits in Western hotel lobbies. It has little military backing on the ground. If you want to ask why Assad is still the president of Syria, the answer is not simply Russia or Iran, but the fact that his army remains resilient and pluralistic, representing a Syria in which religion alone does not determine who rises to the top. The military also represent as challenge against the spread of terrorism, which is why three of the top British generals of the last five years have openly called for the recognition that the Syrian Arab Army, loyal to President Assad, is the only force capable of defeating ISIS and Al Qaeda in the Levant.