To ensure his family's continued rule, Hafez Assad, who seized power in 1971 and maintained strict control for more than two decades, had each of his four main domestic security branches — General Security, Air Force Intelligence, Military Intelligence and the Political Security Directorate — keep tabs not only on the Syrian population, but also on one another, jealously guarding their own ill-defined turf. Activists describe being detained and grilled by Military Intelligence, only to be released and picked up days later and undergo the same line of questioning by General Security.
Many democracy activists still hope for cracks to emerge in the army. Protesters initially welcomed soldiers enthusiastically when they arrived to replace the despised and shadowy domestic security branches during the unrest this month in the coastal city of Baniyas. Late Wednesday, protesters in Dara chanted, "The army and the people are one," a call for solidarity with the troops that has not been reciprocated.
Like in Egypt and Tunisia, Syria's 300,000-man, largely conscription army generally shares the values and political aspirations of the people. Only the 4th Armored Division, led by the president's brother Maher Assad, has been regularly deployed around the country to quell the unrest.
"Only the 4th has been opening fire on the people," said Radwan Ziadeh, director of the Washington-based Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies. "That's why the protesters are chanting only against the 4th."
But the army also is largely designed to keep the Assads in power. The elder Assad, a member of Syria's Alawite community, recruited senior officers from the country's minority Alawite, Druze, Ismaili and Christian faiths, positioning them in a life-or-death struggle with the large Sunni Muslim majority.
Unlike the armed forces of Egypt or Tunisia, the leaders of Syria's army and domestic security agencies don't abide by any independent ethos or commitment to professionalism. Their fate and their communities' fates are tied to the survival of the regime.
"The minority networks dominate the command structure," said Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "They see it as an us-versus-them situation. It galvanizes them against the kind of splitting that you saw in Egypt or Tunisia."
Some analysts have described long-standing chasms between the army's elite and the mostly Sunni conscripts that could lead to crisis within the armed forces. Even Sunni towns that are traditionally strongholds of the regime, such as Dara, Homs and Dair Alzour, have risen up in protest. The same sectarian tinderbox the Assads have manipulated so well over the decades could still blow up in their faces, dissidents hope.
"If you have Sunnis shooting Sunnis, there could be a split between the leadership and the rank and file," Tabler said.
But Bashar Assad, who cut short his training as eye doctor to attend military school after the death of his older brother in 1994, has in recent years lavished resources on the army, building it into a more professional force, said the Lebanese army officer. Last year Assad raised salaries and upgraded cars and housing for the army in an attempt to bolster their loyalty to the regime.
"They are well disciplined and have a tradition of military security and military intelligence inside the armed forces," the Lebanese army officer said.
Despite anecdotal stories of soldiers refusing to fire on protesters in Dara, Baniyas and Homs, the defections don't appear to be widespread. Assad has proved adept at deploying troops from one region to another to make sure they're not in a position of firing on their own relatives and tribes, Ziadeh said.
For the time being at least, said the Lebanese army officer, if soldiers were ordered to open fire on crowds, "they do not hesitate."
"I know them well," he said. "They will do it. I don't advise anyone to bet against them."