Damascus Bombing: Assad’s Multiple Inner Circles
By: Nicolas Nassif
Published Tuesday, July 24, 2012
It was not easy for the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to come to terms with the harsh blow dealt to his security regime with the killing of four of its senior leaders, in the bombing that took place on July 18 at the National Security bureau. Especially so when the analyses regarding the perpetrators of the assassinations have indicated that they had managed to get too close for comfort to individuals who were very close to Assad.
Yet this does not necessarily mean they were Assad’s innermost and narrowest circle. Nor does the elimination of the senior officers suggest an imminent end to the regime, or the impending departure of the president, to the extent that was hinted at in the direct aftermath of the bombing.
With the exception of Deputy Defense Minister General Asef Shawkat, the other three security chiefs, i.e. General Daoud Rajiha, General Hassan Turkmani, and Major General Hisham Ikhtiyar, were not part of this inner circle, despite the significance of the various security roles they had played.
Two of these men occupied posts that were not closely linked to security decision-makers surrounding the president. The first one, Turkmani, was Assistant Vice President, a position created after he was removed from his post as the Defense Minister in 2009. The second, Ikhtiyar, was the director of the National Security Bureau, an entity linked more to the Baath Party than to the armed forces and the intelligence services. He had been in this post since he left the General Security Directorate, which he headed between 2001 and 2005, the year he moved to taking up posts in the Baath Party – which mourned him the day after his three companions had died.
The regime did not snap out of its state of shock until a few hours later, when it announced that Assad had appointed the Chief of Staff General Fahd al-Freij as the Minister of Defense, succeeding Rajiha, and entered into a fierce military confrontation with the armed opposition in some streets in Damascus. For the first time since the start of the unrest, the Syrian army's Fourth Division intervened, led by its Deputy Commander Brigadier General Maher al-Assad, the president’s brother, and restored the regime’s control over Damascus with the exception of small pockets.
This coincided with security coordination with Iraq, whose army closed its side of the border with Syria, after the armed opposition seized crossings between the two countries – a symbolic gain that does not affect the internal balance of military power.
Naming Freij as the new Defense Minister was the only move to fill a vacant post following the assassination of the four security officials. No one was appointed to succeed Turkmani in a post that does not exist, legally speaking, despite the fact that the man was the head of the so-called “crisis management cell”. Although Turkmani was in a similar post to the one occupied by Major General Mohammed Nassif, Assistant Vice President, the latter enjoys a special relationship with Assad that makes him one of the closest political and security advisers to the Syrian president, on account of him being a veteran of the era of President Hafez al-Assad.
No one was appointed to succeed Asef Shawkat either, as his post too had been created specifically for him in 2011, after he came back from retirement a year earlier. The last security post he occupied was Deputy Chief of Staff, under Daoud Rajiha.
Nevertheless, Shawkat had different circumstances than his companions who perished with him. Circumstances that made him ahead of them in both stature and influence within the security establishment as the president’s brother-in-law, as one of the planners of security policy, and as someone with a confrontational personality. Yet all this does not obscure the fact that there was no love lost between him and the president’s brother Maher, before they were brought closer together in the past two years by the attempt to topple the regime.
On the other hand, Shawkat had an old friendly relationship with the president, which started when he played an important role, along with Major General Bahjat Suleiman, in grooming Bashar al-Assad for the presidency. Both he and Suleiman stood by Assad’s side as some of the closest individuals to him during the first years of his presidency. That was before Suleiman retired and moved to his country’s embassy in Jordan and before Shawkat went on to become the head of military intelligence.
The above means that Shawkat’s death will leave a vacuum in the composition of the Syrian security establishment in the next phase, a vacuum that will be difficult to fill as it seems that the man’s role was bigger than his post.
It is clear that with the death of the four security officials, the Syrian opposition has hit a jackpot. But no one believes that this opposition – or the FSA or the Salafi groups that rushed to claim responsibility for the bombing – is behind the complex assassination of these multiple targets.
It seemed that meticulous preparation combined with chance, the international conflict over Syria – especially between Moscow and Washington – and the massive amounts of money being thrown in the direction of Syria, to ensure the success of a devastating military and security blow to Assad. In the process, it was hoped that the Syrian president’s closest advisers and executors of his decisions would be taken out, that terror and panic would strike the army, and that a huge political gain for the opposition would be achieved.
Many wagers have failed though, including the ones betting on the Syrian army disintegrating, a military coup that would topple the president, Western military intervention, and the ability of the opposition to oust Assad in the street, and by using armed elements.
Here, we can make two observations of things that stand out in the July 18 bombing:
First, the building that was targeted by the bombing and which happens to be the headquarters of the National Security bureau headed by Ikhtiyar, was not always the venue of the meetings of the crisis management cell. Furthermore, the cell’s meetings were often attended by Mohammad Bakhitan, Assistant National Secretary of the Baath Party. But on that day, he did not attend the meeting.
Second, the crisis management cell convened many times at the Ministry of Defense, which is close to the Army Staff building where Shawkat’s office is located. At other times, the cell held its meetings at the presidential palace, where the president would attend the meetings. The cell also met at a private office belonging to the Syrian president in the Maliki area, which the president frequented and often brought with him his bureau chief.
But insiders close to the Syrian security establishment talk of the actual narrow inner circle of the president, the real planner of the security policy at the present time, including security related and field decisions. They say that this circle includes, in addition to Asef Shawkat – who liaised between two circles – one advisory board whose heads have been assassinated, and another that takes actual decisions. The second circle includes the head of the General Security Directorate Major General Ali Mamlouk, the head of military intelligence Major General Abdul-Fatah Qudsieh, the head of the Air Force Intelligence Major General Jamil Hassan, director of the Political Security Directorate Major General Mohammed Dib Zaitoun, Deputy Commander of the Fourth Division Brigadier General Maher al-Assad, and the head of the Counter Terrorism Directorate Brigadier General Hafez Makhlouf.
In parallel with the military inner circle there is a political inner circle that includes Assistant Vice President Major General Mohammed Nassif, Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, and adviser to the president for political affairs and media, Minister Bouthaina Shaaban, who is handling the dialogue with the internal opposition.
Nicolas Nassif is a political analyst at Al-Akhbar.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.