Assad’s Security Makeover
By: Nicolas Nassif
Published Friday, July 27, 2012
There has been much speculation about the significance of last Tuesday’s appointment of five senior Syrian officers to top security posts, in terms both of the timing of the move and the personnel selected.
Many saw it as an attempt by President Bashar al-Assad to demonstrate the continued cohesion of the security establishment and the loyalty of top officers to the regime – whilst turning his back completely on the outside world and launching a military campaign of unprecedented ferocity aimed at crushing his armed opponents.
While the new appointments were part of the regime’s response to the July 18 bombing which killed four senior security officials in Damascus, they were not aimed at filling any posts vacated by that incident.
Assad had notified cabinet ministers that he intended to make high-level personnel changes in the country’s security agencies when he held his first meeting with the government of Prime Minister Riad Hijab in June.
In the wake of the bombing, he was quick to name a new defense minister and chief of staff. Generals Fahd al-Freij and Ali Abdallah were appointed on July 22, the former replacing General Daoud Rajiha, who was killed in the blast.
Two of the other victims – Deputy Defense Minister General Asef Shawkat, and Assistant Vice-President General Hassan Turkmani – held posts that had been specially created for them.
The job of the fourth, National Security Bureau (NSB) chief Major General Hisham Ikhtiyar, is likely to be discontinued given Tuesday’s naming of General Ali Mamlouk, the former head of the General Security Directorate (GSD), as head of a new National Security Council (NSC). Mamlouk is greatly trusted by Assad, and along with Shawkat (and General Bahjat Suleiman, current ambassador to Jordan), was considered one of the regime’s top security strategists.
The fifth victim of the bombing, Interior Minister General Mohammad al-Shaar, is in critical condition, having lost limbs, and will be unable to return to his duties. But Assad has not yet appointed a successor to head the Interior Ministry, which is effectively run by the four senior officers who serve as the minister’s assistants.
It was, therefore, the political and security fallout of the bombing, rather than its direct consequences, that Tuesday’s appointments were designed to address – not least of all the security lapses that facilitated the attack, which targeted a meeting of the regime’s Crisis Management Cell (CMC).
In May, the CMC’s members (with the exception of Shawkat), suffered symptoms of poisoning, and it transpired that an attempt had been made to poison their food. It was clear – especially when Arab TV stations and foreign-based opposition groups prematurely announced the deaths of the would-be victims – that the CMC’s meeting-places were vulnerable to infiltration. Yet despite a security review, insufficient extra precautions were put in place to prevent a bombing that dealt a major blow to the president and to the prestige and image of the security establishment, and which gave a morale-boost to the armed opposition just days after it announced an impending assault on Damascus to “liberate” it from the regime’s grip.
But that was not the CMC’s only lapse. Sources familiar with its members’ deliberations say their approach to the crisis was extreme and over-confident, reflecting their belief that it could be brought to an early end. This view was not shared by Mamlouk or Military Intelligence chief General Abdul-Fatah Qudsieh, whose agencies have their ears closer to the ground, and who expressed concerns that the opposition was growing stronger.
The NSC, which Mamlouk now heads, was created two years ago. A decree establishing it was issued, but the naming of its members was stalled. Although it is not supposed to replace the NSB, the latter was supposed to have been made redundant by the new constitution adopted last year which stripped the ruling Baath Party of its official leading status and allowed for the state to take charge of state institutions previously under party control
The NSB was linked exclusively to the party. Ikhtiyar used to head the body in his capacity as a member of the party’s national command, and he was succeeded by its deputy secretary-general, Said Bakhitan. There is no direct connection between the NSB and the other security agencies, which are under the authority of the president. One reason it was not disbanded after the adoption of the constitution is that elections to a new Baath party national command were postponed.
The CMC was established within the NSB and Baath party at the outset of the disturbances. It was initially chaired by Bakhitan, and he was succeeded by Turkmani. lt was not involved in operational decisions on the ground. Its task was to follow and monitor developments, ascertain people’s needs and conditions in the provinces, and forward its views and recommendations to the president. It included only one security chief, Shawkat, but in a capacity (deputy defense minister) not directly linked to the security agencies. It did not therefore play an intelligence role.
It appears the July 18 bombers believed they would also manage to kill the heads of the security agencies, even though they did not participate in CMC meetings. These figures – notably Mamlouk, Qudsieh, Air Force Intelligence chief Major General Jamil Hassan, and the head of the Political Security Directorate Major General Mohammed Dib Zaitoun – are members of a different cell. Along with the president’s brother Maher (and, formerly, his brother-in-law Shawkat) they constitute the president‘s innermost circle.
Most of the latest appointments were, accordingly, drawn from this group.
Unlike the CMC and the NSB , the NSC was set up with a broad remit that includes formulating political and security strategies, coordination between the intelligence agencies, consulting specialists and conducting security studies, and looking into the development of the agencies, the possible merger of some of them, and their supervision. The NSC does not bring these agencies together, or give Mamlouk authority over them. But it is supposed to provide the president with information and options to help him make decisions – a process long marred by complaints of lack of coordination between the intelligence agencies.
Poor coordination has been one of the many failings, some of them grave, in the agencies’ handling of the disturbances, with each acting independently of the others.
Hence the dual strategic and executive role of the new NSC, which makes its function not unlike that of similar bodies in countries like the US, France and Turkey. Mamlouk was given the rank of minister, and will be chairing a council including senior army generals, and reporting directly to the president.
This was also the case when Mamlouk was director of the GSD, the only security agency directly linked to the presidency. The others take their orders from lower down: Military Intelligence, Military Security, and Air Force Intelligence report to the chief of staff, while Political Security answers to the Minister of the Interior. These hierarchies do not, however, detract from Assad’s ultimate control of all decision-making. The president retained his sweeping powers in the new constitution.
Ever since the NSC was conceived, it was thought likely that it would be chaired by Shawkat or Mamlouk. The outbreak of the crisis postponed its actual creation. With Mamlouk now at its head with Qudsieh as his deputy – the pair who previously led the two most important of all the security agencies – much appears to be expected of it.
Nicolas Nassif is a political analyst at Al-Akhbar.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.