Syria Weekly: Major security reshuffle sees Bashar imitate late father
Intelligence reshuffles aren't altogether uncommon in Syria, but rarely do they attract much attention abroad.
A raft of changes in the upper echelons of the Syrian regime this week has led to whispers that foreign powers have maneuvered to unseat senior figures from power. First there was the replacement of Jamil Al-Hassan, a grey-haired, much-feared regime enforcer who is wanted by Germany for war crimes and was rumoured to have been in contact with Israeli officers.
Then another former intelligence man - and close friend of Bashar al-Assad - Ali Mamlouk was promoted to vice-president for security affairs, Lebanon's Al-Modon newspaper reported, a move that surprised many Syria observers.
Such wholesale shake-ups of the intelligence community have been relatively rare since Bashar al-Assad took over from his father in 2000 and cleared out the regime's old guard. Danny Makki, a Damascus-based independent journalist, told The New Arab that although there has been no official confirmation that Mamlouk being appointed as Assad's deputy, there are signs the Lebanese media reports are correct and these changes could have significance for the country.
"It is not uncommon for Syria to witness security apparatus changes at crucial times, but the scale and scope of this round of shake-ups is unprecedented and hasn't been done in this manner since the war began," Makki told The New Arab.
The "crucial time", Makki mentions, is the containment of most fighting in Syria to the northwest of the country.
Although many disagree with Makki's assessment that the regime has won the war, Assad is in a significantly more secure position than he was two years ago, when Syria was divided between rival powers and rebel fighters were just kilometres away from central Damascus. After brutal Russian-led offensives led to the eviction of rebels and civilians from Daraa province in the south and eastern Ghouta, on the fringes of the capital, last summer, Assad might be preparing for a new phase in power.
"We can still read into the five other major intelligence leadership changes in the past few months. Some changes were natural and had been coming for some time, such as Jamil al-Hassan moving on, but others were most likely a result of a desire for newer blood in agencies which have remained consistent in personnel over the past years while the war was grinding the country to a halt," Makki added.
Fighting in Syria has now been contained to the northwest of the country, although the Russian-backed offensive on Idlib, which began in April, has been bloody and failed to capture much territory.
Lebanese media has explained the moves have allowed Russia to reward its security chiefs allies to Moscow and further its influence in Syria's security apparatus at the expense of Iran. Russia's role in the recent shake-up is still not clear, Makki said, while others have downplayed the role of the Tehran-Moscow rivalry with this move.
"It remains to be seen whether this is a systematic effort to promote Russian interests or whether Damascus itself wants to show that individuals, unless they perform well, can be changed, even in the highest echelons of the security apparatus," Makki said.
Ali Mamlouk, Syria's "spymaster" as Makki puts it, has been considered one of Russia's 'men in Damascus', and would be a natural choice for the regime's number two.
|It remains to be seen whether these changes are a systematic effort to promote Russian interests.
- Danny Makki, journalist
"He remains the most powerful when it comes to Syria's external relations, he is known to be a smart and diligent operator and his National Security Bureau has increased in responsibility and importance over the previous years. Mamlouk is effectively the link between the intelligence agencies and the other governmental organs, mirroring a chief representative as such," Makki added.
Bachar al-Halabi, Middle East Researcher at the Asfari Institute at the American University of Beirut (AUB), told The New Arab that Mamlouk's Sunni background would also make him a natural candidate for the vice-president position and this would hint at Bashar returning to the old wily tactics of his father for balancing power in the country.
"The promotion of Mamlouk, an Assad confidante, to the position of vice-president of security affairs is to put him in charge of all the different security apparatus that form the main pillars of the regime," he said.
"Since Hafez al-Assad's says and after his brother Rifaat was forced to leave the country (after an attempted coup) Bashar's father has always ensured that the vice-president position is always occupied by a Sunni… [one that] is organically tied to the regime. Bashar is following in the footsteps of his father, except Mamlouk's appointment comes as a reward for the role he has played over the past two decades."
Other positions are also carefully selected to allow Syria's myriad of ethnic and religious groups to be represented in a regime that remains dominated at its core by an Alawite minority, Halabi added, again a strategy applied by Hafez al-Assad.
General Hossam Luka, a Circassian Sunni, was appointed as the director for General Intelligence. The other figures appointed in new positions are also thought to be close to Russia, including Gen. Nasser Ali as head of Political Security, Gen. Ghassan Ismail as director of Air Force Intelligence, as Gen. Nasser Deeb as director of Criminal Security, Halabi added.
|Bashar's father has always ensured that the vice-president position is always occupied by a Sunni.
- Bachar al-Halabi, AUB
"They all have strategic relations with Russia and aren't known to be close to Iran. However it is important to note that the recent reshuffling - albeit seen from a power struggle lens between Iran and Russia - does not indicate a decrease in Iran's influence as an actor in Syria, especially as Iranian militias continue to operate independently of these leadership positions," he said.
Both Makki and Halabi feel that Hassan's replacement as head of the feared Air Force Intelligence Directorate - thought to be responsible for the killing of thousands of detainees - was not surprising as his mandate had been renewed seven times and is believed to be in ill-health.
Battles with rebels in Idlib are not the only issues the regime's military and intelligence are having to deal with. An insurgency in Daraa has intensified, while the stalled Idlib offensive has underlined the weakness of Syria's conventional armed forces and its reliance on Iran and its militia network.
Criminal or regime-linked "shabiha" gangs - some led by members of Assad's extended family - has led to mini-statelets being carved out in Latakia province, known for their lawlessness and acute corruption. This has led to militia gangs clashing with government forces and stand-offs with Russia's military police units.
Halabi believes the recent changes in the security apparatus could be intended to deal with this issue, which has put question marks over the state's authority.
"The recent reshuffling and alleged crackdown on criminal activities among pro-regime militias that is being reported comes as a pressing need to rebuild the whole military structure in order to shore-up Assad's power and influence," Halabi said.
"But the recent promotions are simply an effort by the regime to recycle itself and won't signal any significant shift in strategy regarding detainees or refugees… the show continues."
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Paul McLoughlin is a news editor at The New Arab.
Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin