THE STRUCTURE OF POWER IN SYRIA: THE SECURITY APPARATUS
The ongoing civil war in Syria leads us to enquire how the Bashar al Assad regime, opposed by the international community (with the sole exception of Russia and Iran) and based on the loyalty of the Alawite minority (10-12% of the population of Syria), has made it through two years of clashes and fighting.
The answer lies in the security apparatus and in the Armed Forces that form the backbone of Baathist power and that have withheld rebel advances.
The security apparatus
The organization of the Information and Security Services in Syria is structured around 6 different organizations. Some of them report directly to the President of the Republic, others within their Armed Forces, while another to the Baath party itself. Together they interact and, especially under the current emergency rule, supply the regime, its dignitaries and armed forces with an efficient security framework and control of the territory. To note that they all act brutally, with unlimited license to kill and using terror as a deterrent.
Directorate for Political Security
The Directorate for Political Security (Idarat al Amn al Siyasi, DPS) reports directly to President Bashar al Assad. Its tasks are the fight against all political opposition, dissidents and political parties that could undermine the leadership of the Baath party, the control and censorship of the press and mass media and the control of foreigners on national soil.
The Directorate also manages interrogation and detention centers and its branches are scattered all over Syria. One of its divisions also operates abroad. Split between operative and investigative units, its headquarters are in Damascus.
The chiefs of the Directorate have almost always been from the Alawite community (a recurrent pattern to all intelligence organizations). Yet, since July 2012 the DPS is lead by a Sunni from the Deraa region (this partly explains the regime's tenacity in crushing rebels in that part of the country), Rustum Ghazaleh.
Known for his endeavors during the civil war in Lebanon, Ghazaleh is accused of being part of the plot to eliminate former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, killed in a car bomb attack in Beirut in February 2005. Rustum Ghazaleh was interrogated by the UN Commission of Inquiry due to his hate speech targeting Hariri in the months prior to the incident. For this reason, the current head of the DPS has been targeted by the international community and his assets abroad frozen. Following Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon, even President Assad had prudently kept Rustum Ghazaleh out of the spotlight.
Ghazaleh is also accused of arms and drug trafficking. The accusations were made public by former Syrian deputy president, Abdul Halim Khaddam, former leader of the Sunni community before his ousting and escape to exile in France. Khaddam was convicted in absentia to forced labor for life.
dismissal and the burst of the civil war have raised Rustum
Ghazale'sh status within the Sunni military elite supporting
the regime and in President Assad's eyes. Ghazaleh can also
provide further added value in times of emergency: he has good
links with the Lebanese Hezbollah for his years in the Bekaa
Valley. And the Hezbollah are now fighting alongside the
loyalists against the insurgents.
Service for Presidential Security
The Service for Presidential Security (Jihaz al Amn al Riasa) is the second organism reporting directly to the President. Its primary institutional role is to guarantee the security of the President, its staff and, on a wider scale, of the dignitaries of the regime. Under some respects, it is considered a Service within the Services because its men are concealed within the other security structures. The organism can rely on a consistent budget and, as can easily be imagined, wide operational discretion.
Directorate for General Security
The Directorate for General Security (Idarat al Amn al Amm, DGS) reports to the President of the Republic through the Office of National Security of the Baath party. The two powers ruling over Syria here overlap: the president and the party politically supporting the president. This Directorate operates both internally and abroad.
On the home front, it is tasked with counter-espionage, control over hostile political groups, opposers and foreigners (just like the Directorate for Political Security), religious and ethnic minorities (like the Muslim Brotherhood, one of the main forces opposing the regime) and other social and mass organizations. The Directorate is also responsible for the fight against corruption and drug trafficking.
Abroad, the DGS is dedicated to the control and elimination of opponents, the control and protection of Syria's diplomatic offices and espionage.
The Directorate is structured along three main branches: internal and external security and a third branch tasked with the control of Palestinian groups on Syrian soil and in nearby Lebanon.
The current chief of the DGS is Mohammed Dib Zaitoun, an Alawite that has already lead the Directorate for Political Security before leaving his post to Rustum Ghazaleh. Zaitoun is considered one of the closest people to Bashar al Assad. He was appointed in July 2012 in the aftermath of the car bomb attack that decimated the regime's security chiefs. Mohammed Dib Zaitoun has also been black listed by the European Union for his direct involvement in the repression following the current civil war.
His predecessor Ali Mamlouk, a Sunni also targeted by EU and US sanctions for human rights violations, is the head of the Office of National Security of the Baath party. On February 4 2013 Lebanon has issued an arrest warrant for Mamlouk for plotting to kill Lebanese religious and political leaders.
Directorate for Military Intelligence
The Directorate (or Service) for Military Intelligence (Shu’bat al Mukhabarat al Askariya, DMI) reports to the Commander of Land Forces. It is tasked with military espionage and counter-espionage, it manages Military Attachés abroad and controls the foreign ones in Syria. Just like similar organisms, the DMI concurs to the security of the regime even outside strictly military matters.
Its current chief is Major General Rafiq Shahada. Shahada has been at the helm of DMI since July 2012. His predecessor, Gen. Assef Shawkrat, married to Bashar al Assa'd sister Bushra, died in the Damascus attack. Just like his colleagues, Rafiq Shahad is also black listed for human rights violations.
Directorate for Naval Intelligence
The Directorate (or service) for Naval Intelligence (Idarat al Mukhabarat al Bahriyya) operates within its armed force. It hierarchically reports to the Commander of Naval Forces and besides the traditional military espionage/counterespionage, it provides and grants the security of both naval units, ports and Navy infrastructures. The Navy being the smallest of Syria's armed forces (with an estimated 4.000 men), its intelligence service is somewhat limited.
The only element in support of this Directorate is the fact that Naval military structures are based on the coast, whose population is mainly Alawite, and that the main ports of Latakia and Tartous (hosting Russian fleets since 1971) represent Moscow's strategic footholds in the Mediterranean. Naval Intelligence is based in Latakia and reports to Military Intelligence. Its actions span is limited to the coast, its coastal defense units and naval infantry.
Directorate for Air Force Intelligence
The Directorate for Air Force Intelligence (Idarat al Mukhabarat al Jawiyya, DAFI) reports to the Commander of Air Forces and is dedicated to the control of air military personnel and to the protection and security of the various airport infrastructures. It is also tasked with the surveillance of air space and thus in charge of two major intelligence activities: IMINT (Imagery Intelligence) and SIGINT (Signal Intelligence). The Directorate is also in charge of wiretaps (usually hiring the ladies signed up at the Female Academy in Damascus). During political turmoil in Syria (the past Muslim Brotherhood uprising and the ongoing civil war) the Directorate shifts its activities towards policing and repression.
Syrian Air Forces have 16 bases scattered across the country, plus 8 civilian airports. Five military bases have fallen into rebel hands. Several chemical agents stocks are supposedly hosted in air bases. This is the measure of how important Air Forces are with respect to other armed forces.
The current Commander of the Air Forces is Major General Ali Mahmoud, a man deemed extremely loyal to the regime. The selection of military pilots in Syria has always been restricted to Alawites and to people trusted by the al Assad regime. The father of Bashar al Assad, Hafez, was himself an air force official when he staged the coup that brought him to power in 1970. This is also one of the reasons why the Air Force – and its intelligence service – plays such a crucial role.
The current chief of the Direcorate is General Jami Hassan, appointed in 2009. The rebels claimed he had been killed in August 2012, but the news was never confirmed and was eventually denied by the regime. The EU and the U.S. have both black listed Hassan for human rights violations.
Coordination and skills
All intelligence activities report, directly or indirectly, to the President of the Republic. Bashar al Assad also employs other organisms/people to control a vital branch for the survival of his regime.
The President is assisted by the Deputy President who is in charge of applying the security policy measures dictated by his superior.
In turn, the Deputy President heads the Office for National Security to direct and control the different Service/Directorates.
In theory, the Office for National Security should play a coordination role between the different intelligence agencies and act as a consultant to the President. The truth is each organization is autonomous and reports directly to the President.
A step lower lies the above mentioned Office for National Security of the Baath party tasked with coordinating the activities of the intelligence agencies in conjunction with the Office of National Security.
As already mentioned, all these organizations have overlapping skills. During times of peace, this allowed Presiden Assad to cross-check their activities. The outbreak of the civil war has instead turned these capabilities into an instrument for tougher territorial control and in a repressive tool against both the civilian population and the insurgents. In fact, today most of these agencies play more of a policing role, rather than their statutory intelligence activity.