Security reshuffle consolidates Assad’s posture as Syria’s strongman

The security change is very cosmetic, replacing one Sunni Muslim Ba’athist officer with another Sunni Muslim Ba’athist officer, both Assadists.
Saturday 13/07/2019
Close coordination. Syrian President Bashar Assad (R)  receives Russian President’s Special Envoy to Syria Alexander  Lavrentiev (2nd L) in Damascus, June 20.   (SANA)
Close coordination. Syrian President Bashar Assad (R) receives Russian President’s Special Envoy to Syria Alexander Lavrentiev (2nd L) in Damascus, June 20. (SANA)

BEIRUT - Syrian President Bashar Assad ordered a major reshuffle of the Syrian security apparatus, which led to the retirement of Syrian Air Force Intelligence commander Major-General Jamil Hassan.

Observers have been analysing the move to determine whether it was mandated by Russia or Iran, the two main backers of the Damascus regime.

Hassan, the most high-profile of the retired officers, was pensioned-off, rather than dismissed.

Appointed to lead the most widely feared apparatus of Syrian security in 2009, Hassan played a crucial role in suppressing the Syrian opposition during the early stages of the uprising. He worked closely with the Iranians, then shifted into the Russian orbit after Russian President Vladimir Putin sent troops to Syria in 2015.

Due to the sensitivity of his job, Hassan’s tenure was extended seven times by Assad, with the Russians supporting the move. Hassan had been due to retire at the age of 60 in 2012. His top general, Suheil al-Hassan, led the military campaigns of East Ghouta and Daraa in 2018, which were decisive victories for regime forces thanks to massive Russian air cover.

Jamil Hassan and Suheil al-Hassan, who are not related, are from the Alawite sect that has ruled Syria since 1970 and from where Assad originates. So does General Ghassan Ismail, Jamil Hassan’s deputy who was chosen as his replacement. All three take orders from Assad, not from Iran or Russia.

The same applies to Hussam Luka, the newly appointed head of Syria’s General Intelligence Directorate. A Sunni Muslim from Khanaser in Aleppo province, Luka rose to prominence last November when he was appointed director of political security. He replaced General Deeb Zeitoun, who commanded state security since 2012.

Both are considered Assad’s men who were too junior under the rule of his father and rose to prominence after Bashar Assad became president in 2000.

The security change is very cosmetic, replacing one Sunni Muslim Ba’athist officer with another Sunni Muslim Ba’athist officer, both Assadists. The same applies to General Nasser al-Ali, who became head of political intelligence and General Nasser Deeb, who was appointed director of criminal intelligence.

There is a clear thread indicating Assad’s ability to fire and hire at will, seemingly telling friends and opponents alike that he is more powerful than the officers under his rule.

Assad’s message appears to be that there are no strongmen in Syria apart from the president, who has dismissed all senior officers who were in power when the conflict started in 2011 and whom some speculated were more powerful than the president.

Three years ago, Assad fired the powerful head of political security, Rustom Gazaleh, and Rafik Shehadeh, commander of military intelligence. Last year, he dismissed the long-standing Defence Minister Jassem al-Freij and, since January 2018, has kept the post of army chief-of-staff vacant.

The dismissals no doubt were made in close coordination with the Russians, who have been working on revamping the military and security apparatus, ushering in a new generation of officers who are battle-trained by the Russian Army and who are considered “trustworthy” by Russia’s military command.

The Russians clearly don’t want officers who stay in power for too long, like the old guard that worked with Hafez Assad — Bashar Assad’s father — from 1970 until his death in 2000. Because of the longevity of their tenures, it was difficult to get rid of them by the late 1990s, to make way for Bashar Assad and his generation of officers.

Hassan had been in a commanding position for ten years but, judging by the age of his successor — 59 — he will be retired within the next 12 months. So will the rest of the officers placed in power recently, preventing them from becoming too strong at their jobs or too independent.

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