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Assad’s control over Syria’s security apparatus is limited

Beneath an image of centralized authority is a divided system of competing security actors.

A poster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is displayed on the border between Lebanon and Syria on July 20, 2018. (Hassan Ammar/AP)

Earlier this month, Syria saw its most extensive security reshuffle since the bombing of the National Security Bureau headquarters in July 2012. More than half-a-dozen intelligence heads were appointed, promoted or retired, and more than 50 officers were transferred within the Ministry of Interior. Some might see this high-level and wide-ranging reshuffle as evidence of President Bashar al-Assad’s supremacy over the security apparatus. However, there are strong indications that Bashar’s control is far more constrained.

As it transitions from recapturing opposition territory to reasserting the state’s dominance in much of the country, Damascus faces challenges from its own security apparatus, empowered and enlarged after eight years of conflict. Competitions among security actors now pose a risk to reconsolidating the state.

Contests for local dominance among regime security actors have escalated to arrests of one another’s personnel, open clashes and violence. As Assad and his deputies attempt to navigate these competitions, they are limited, balancing conflicting interests and responding to crises as they arise.

A divided security apparatus

Syria’s security apparatus, which Assad inherited from his father, Hafez al-Assad, consists of multiple intelligence agencies and relatively elite units with overlapping mandates, designed to prevent any single one from becoming powerful enough to threaten the presidency.

This apparatus proved crucial to the regime during the civil war as the regular army faced defections and absenteeism. Yet the conflict environment itself, and the broad mandates granted by Damascus, created the space for these agencies and factions to dramatically expand the scope of their disagreements.

Using intermediaries and informants developed over the past few decades, security apparatuses facilitated the creation of popular committees and affiliated militias to expand their force projection. They also competed to attract militias that emerged from the ground up or were financed by regime-aligned business people by offering better resources and protection.

Amid a congested array of pro-regime factions, three in particular have dominated. Air Force Intelligence expanded its presence in Aleppo and Hama in particular, capitalizing on better access to resources from Damascus because of its historical connection to Hafez Assad, the success of its Tiger Forces militias and cooperation with Russia and Iran. Military Intelligence — with better local access because of preexisting connections in the south and cooperating with Russia to reincorporate former opposition groups — is the dominant apparatus in parts of Dara’a. The Fourth Division, led by Bashar Assad’s brother, Maher, and its affiliated militias are among the factions dominant in and around Damascus and territory bordering Lebanon, where they operate an extensive smuggling operation.

Escalating competitions

Despite these rough zones of influence, security organs and their affiliated militias overlap and contest one another’s access to and control over territory, often violently. Pro-regime factions compete over checkpoints in population centers and along major trade routes, where they generate revenue by extracting from civilians and business people. They also contest key neighborhoods that serve as recruitment pools of former opposition fighters. Tensions among officers, soldiers, militiamen and local police have escalated to arrests of lower-ranking figures, attacks and clashes, and alleged assassinations of one another’s reconciled opposition fighters.

These escalations often result from local branches and entities pursuing their own organizational interests — revenue, manpower and relevance — and coming into conflict with others doing the same. Such competitions and overreaches often go unchecked, but when they cause unrest near sensitive sites, result in prolonged clashes, or otherwise damage the notion of the regime’s authority, it becomes more important to Damascus to resolve them.

External reinforcement

Iran’s involvement exacerbates these competitions. Through coordination with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, Hezbollah, and its own array of Syrian and Iraqi militias on the ground, Iran has bolstered the Fourth Division, Air Force Intelligence and others, empowering them in their competitions with their rivals within the regime.

Russia’s efforts to rein in the sprawling security apparatus include forming the Fifth Corps, a structure to reintegrate former opposition factions as well as regime militias into a more cogent military structure. Though nominally under the Ministry of Defense, the Fifth Corps receives Russian salaries and takes orders from Russian leadership out of the Hmeimim air base. Its militias have reportedly clashed with the Fourth Division and the National Defense Forces in Hama and with Air Force Intelligence in Dara’a. In practice, the Fifth Corps simply represents another faction in the array of security actors for Damascus to balance.

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Limited options

In most instances, Assad and his circle rely on the leadership and high-level officers within the security organs to restrain their own personnel and fighters without explicit orders. Through hiring, firing and transfers, Damascus is able to sideline leaders who prove ineffective in this task. Security actors, however, are reluctant to weaken their own positions on the ground and in turn, cede influence to competitors.

Assad also relies on his deputies to act as intermediaries between competing entities and negotiate mutually tolerable outcomes. The most visible figure in this role has been Ali Mamlouk — previously head of the National Security Bureau and allegedly selected as vice president for security affairs in this month’s reshuffle. Mamlouk has negotiated with national-level security chiefs and local committees, local officials and community figures and, in parts of the country, tribal entities to resolve disputes. But depending on their stature and the issue at hand, other security officials can rebuff Mamlouk’s and other deputies’ efforts.

On pressing occasions, Assad will intervene directly. Such incidents are rarely publicized, but one of the few reported cases was a violent altercation in March 2015 between then heads of Military Intelligence and the Political Security Directorate, Rafiq Shehadeh and Rustom Ghazaleh. Assad abruptly fired both after the incident, and Ghazaleh died the following month.

Assad’s orders do not appear to be contested when given, but his interventions are also circumscribed. While he can remove individuals who cross red lines, he appears to avoid making broader and more costly demands that crucial security actors would be more likely to contest, avoiding situations that would damage the idea of an all-powerful presidency.

With this, even if Assad were willing, he could not easily push the wider reforms often demanded by Western policymakers — on human rights issues, detainees and humanitarian access — or even put forth his own vision for the country. The security apparatus is not a tool that Assad can simply choose to wield or put down. Rather, it is a collection of actors and structures to navigate — each with their own interests, agency and leverage.

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Alexander Decina is an Amman-based analyst focused on factional conflicts and state-building challenges throughout the Middle East and North Africa region with a particular focus on Syria and Libya.

Katherine Nazemi is a researcher and analyst based in Amman, Jordan, focusing on post-conflict institutions and political economy.