Loyal, secretive security forces keep Syria leader in power
Unable to stem a growing popular uprising with promises of reform, ceaseless propaganda and restrictions on the news media, Syria’s government still retains one powerful weapon: the solid support of a secretive web of security forces that so far show no signs of abandoning President Bashar Assad and his Baath Party.
More protests broke out Thursday in Aleppo, Syria’s second-largest city, despite the interior minister’s demand for civil disobedience to end. Activists are gearing up for another day of widespread protests Friday, when they hope to flood the center of Damascus, the capital, with demonstrators.
But the largely monolithic security forces, including Syria’s army, appear steeled to prevent the nation’s nascent democracy movement from succeeding in anything but suffering more bloodshed. Security forces were reportedly beefing up their presence in Damascus and the third-largest city, Homs, for the anticipated rallies.
“There are no big apparent rifts,” Nadim Houry, a Beirut-based researcher for Human Rights Watch, said of the security forces shaped long ago by President Bashar Assad’s late father, Hafez, into a behemoth effective at stifling internal dissent. “So far there hasn’t been any indication of a division within the armed forces. There are stories of defections, but there is nothing en masse or at a key commander level.”
In Tunisia and Egypt this year, powerful figures in the armed forces with close ties to the West were at first neutral and then turned against their rulers, paving the way for popular uprisings to force out long-standing tyrannical leaders.
But in Syria, which has for years had a fractious relationship with the West, multipronged security forces, though long seen as inefficient and inconsistent, have maintained order for the commander of their one-party state.
“The president is chief of the armed forces just as he’s president of the people,” said a Lebanese army officer who has worked extensively in Syria.
“He takes part in military exercises and inspects the army. It’s not like Ben Ali and Mubarak, who only had political authority,” the officer said, referring to Tunisia’s Zine el Abidine ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak.
The relationship between the government and armed forces in Syria more resembles that of Libya. There the leadership of its unusual armed forces, made up of a few formally organized units and ideological citizen militias loyal to the regime, has largely remained under the authority of the ruler, Moammar Kadafi. At the same time, some Libyan soldiers and officers from rebellious regions joined the opposition, helping foment the civil war.
In Syria, peaceful protests have intensified in cities across the nation over the last month, with escalating demands for civil liberties and economic opportunity despite Assad’s attempts to mollify angry demonstrators with reform gestures, including decrees issued Thursday ending a five-decade state of emergency, abolishing a powerful security court and regulating the right to peaceful gatherings, the official news agency reported.
The protests began in the southern city of Dara when residents demanded the release of about 20 political detainees, mostly teenagers, accused of spraying antigovernment graffiti on walls.
But the burgeoning demonstrations, coming on the heels of the successful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, have frequently been met with bullets. Hundreds of people have reportedly been killed by Syrian security forces, some shot down during funeral processions for previous victims of a deadly show of government force.
As with Iran’s 2009 protests and in Egypt and Tunisia, the Syrian government has also relied on mobs, including possible criminals, assigned to create chaos and keep potential protesters at home and break up demonstrations with force.
“It is the shabiha, gangs, many of them related to the Assad family,” said Yassin Haj Saleh, a prominent writer in Damascus. “They’re lawless and protected in a way. They will not be arrested, not be brought to court. This is the dark instinct of the regime.”
In a video disseminated on the Internet, black-clad security officials are seen triumphantly rummaging through a Dara mosque they had raided.
They had no reason to worry about consequences. They were elite members of the General Security Directorate, from a highly secretive intelligence school in Najha, 12 miles south of the capital, said a security official who spoke to The Times on condition of anonymity. And they answer to no one but their own commanders.
“We killed them,” one declares about protesters who had apparently been found in the mosque.
To ensure his family’s continued rule, Hafez Assad, who seized power in 1971 and maintained strict control for more than two decades, had each of his four main domestic security branches — General Security, Air Force Intelligence, Military Intelligence and the Political Security Directorate — keep tabs not only on the Syrian population, but also on one another, jealously guarding their own ill-defined turf. Activists describe being detained and grilled by Military Intelligence, only to be released and picked up days later and undergo the same line of questioning by General Security.
Many democracy activists still hope for cracks to emerge in the army. Protesters initially welcomed soldiers enthusiastically when they arrived to replace the despised and shadowy domestic security branches during the unrest this month in the coastal city of Baniyas. Late Wednesday, protesters in Dara chanted, “The army and the people are one,” a call for solidarity with the troops that has not been reciprocated.
Like in Egypt and Tunisia, Syria’s 300,000-man, largely conscription army generally shares the values and political aspirations of the people. Only the 4th Armored Division, led by the president’s brother Maher Assad, has been regularly deployed around the country to quell the unrest.
“Only the 4th has been opening fire on the people,” said Radwan Ziadeh, director of the Washington-based Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies. “That’s why the protesters are chanting only against the 4th.”
But the army also is largely designed to keep the Assads in power. The elder Assad, a member of Syria’s Alawite community, recruited senior officers from the country’s minority Alawite, Druze, Ismaili and Christian faiths, positioning them in a life-or-death struggle with the large Sunni Muslim majority.
Unlike the armed forces of Egypt or Tunisia, the leaders of Syria’s army and domestic security agencies don’t abide by any independent ethos or commitment to professionalism. Their fate and their communities’ fates are tied to the survival of the regime.
“The minority networks dominate the command structure,” said Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “They see it as an us-versus-them situation. It galvanizes them against the kind of splitting that you saw in Egypt or Tunisia.”
Some analysts have described long-standing chasms between the army’s elite and the mostly Sunni conscripts that could lead to crisis within the armed forces. Even Sunni towns that are traditionally strongholds of the regime, such as Dara, Homs and Dair Alzour, have risen up in protest. The same sectarian tinderbox the Assads have manipulated so well over the decades could still blow up in their faces, dissidents hope.
“If you have Sunnis shooting Sunnis, there could be a split between the leadership and the rank and file,” Tabler said.
But Bashar Assad, who cut short his training as eye doctor to attend military school after the death of his older brother in 1994, has in recent years lavished resources on the army, building it into a more professional force, said the Lebanese army officer. Last year Assad raised salaries and upgraded cars and housing for the army in an attempt to bolster their loyalty to the regime.
“They are well disciplined and have a tradition of military security and military intelligence inside the armed forces,” the Lebanese army officer said.
Despite anecdotal stories of soldiers refusing to fire on protesters in Dara, Baniyas and Homs, the defections don’t appear to be widespread. Assad has proved adept at deploying troops from one region to another to make sure they’re not in a position of firing on their own relatives and tribes, Ziadeh said.
For the time being at least, said the Lebanese army officer, if soldiers were ordered to open fire on crowds, “they do not hesitate.”
“I know them well,” he said. “They will do it. I don’t advise anyone to bet against them.”
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