Since its creation by former president Hafez al-Assad, the Syrian security apparatus has been known for its brutality and pervasiveness in all aspects of life in Syria. This structure was the main reason for the survival of the Syrian regime along with, at times, the tight and strong circle Hafez al-Assad created based on loyalties and sectarianism.
It was his main supporter, based on mutual benefits: Assad granting long-term seats in exchange for protecting the government. Although the elder al-Assad relied on this system, he was highly cautious regarding it, and it is said that he did not allow the leaders of the security apparatus to be in one location during his rule.
Bashar al-Assad inherited this ironclad security structure, built by his father over three decades. The security configuration did not change during Bashar al-Assad’s rule: Hisham Bakhtiar remained the head of the National Security Bureau, Assef Shawkat was the director of military intelligence and later deputy defense minister, and Jamil Hassan was the director of air force intelligence, along with other leaders such as Jameh Jameh, who was suspected of the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and later died during events in Deir Ezzor.
As the Syrian crisis unfolded, this security apparatus was shaken by the popular protests and was no longer able to contain or suppress – despite its unlimited powers. It became clear it was not capable of protecting the regime on its own or even with the aid of the Syrian army, despite the exorbitant funds spent on the security apparatus by the Syrian state.
The assassination of the so-called “crisis cell” in 2012, which claimed the lives of both Assef Shawkat and Hisham Bakhtiar, was a blow to the central nervous system of the Syrian security apparatus because of the role and experience of the two men in managing the crisis. The security apparatus continued to hemorrhage for a long period, with the killing of Jameh Jameh, the head of military security, followed by the killing of the chief of political security in the Syrian army, Rustum Ghazaleh.
In the face of this alarming attrition within the Syrian security apparatus, the regime was in a precarious situation because of its key dependence on the first rank of former security officers. The security structure was further weakened by the illness of Jamil Hassan, the head of air force intelligence, one of the most important Syrian security branches, thus opening the way for the emergence of new security leaders to fill the void.
After the 2012 incident, the Syrian security system embraced a new approach based on centralization of security. A new security structure has been built, especially in light of the Russian-Iranian conflict over dividing up the security services.
On 7 July 2019, President al-Assad made new security appointments, most notably Ali Mamlouk as vice-president of security affairs and Major-General Mohammed Dib Zaitoun as the head of the General Intelligence Directorate.
These appointments coincided with other new security changes. Kifah Moulhem, who was known for his cruelty and violence against demonstrators, became the head of military intelligence, although he does not have advanced security expertise. Nasser al-Ali, who is not known for his security depth or expertise, took over the Political Security Directorate, and Hussam Luqa, a Circassian officer from Damascus who is widely-accepted at the presidential palace, took over Syrian state security. Major General Ghassan Ismail succeeded Jamil Hassan at Air Force Intelligence. Added to these security organs is the General Secretariat of the National Defense, headed by Major General Bassam Hassan, a body that was created in light of the crisis with the task of attracting civilian volunteers, because they distrusted the previous apparatus.
Of interest in these appointments is that, for the first time in the history of the Syrian security services, two people from the same area of Tartus (from Dwer Raslan village), Kifah Moulhem and Ghassan Ismail, were appointed; in fact, they both have family ties through marriage to the same family. This is a break with the tradition of Hafez al-Assad, which forbade the appointment of two people from the same area.
All these officers among the new faces in the Syrian security space share three things. First, they have direct links with Major General Ali Mamlouk, who had the biggest role in creating this line-up. Second, they are unknown faces in the Syrian space who emerged during the crisis and tried to out-do one another in violence on their path to power, or at best they were not known in security circles. Third, each of them has a different corruption file against him, so that it is easier to hold them to account at the top of the pyramid at any moment. Contrary to the assertion that the security changes that took place in Damascus were due to Russian-Iranian competition, they are instead directly linked to two people: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Ali Mamlouk.
With these specific security changes, the Syrian regime is seeking to avoid repeating the scenario of reliance on personalities of the first rank, such as Hisham Bakhtiar, Assef Shawkat, Rustum Ghazaleh, and others, so that the security threads at this sensitive stage of the creation of the new security structure are linked only to the presidential palace and there is no greater Russian and Iranian leverage than currently exists.
In this situation, the institution of the presidency wants to be the strike force in Syria that limits the power of the security apparatus so that there is no emerging security alternative in Syria. This means blocking the role that the major powers in Syria are seeking as security agents in Syria capable of regulating stability in a country when it emerges from a brutal war. Herein is the answer to the underlying reason for al-Assad’s continuation as the sole actor guaranteeing stability, given that the security alternatives are under control.
These are undistinguished faces in Syrian security life, whose influence is limited to the task of collecting information and carrying out higher orders only. This means that al-Assad is working to rein in the security circle around him in order to tighten his grip on power and block any attempts to make changes to the regime.