Bashar al-Assad came to power amid high hopes for reform after three decades of his father Hafez‘s iron rule. But 11 years on he seems determined to crush the unrest sweeping across Syria. And there is no sign that he is taking a softer line than the coterie of relatives and security chiefs who advise him at the heart of the regime’s inner circle in Damascus.
Syrian and western analysts, diplomats and academics say the president is bent on using force to preserve his regime – and ready to ignore international pressure.
Political gestures, they argue, have come too late, and have been overtaken by the worst repression since his father crushed an Islamist uprising in 1982.
“Assad has decided to shut this down,” said one western diplomat. “The regime is playing survival tactics. It’s a security-led approach, first, second and third.
“There is a widespread perception that the president has stronger reforming instincts than the people around him,” said another veteran Syria-watcher. “Some may be more hardline than others, but this is one regime and it will be judged by what it does collectively.”
Syrian opposition figures describe Assad as having taken “a strategic decision” to intensify the crackdown, possibly after secret consultations in late March.
Defections from the lower levels of the ruling Ba’ath party in the southern city of Deraa do not seem a significant loss, though they could have a snowball effect. Overall the Ba’ath party has become less important under Bashar’s rule than it was during the Hafez era.
Assad’s recent cabinet reshuffle did little to convince critics of his readiness for real change as government ministers are far less important than security chiefs, who make the key decisions. Closeness to the Assad family remains far more important than a job title or formal responsibilities.
The core of the regime seems solid and close-knit. Assad’s chief advisers are almost all members of the president’s minority Alawite sect (which makes up just 12% of Syria’s 22m people) and several are related to him. Unlike in Libya, no senior Syrian figures have joined the opposition, which has no territorial base. Hence the onslaught on Deraa, which seems designed to prevent the southern town from becoming one. Here’s a look at some of the key figures in the inner circle.
Maher al-Assad Bashar’s younger brother, commander of the elite Republican Guard and the army’s powerful 4th mechanised division, which has been involved in suppressing unrest in Deraa. Maher is Hafez’s youngest son and helped persuade Bashar to end the short-lived period of liberalisation dubbed the “Damascus spring” shortly after he became president in 2000. Named by UN investigators as implicated in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri. Hated and feared.
Assef Shawkat Married to Assad’s sister and Hafez’s only daughter Bushra, a significant figure in her own right. Now deputy chief-of-staff of the armed forces and former head of military intelligence. Shawkat was reportedly shot and wounded by Maher al-Assad in a row in 1999. Also named by the UN in the Hariri murder case. Under US sanctions for his role in Lebanon.
Rami Makhlouf Bashar’s maternal cousin. Syria’s leading businessman has built an economic empire worth billions over the past decade. Subject to US sanctions for “public corruption”. Probably closest to the president in the inner circle and widely seen as symbolising nepotism and corruption. Extensive interests in oil and telecoms (owns Syriatel) as well as real estate. He also owns the country’s only private newspaper – the remainder are directly controlled by the state. His brother Hafez Makhlouf is head of general intelligence – the feared Mukhabarat.
Abdel-Fatah Qudsiyeh Head of military intelligence. Served in the Republican Guard and as head of the powerful air force intelligence service. Led the security committee investigating the sensational 2008 assassination of the Hezbollah military commander Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus, which was hugely embarrassing for the regime and widely blamed on Israel.
Muhammad Nasif Kheirbek Deputy vice-president for security affairs. Seen as a close Assad confidante and a survivor from the Hafez era. Subject to bilateral US sanctions over his role in Lebanon. Assad’s key political link to Iran – a vital foreign alliance. His son also occupies a senior post in internal security.
Ali Mamlouk Special adviser on security to Assad and a former Mukhabarat chief who is close to other intelligence agencies. Features in leaked US cables released by WikiLeaks boasting of Syria’s prowess in penetrating terrorist organisations.
Other influential figures round Assad include the vice-president, Farouk al-Sharaa; Ali Habib Mahmoud, the minister of defence and army commander; and General Hisham Ikhtiar, director of the Ba’ath party’s National Security Bureau. Assad’s adviser Bouthaina Shaaban, a British-educated academic, is credited with trying to improve the president’s media image, but her promises of significant reforms early on in the crisis have rung hollow since the violence escalated.
Syrian opposition sources have been playing up claims of desertions from the armed forces as well as unconfirmed reports that regular army soldiers refused to fire on protesters in Deraa and clashed with the Fourth Mechanised Division. But the scale of such incidents remains unclear.
Experts generally agree that the army and security forces remain loyal. “We haven’t seen the kind of splintering between the political leadership and the military that we saw in Tunisia and Egypt,” said Mohammad Bazzi of the Council for Foreign Relations. “Syria is a different case because the military establishment, the leadership of the military and the security forces is largely Alawite … the sect that Assad comes from. And they’re beholden to him and … see their survival as intertwined with Assad’s.”
Eyal Zisser, Israel’s leading expert on Syria, and Assad’s biographer, concurs. “In Syria, unlike Egypt, the regime continues to enjoy the unconditional support of the army and security forces,” he wrote in a recent report. “Indeed, the leaders of the Syrian army … know that unlike Egypt, where the defence minister took the reins of government from Mubarak and became the favourite son of Tahrir Square, in Syria the protesters also want the heads of the top brass of the army and security forces, so that if Bashar falls, they fall too.”
Senior Syrians are clearly worried but still insist the situation can be contained. “We will have a few months of difficult times, but I don’t think it will go further,” one official predicted privately. “It will be a period of unrest and not an overthrow of the regime. That is highly improbable.”