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memri
July 11, 2019 No.
1464

Reports: Personnel Changes In Top Syrian Security Echelons – Under Russian Pressure

By: O. Peri and H. Varulkar*

Introduction

In recent days, Facebook pages identified with the Syrian regime have reported on personnel changes in the upper echelons of the Syrian security and intelligence apparatuses. Among those replaced were the chiefs of the general intelligence, political security, criminal security, and Air Force intelligence apparatuses. It was also reported that National Security Bureau director 'Ali Mamlouk, who is known to be close to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, has been replaced and appointed vice president.

The Facebook reports on the personnel changes, which were cited later by the Arab press in other countries, have not been confirmed by the Syrian regime or the Syrian state press, but have also not been denied. The only exception is the reports on Mamlouk's vice presidency, which were denied by associates of the regime.

This paper will review the reports of the personnel changes in the top Syrian security echelons, and how they were interpreted by Arab media.

Facebook Pages Identified With Assad Regime: New Appointments In Top Security Echelons; Mamlouk Appointed VP

As noted, on July 7, 2019, Facebook pages which support the Assad regime reported on a series of new appointments in the country's intelligence and security apparatuses. The pages included one belonging to Bahjat Suleiman, formerly Syrian Ambassador to Jordan, and the "Homs News Network" and "Tartous News Network" pages. According to their reports, the personnel changes included:

  • Appointment of Gen. Nasser Ali as head of Syrian state security

  • Appointment of Gen. Hussam Luka as head of general security

  • Appointment of Gen. Nasser Dib as head of criminal security

  • Appointment of Gen. Ghassan Jaoudat Ismail as head of Air Force security.[1]


Left to right: Gen. Ghassan Ismail (Source: Zamanalwsl.net, March 8, 2018); Gen. Hussam Luka (Source: Shaamtimes.net, July 8, 2019)

Additionally, on July 8, several Facebook pages reported on two more important appointments: Gen. Muhammad Dib Zaytoun, formerly head of general security, as director of the National Security Bureau, replacing 'Ali Mamlouk, who was appointed vice president.[2]

However, this report on Mamlouk's appointment as vice president was denied by affiliates of the regime, among them former Ambassador to Syria Bahjat Suleiman, and also by the Facebook page of the regime-affiliated Al-Watan daily.[3]

On July 11, several days after these personnel changes, the London-based Al-Sharq Al-Awsat reported that as part of them a new security body, Branch 801, had been established, to protect public facilities. Branch 801, said the report, is subordinate to general intelligence, and had been created in accordance with a Russian recommendation. It is tasked with protecting government buildings and facilities, including important sites such as embassies and diplomatic missions, banks, and the building housing the radio and television authority. These responsibilities were now consolidated under it, instead of distributed among several security apparatuses as had previously been the case.[4]

The New Appointments Are Further Personnel Changes In Top Security Echelons Over Recent Months, Under Russian Pressure

If these reports are indeed true, the personnel changes aren't happening in a vacuum, and the reports are more in a series of many previous ones in recent months on Syrian opposition websites and in the Arab press, on personnel changes in the top Syrian military echelons, including the appointment of the new chief of staff.

According to the reports published in recent months, the personnel changes made during that period are one manifestation of the power struggle underway between Russia and Iran over control of Syria's centers of power, including the Syrian military and security apparatuses. Each country is working to establish its control over them, and is pressuring the Syrian regime to appoint people loyal to it. This struggle may be why these recent reports on personnel changes in the ranks of the military and the security apparatuses were not covered by Syrian state media.

The reports state that Russia has increased its influence over the Syrian security forces, and is making certain that its affiliates are appointed to posts in the intelligence and security apparatuses. For example, it was reported that the early April 2019 personnel changes in the upper Syrian security apparatus echelons, including the appointment of Salim Harba as Syrian chief of staff, were carried out as the result of Russian pressure aimed at weakening President Assad's brother Maher Al-Assad who is considered close to Iran, and his associates, and to put in his place men loyal to Russia.[5]

Furthermore, on May 21, Al-Modon reported that Russia had ordered Ghassan Bilal, director of Maher Al-Assad's office, placed under house arrest; Ghassan is considered close to Iran. This move, the paper said, was aimed at preventing him from being appointed chief of Syrian military intelligence, after the Iranians had recommended him for the post.[6] Also, on June 19, new appointments in Syrian special forces and the Syrian Republican Guard were reported; these bodies are considered loyal to President Assad. Al-Modon noted that these appointments were also ordered by Russia.[7]

Iran, on the other hand, intervened in the appointment of former military intelligence chief Muhammad Mahla to the post of security advisor to President Assad, in an attempt to preserve its influence in the presidential palace. Mahla's replacement as military intelligence chief, Kifah Melhem, is also considered to be close to Iran.[8] 

Russia's influence is also manifested in the round of current appointments. According to Al-Modon, although new intelligence chiefs Gen. Nasser Ali, Hussam Luka, and Ghassan Ismail are in favor of the Iranian presence in Syria and coordinate with officers of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and with the Hizbullah leadership, they understand that Russia can expel them or even have them killed  if they do not follow its instructions, and that they must refrain from coordinating with the Iranians.[9] Likewise, according to the newspaper, Ali Mamlouk's replacement at the National Security Bureau, Gen. Muhammad Dib Zaytoun, who is thought to be Assad's personal friend, won his new job as a reward from the Russians for his contribution to strengthening the relationship between Syrian general intelligence, which until then he had helmed, and the Russians.[10]

The Syrian opposition website Orient News quoted experts who also thought it likely that the personnel changes were executed at Russia's instructions. This, they said, was due to Russia's desire to control Syrian intelligence and security apparatuses, and to distance them from the Syrian officers accused of war crimes, enabling Russia to promote political proposals for the Syria crisis and improving the image of the Assad regime in the international arena.[11]

According to Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, the recent decision to establish Branch 801 and charge it with protecting public facilities came at Russia's recommendation, and was intended to limit Iran's power and prevent it from trying to take control of important government institutions.[12] Moreover, Orient News reported that Syria's aim in establishing it was to prevent a military coup against the Syrian regime by Syrian officers within the Syrian government who are loyal to Iran and bitter about what they perceive as Russia's control of Syria's decision-making.[13] 

Contradictory Reports On The Background To The Replacement Of Air Force Intelligence Chief

As noted, the latest round of personnel changes included the replacement of the Air Force intelligence chief for the past decade, Jamil Al-Hassan, with Ghassan Ismail, his former deputy. Under Al-Hassan, Air Force intelligence had for years been depicted in the Arab media as playing a prominent role in human rights violations in Syria and in the torture and deaths of political prisoners. Al-Hassan himself was said by the Arab press to have directed the use of explosive barrels to bomb civilians, and was nicknamed "the barrel godfather." It should be noted that in July 2018 an international warrant was issued for Al-Hassan's arrest, and he is on the EU list of sanctioned individuals.[14]

Al-Hassan's removal may be connected to his failing health. According to various reports, in the past six months then-deputy Ismail served as acting commander of Air Force intelligence, after Al-Hassan suffered a stroke.[15]

However, other reports stated that Russia was behind Al-Hassan's removal. Al-Modon reported that several days after he left his position, on June 30, Russia had coordinated a meeting between him and Israeli intelligence officers, near the Golan Heights border. At the meeting, according to the report, the Israelis proposed that Al-Hassan withdraw the Iranian militias in Syria to 55 kilometers away from the Israeli border and that in exchange Israel, with Russian support, would fund an operation against the Iranian militias that refused to withdraw.[16] Also according to Al-Modon, Russia had told Al-Hassan that if he accepted an Israeli offer he would remain in his post for another year, and if he rejected it, he would be removed. Al-Hassan rejected the offer.[17] A similar report was published by Orient News.[18]

The Saudi Al-Arabiya news outlet suggested that Al-Hassan's removal was due to his visit several days previously to the rural regions of Idlib and Hama, where there has been fighting between Syrian regime forces, backed by the Russian Air Force, and armed opposition factions. According to this report, Al-Hassan's visit caused concern among the Russians who, as part of their efforts to resolve the Syria crisis, consider officers wanted internationally for war crimes personae non grata.[19]

Another report published July 10, 2019 by the Al-Arabiya website stated that Air Force intelligence commander Al-Hassan was considered to be close to Iran, and that commentators viewed his removal as an attempt to restrict Iran's power and influence in the army and in the circles surrounding Assad.[20]   


Jamil Al-Hassan (source: Zamanalwsl.net, September 18, 2018)

Ali Mamlouk's Vice Presidential Appointment – Removal Or Promotion?

If the reports about the appointment of Ali Mamlouk as vice president, and his removal from his post as National Security Bureau head are true, this is a highly significant change in Syria's security institutions, because he is a central and very senior figure in the regime.

Mamlouk, born 1946 in Damascus, has for years been considered a central figure in the Syrian regime. As head of the National Security Bureau, he oversaw all the security apparatuses, and was privy to most of the information known to the intelligence apparatuses. He would leave Syria regularly on diplomatic missions in Europe and Arab countries, despite the sanctions and arrest warrants against him.[21] It was reported that during the Syria crisis he had visited Jordan,[22] Egypt,[23] and even Saudi Arabia, where he met with Crown Prince and then-defense minister Mohammed bin Salman.[24] He also is said to have held meetings in Italy[25] and Germany,[26] and also to have met with U.S. security and intelligence officers in Damascus.[27]

Several reports in the past have even presented Mamlouk as a candidate for replacing President Assad who is acceptable to Russia.[28] Mamlouk may also be acceptable to intra-Syrian elements who are not Assad supporters, as reflected by his meetings with representatives of the Kurdish self-administered region in northeastern Syria that is not under regime control,[29] with Druze elements from Suwayda district in southern Syria that the regime does not fully control,[30] and with former representatives of the Syrian opposition in Dera'a in southern Syria, which has recently been the site of anti-regime activity.[31]

The report of Mamlouk's appointment as Syrian vice president and his replacement as National Security Bureau head by Muhammad Dib Zeytoun was interpreted and assessed in various ways in the Arab media. Some Arab websites called it a promotion that further increased his chances of one day replacing Assad as Syrian president, while others saw it as a demotion from his senior role and as his being sidelined in a post where he is a mere figurehead with no authority.

For example, the London-based Qatari Al-Quds daily cited a source that hypothesized that Mamlouk's appointment as vice president was aimed at "changing the regime that Hafez Al-Assad handed down to his son Bashar" and called it another step aimed at removing Assad from the scene as the presidential election set for 2021 neared. The paper also cited a political researcher, Abd Al-Wahhab Aasi, who raised the possibility that Mamlouk's appointment was aimed at easing him into the role of Bashar Al-Assad's replacement.[32]


Ali Mamlouk. (Source: Al-Akhbar, Lebanon, February 26, 2018)

On the other hand, Syrian political commentator Darwish Khalifa hypothesized that Mamlouk's appointment was aimed at distancing him from Syria's military and security institutions, and, effectively, from all important regime positions. This, he said, was because the vice presidency was of little political or social importance.[33] The website of the Syrian Aleppo Today channel also discussed the appointment, in an item headlined "Ali Mamlouk's Removal from His Post..."[34]

*O. Peri is a Research Fellow at MEMRI; H. Varulkar is Director of Research at MEMRI.

 

[1] Facebook.com/tartous19, Facebook.com/HomsNetowrkLive, Facebook.com/General.Dr.Bahjat.Suleiman, July 7, 2019.

[2] Facebook.com/Sawa.masyaf, July 8, 2019; Facebook.com/531630663682585, July 8, 2019; Facebook.com/ALI0MAHFOOD, July 8, 2019. It should be noted that in April, the Lebanese Al-Modon daily had already raised the possibility that Mamlouk would be appointed vice president. Almodon.com (which is solely an online publication), April 5, 2019.

[3] Facebook.com/General.Dr.Bahjat.Suleiman, Twitter.com/Rahmon83; Facebook.com/alwatan.sy, July 8, 2019.

[4] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), July 11, 2019.

[5] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), June 7, 2019; Zamanalwsl.net, April 17, 2019; Almodon.com, April 5, 2019; Orient-news.net, April 8, 2019.

[6] Almodon.com, May 21, 2019.

[7] Zamanalwsl.net, Almodon.com, June 19, 2019.

[8] Almodon.com, April 5, 2019.

[9] Almodon.com, July 8, 2019.

[10] Almodon.com, July 8, 2019.

[11] Orient-news.net, July 11, 2019.

[12] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), July 11, 2019.

[13] Orient-news.net, July 11, 2019.

[14] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), July 8, 2019.

[15] Almodon.com, July 8, 2019; Zamanalwsl.net, December 25, 2018.

[16] Almodon.com, July 6, 2019.

[17] Almodon.com, July 8, 2019.

[18] Orient-news.net, July 11, 2019.

[19] Alarabiya.net, July 8, 2019.

[20] Alarabiya.net, July 10, 2019.

[21] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), Mena-monitor.org, July 8, 2019.

[22] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), November 25, 2015, February 8, 2017.

[23] Alqabas (Kuwait), December 19, 2016; Sana.sy, December 23, 2018. See also MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 1284, Growing Egypt-Syria Rapprochement Includes Al-Sisi Statement In Support Of Syrian Army, Reports On Egyptian Military Aid To Syria, November 30, 2016.

[24] Al-Hayat (London), August 7, 2015. Al-Hayat is currently published in Dubai.

[25] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), February 26, 2018.

[26] Aljoumhouria (Lebanon), February 26, 2019.

[29] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), October 29, 2017; Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), January 22, 2019.

[30] Suwayda24.com, December 16, 2018.

[31] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), April 3, 2019. See also MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 1446, As Syria War Enters Ninth Year, Anti-Regime Protests And Armed Operations Resume In Daraa Governorate, March 18, 2019.

[32] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), July 8, 2019.

[33] Mena-monitor.org, July 8, 2019.

[34] Halabtodaytv.net, July 8, 2019.