Eyal Zisser is a research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies and a lecturer at the Department of Middle Eastern and African History, both at Tel Aviv University.
In July 1994, news came from Syria of the ouster and arrest of Major General `Ali Haydar, commander of the Special Forces, and the dismissal of a number of senior officers in the Special Forces sympathetic to him.
This was a major development because the makeup of the elite in the regime of Hafiz al-Asad has changed remarkably little over the past quarter-century. Many of the top officials have been in their positions for a decade or more. Haydar had served as commander of the Special Forces from the late 1960s until his arrest in July 1994. Lieutenant General `Ali Duba, deputy chief of the General Staff and head of the Military Security Department, has filled the latter role since 1974. The same goes for Shafiq Fayyadh and Ibrahim Safi, who were until their recent promotions the commanders of the Third and First Divisions, respectively.1
The increasing signs of flux shown by the Syrian government over the past year raise the possibility that cohesion at the top has broken down; and this in turn prompts questions about regime survival.
A small group of men controls the army and the security forces in Syria (see box). Like Asad himself, most of them are `Alawis, members of a small and long-persecuted religious community living in northwest Syria. They serve as the regime's nucleus, the guarantor of order in the country, and the sponsor of those coalitions (army, party, bureaucratic, rural, and minority) on which the regime relies. Dramatic personnel changes among this group since mid-1994 have included five main individuals:
`Ali Haydar. The scion of one of the most prestigious families in one of the largest `Alawi tribes, the Khaddadin--which had long provided Asad with unreserved support--Haydar had commanded the Special Forces for two decades and was a pillar of the regime. His troops played a central role in subduing the Muslim Brethren revolt of 1976-82, and had an especially prominent role in the crushing of the Hama uprising of February 1982. Haydar allied himself with Hafiz al-Asad as he struggled for the presidency with his brother Rif`at in late 1983 and early 1984, providing a critical source of support.2
Haydar's precise reasons for breaking ranks with Asad in 1994 are not known. As far as can be ascertained, personal frustration at not ascending to a higher rank (if not higher operational position) in the army motivated him to criticize the president for having deviated from his regime's original course of socialism and Pan-Arabism. Israel's Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin opined that Haydar's motive was a purely personal dejection over the imminent end of his military-political career, which makes the case significant only for Syrian internal affairs.3 Even if "purely personal," Haydar's case exemplifies a widespread discontent among the military-security elite: while some have won higher rank (like Duba, promoted to lieutenant general and appointed deputy chief of the General Staff in January 1993), many others are anxious, like Haydar, that not advancing means they will soon be put on pension and stripped of power and privilege.
Haydar's audacity in defying Asad, his consequent dismissal, and his replacement by Major General `Ali Habib, commander of the Syrian task force in the Kuwait war,4 may have significant implications for regime stability. It diminishes the regime's projected sense of confidence and raises questions about the extent to which it can rely on officers like Haydar who have long been its backbone. His case also indicates that the `Alawi barons will not go quietly into the night.
Majid Sa`id. In September 1994, news came of Major General Majid Sa`id's removal as head of the General Intelligence Directorate.5 It appears that Sa`id was approaching the twilight of his military career, due to his age and perhaps due to poor performance. His failure to get the General Intelligence Directorate to combat smuggling and other economic crimes may have accelerated his political demise. Or Asad may have dismissed Sa`id with an eye to making sure that the holder of his key position be unimpeachably loyal to Asad's own successor. The new head of General Intelligence, Major General Bashir an-Najjar, previously head of the Customs Authority, had conducted a campaign against smuggling under the immediate supervision of the president's eldest son, Basil. Interestingly, both Sa`id and Najjar are Sunnis; that Major General Muhammad Nasif (an `Alawi) remains the directorate's strongman lessens the importance of Sa`id's dismissal.
Muhammad al-Khuli. Press reports from Damascus indicated in early 1994 that Major General Muhammad al-Khuli, a member of Asad's inner circle, had been appointed commander of the Syrian air force, replacing Major General `Ali Malahafji.6 Khuli had served as director of air force security until 1987, when British and American pressure following the attempted bombing of an El Al jet at Heathrow Airport prompted his getting kicked upstairs to deputy commander of the air force, a ceremonial post. Patrick Seale, a confidant of Asad and author of a sympathetic biography of him, claims that Khuli acted in the 1986 attempted bombing without Asad's knowledge or approval.7 While this explanation seems unlikely, it is not impossible. Khuli may have been over-independent or he may have over-interpreted a general directive from Asad.
Given this history, Khuli's appointment as commander of the air force constitutes a patent defiance of the United States and Britain, especially at a time when Damascus seeks to improve its relations with these countries. Why does Asad risk those relations with Khuli's appointment? Conceivably, he felt obliged to repay a long-loyal friend, hoping that gratitude on Khuli's part would help with current problems. Presumably, Asad also expects Khuli to support his candidate in the coming scramble for succession.
Kamil al-Baba and Walid Hammamiya. Two changes of personnel resulted from Asad's dissatisfaction with the record of men with important roles in the Syrian economy. On June 1, 1994, Asad appointed Munib As`ad Sa'im ad-Dahr as minister for electricity, superseding Kamil al-Baba.8 Baba lost his job because electricity is a sore topic throughout Syria; planned electricity cuts take place daily in all of Syria, including Damascus, and last up to six or seven hours. The regime understands the widespread unhappiness over electricity shortages and has made real efforts to solve the problem, including a special government meeting on September 12, 1993, devoted to this subject, presided over by Asad himself; and a government commitment to spend nearly a billion dollars on electricity projects.9
On July 12, Muhammad Zuhayr Salah ad-Din Taghlabi replaced Walid Hammamiya, a veteran party activist, as governor of Damascus Province.10 Hammamiya's removal likely resonated throughout Syria's Ba`th Party, for the governorship of Damascus disposes of real power. Some three million people live in the Damascus metropolitan area, and they suffer acutely from a shortage of such basics as housing and water supply.11 As the capital region is a showcase for Syria, those failures apparently had something to do with Hammamiya's replacement. Again, Asad also may have wanted to appoint a fresh personality, someone who would be closer to his chosen successor.
Asad apparently intended to impress the citizenry with his resoluteness on economic issues by firing these two men. But turmoil in these economic posts suggests that the turnover in the top ranks of the security forces is a symptom of hardships facing the regime more widely, and is especially significant given Asad's dislike of any change. These shifts in personnel contribute to the sense of regime instability, for they had previously been few and far between over Asad's quarter-century in power.
ASAD'S PROBLEMS WITH THE ELITE
Why these uncharacteristic changes at the apex of the Syrian regime? While the top army and security figures remain indispensable to the stability and continuity of Asad's rule, they have become a liability to him as they age and indulge in ever more corruption. After so long at the top, many of the leading figures are less efficient than previously and more prone to physical problems. Haydar suffered a blood clot in his leg and Shafiq Fayyadh had a heart attack. Moreover, their corruption has grown with time. Some top officers are involved in drug trafficking or are known to make use of army and state funds for private use.12
Also, as Asad prepares Syria for a possible rapprochement with the West and an eventual change in leadership, those portions of the security elite identified with the brutal and sinister aspect of the regime become a burden to him. As mentioned, Khuli oversaw the failed El Al bombing in April 1986. Duba took part in suppressing the Muslim Brethren revolt in Hama during February 1982. Their notorious reputations hamper the regime's efforts to improve Syria's image in the West.
Lastly, the military-security elite's interests differ from the president's with regard to the succession issue. Because the struggle to succeed Asad as president of Syria is fast becoming the pivotal issue in Syrian politics, we focus on it here in some detail.
THE SUCCESSION STRUGGLE
The question of succession first erupted as a crisis issue in November 1983, when Asad suffered a heart attack. His brother Rif`at took that opportunity to position himself as heir to the presidency. The ensuing controversy riled the regime's internal cohesion, threatening to bring it down. Asad's recovery saved the day,13 relegating the succession issue to the back burner, where it festered, unresolved, for about seven years.
Asad seems intentionally to have avoided dealing with the succession issue during this time. He probably procrastinated in part out of a desire to avoid any further shock to the regime's internal order, and in part because he lacked a suitable candidate. Stalling had costs, however. Beyond leaving the identity of his heir in doubt, it raised questions about the regime's long-term viability.
Basil al-Asad. Succession issues resumed center stage in the early 1990s, as Asad sought to install his son Basil as heir. Born on March 23, 1962, Basil chose a military career, perhaps with the intent to follow his father and use the army as a political base. He advanced through the ranks rapidly, resulting in his promotion to major and his subsequent appointment as commander of a brigade in the Republican Guard.14
At the same time, Basil enjoyed wide press coverage, for example as captain of the Syrian Olympic equestrian team.15 His portraits appeared alongside those of his father, and the latter began to be referred to as Abu Basil ("Father of Basil") instead of Abu Sulayman ("Father of Sulayman").16 Basil got involved in diplomacy mainly in connection with Lebanon, and in 1992-93 led a national campaign to combat the smuggling and trafficking of drugs -- a campaign whose effect would be to destroy the power base of his paternal uncle Rif`at.17 By 1992, reports from Damascus spoke of the president's plans to appoint Basil his heir.18 Many analysts saw Basil as the guarantor for political stability and a robust economy.19
By moving Basil in an undeclared but unmistakable direction of heir presumptive, Asad hoped to prevent a power struggle. Although not publicly declared the heir (most likely because he was well below the age of forty stipulated By the Syrian constitution for the president), Basil and the body politic were both being prepared for that eventuality.
Then, on January 21, 1994, Basil lost his life in a car accident on his way to the Damascus International Airport, the result of bad weather conditions and the car's excessive speed.20 A mourning period of five days was declared for the popular and charismatic figure, and foreign reports told of a sincere sorrow that crossed sectarian and communal boundaries.21 Nearly 1.5 million people attended Basil's funeral, according to official figures. President Asad was described as full of agony and shock; he was even seen crying.22 Basil's unexpected death prompted a renewal of the struggle over succession and, at the very least, ensured a period of tension and unrest among the regime's elites.
Bashshar al-Asad. Soon after Basil's death, reports from Damascus began to present Asad's second son, Bashshar, as heir presumptive. Born on September 11, 1965, Bashshar is an ophthalmologist by profession who was serving his internship in Britain at the time of his brother's death. It is not easy at present to gauge Bashshar's personal qualities, let alone his ability to hold the reins of power. He seems far more introverted than his late brother, and not much is known about him.
During mourning ceremonies for Basil, the Syrian media provided Bashshar with generous coverage;23 he then very conspicuously abandoned his medical career and busied himself with activities that had been Basil's bailiwick, such as equestrian competitions and computer conferences.24 He also took up many of Basil's more important responsibilities, serving as commander of a brigade in the Republican Guard and taking responsibility for Lebanese affairs.25 The Syrian press reports that Bashshar has completed an advanced command and control course, and that in early 1995 he attained the rank of major.
But Bashshar is not Basil, and this facile substitution by no means assures him of the succession. Many observers believe that given his youth and lack of practical experience in military and state affairs, his political prospects are slim.26 Asad's effort to install Bashshar as successor is likely to succeed only if Bashshar can be invested with power while his father still rules the country. Bashshar needs the support not only of those loyal to his father (whose allegiance may not necessarily transfer to him) but also of people who would be personally loyal to him. To win such loyalty, Bashshar is likely to become heavily involved in personnel appointments.
That President Asad feels the need to promote one son after another indicates his sense of not having long to live. While his health appears to be stable, he is sixty-four and has suffered a serious heart attack. Further, he admitted in a May 1993 interview that he was beginning to feel his age.27
Rif`at al-Asad. Rif`at al-Asad, a younger brother of the president, is also a possible contender for power. After the president's heart attack in 1983 and Rif`at's failed attempt to promote his undeclared position as heir, he spent seven years in exile (mostly spent in France and Spain),28 then returned to Syria in July 1992. Today, Rif`at serves as vice president for national security affairs, a grand title lacking substance. Reports hold that his clout is in decline,29 but even so, his candidacy cannot be discounted, for he is still one of the most prominent `Alawi figures. He has good connections in the Arab world (mainly with the Saudi royal family) and the West, where he is known to be a pragmatist in economic policy who can integrate Syria in the world economy.30 Indeed, Rif`at is the only claimant to the presidency both experienced and well known. This could lead (as it did in 1983) to the `Alawi community's rallying around him to fend off a Sunni challenge.
`Abd al-Halim Khaddam and Hikmat Shihabi. Other candidates to succeed Asad include Vice President `Abd al-Halim Khaddam and Army Chief of Staff Hikmat Shihabi, two Sunnis in their late fifties in Asad's inner circle. Khaddam, a veteran Ba`th politician from Banyas, has known Asad since their days in Syria's National Union of Students in the early 1950s. He served in the party and government bureaucracy, for example as the governor of Qunaytira in 1967. After Asad seized power in November 1970, Khaddam became minister of foreign affairs, and since 1984 has been vice president for foreign affairs. Shihabi was head of the Military Security Department until 1974; since then, he has been chief of the General Staff. Shihabi oversees the military dimension of the negotiations with Israel, a sign of Asad's confidence in him and their close relationship.
Both Khaddam and Shihabi are suitable compromise candidates should the primarily `Alawi military-security elite engage in a power struggle among themselves and then conclude that they need a compromise Sunni candidate like Shihabi or Khaddam. Or one of them could become president if the `Alawi officers decided to rule Syria from behind the scenes. This eventuality would not indicate a resolution of the tensions in Syria between `Alawis and Sunnis but only that the `Alawi nucleus needs a Sunni envelope of key officials from a rural and peripheral extraction (for example, Khaddam, Tlas, Shar', and others). Placing a Sunni figure on the throne would hide the continuity of `Alawi control over the army (and through the army, over the country at large). However, this would be less than ideal for those `Alawi officers who enjoy economic and political benefits, which might diminish with Sunnis at the top of the government.
Were Asad suddenly to die, additional candidates might join the race, including `Abdallah al-Ahmar, assistant secretary-general of the Ba`th Party; and `Abd ar-Ra'uf al-Kasm, former prime minister and more recently head of the Ba`th Party's Bureau of National Security. Among the `Alawis, possible candidates (at least theoretically) include Safi, Fayyadh, Khuli, and Duba.
WHO DECIDES THE SUCCESSION?
The key actors in the succession drama will likely be Syria's informal ruling elite, the `Alawi commanders of the army and of the state security apparatus. Besides Safi, Fayyadh, Khuli, Duba, and Habib, these might number `Ali Aslan, deputy chief of staff for training and operations; `Adnan Makhluf, commander of the Republican Guard; Ibrahim Huwayji, head of the Air Force Security Directorate; and `Adnan Badr Hasan, head of the Political Security Directorate. Some of these `Alawi officers belong to President Asad's tribe (the Qalbiya), others to his family or that of his wife (the Makhluf).
Asad installed all of these officers. In return for loyalty and obedience to him (quelling the Islamic revolt in 1976-82 and tilting the balance for Hafiz against Rif`at in 1983-84), they have leave to use their power to obtain wealth as well as political influence.31 Now Asad must hope they again demonstrate their loyalty by supporting the candidacy of Bashshar.
The key to the battle for succession lies in whether President Asad will live long enough to complete a transfer of state responsibilities to Bashshar. If he succeeds at this, his son has a good chance of keeping the presidency; if not, Bashshar will have to wage a fierce campaign against powerful rivals unlikely to yield to a green youngster, however illustrious his pedigree.
Those who have occupied positions of power for two decades or more are wary of the change in leadership that will take place upon Asad's death. At the same time, Asad seeks to infuse fresh talent into the ranks of the military-security elite, and this makes inevitable friction between him and them. Even if the `Alawi barons help Bashshar, he will depend on them since they are older and better established than he, making his relationship with them unequal. This realization apparently motivated Asad to begin making personnel changes to bring into the system new officers closer in age to Bashshar, related to him, or in some way dependent on him. These personnel changes further explain the anger of men like `Ali Haydar.
Stability in Syria is ensured so long as Asad is in good health. But when Asad departs the scene, the regime may find it difficult to maintain its unity; it could deteriorate in a chaotic struggle that will topple it from within. The regime's ability to contend with challenges will depend for the foreseeable future on the solidarity of Syria's top ranks. The succession issue thus has existential ramifications for the regime.
The possibility exists of another struggle along the lines of the one in 1983-84, which nearly tore the regime apart. This could either lead to one `Alawi group's dominating another, which would weaken the regime and leave the `Alawi sect divided, or to the rise of new Sunni power centers, such as that of fundamentalist Muslims, Sunni army officers, party officials, or businessmen and merchants of the expanding private sector (some of whom belong to the great families who ruled Syria for centuries before the Ba`th revolution of 1963). The regime's self-destruction--narrowly averted in 1983-84--is a possibility that cannot be discounted.
The current situation in Syria, which involves enthroning Bashshar and making changes among the top cadres, requires Asad to pay increasing attention to domestic affairs. This may diminish his ability to take bold steps in foreign affairs; in particular, it might limit his energies with regard to the peace process with Israel or promoting it among his public.
The current turmoil among the Syrian elite and its drive to build coalitions open the way to Western influence; outside backing for one candidate would give him psychological as well as practical help. This may therefore be an opportunity for the U.S. government to exert leverage on Syria (in the form of economic sanctions or deep involvement in the struggles among the Syrian elite) with regard to such matters as the peace process, terrorism, and drug trafficking. The threats implicit to such pressure might lead the regime increasingly to commit itself to appeasing the United States in an effort to ensure the continuity of the Asad dynasty. At the same time, pressure needs to be used with caution: too much might destroy the Syrian regime and cause its collapse, with dangerous consequences for regional stability. Too little pressure would also lead to problems: were the Asad regime to receive aid before making real changes in its structure and policies, it could continue with too many of the old policies.
The West has a basic choice. It can doing nothing, thereby making it easier for the old guard of Khaddam, the party functionaries, and the army barons to remain in power and maintain the old policies almost without change. In this case, the eruption of a civil war in Syria over the succession issue should not be ruled out. Or the West can help Bashshar, or some other candidate willing to confront the army barons and thereby continue or (given Bashshar's young age and Western education) even accelerate the process of Syria's political and economic rapprochement with the West. Although the latter course looks more risky in the short run, it will in fact render political stability in Syria more likely.
SYRIAN SECURITY FORCES AND APPARATUSES32
Bureau of National Security (Maktab al-Amn al-Qawmi) of the Ba`th Party, under Dr. `Abd ar-Ra'uf al-Kasm, a friend of Asad's since the 1950s, prime minister until 1987. Responsible for coordinating the work of the security apparatuses in Syria.
General Intelligence Directorate (Idarat al-Mukhabarat al-`Amma), under Maj. Gen. Majid Sa`id until September 1994, now under Maj. Gen. Bashir an-Najjar. Deals with safeguarding and preventing subversion against the regime, and with serious crimes, economic and other. The Syrian equivalent of the FBI.
Political Security Directorate (Idarat al-Amn as-Siyasi), under Maj. Gen. `Adnan Badr Hasan. Deals with the inspection of political activity of organized political parties in Syria.
Air Force Intelligence Directorate (Idarat Mukhabarat al-Quwwa al-Jawiya), under Maj. Gen. Muhammad al-Khuli until 1987, now under Maj. Gen. Ibrahim Huwayji. Deals basically with security within the air force, but more generally is responsible for safeguarding the regime. (The Hindawi case is an example of directorate activity beyond the scope of its original tasks.)
Military Intelligence Department (Shu`bat al-Mukhabarat al-`Askariya), under Lt. Gen. `Ali Duba. Handles security within the army, but like all other agencies, deals with the general safeguarding of the regime. The single most important security agency.
MILITARY UNITS WITH SECURITY DUTIES
Republican Guard (al-Haras al-Jumhuri, sometimes called the Presidential Guard), under Asad's wife's nephew, `Adnan Makhluf. A military elite unit the size of a division, subordinated to President Asad. Bashshar commands a Republican Guard brigade.
Other army forces may also be used, in addition to their military tasks, as defenders of the regime. For example, the Special Forces (al-Wahdat al-Khassa) were deployed in 1982 against both the Islamic movement in Hama and against the Israeli army in Lebanon. It was under Maj. Gen. `Ali Haydar (an `Alawi) until July 1994, now under Maj. Gen. `Ali Habib. Another example is the Third Division (al-Firqa ath-Thalitha), until recently under Shafiq Fayyadh. These two units are said to have a majority of `Alawis among their commanders, officers, and even ordinary soldiers.
Lastly, it is worth noting that the Defense Companies (Saraya ad-Difa`), until 1983 under the president's brother, Rif`at al-Asad, have since 1985 been an ordinary division within the army without any special tasks.
1 We know little about these two promotions except that they were made simultaneously in 1994, and that Safi is now commander of the Syrian forces in Lebanon.
2 Patrick Seale, with Maureen McConville, Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East (London: I. B. Tauris, 1988), pp. 421-40.
3 Yedi`ot Ahronot, Sept. 4, 1994. Rabin probably knows more about this matter than he has publicly said.
4 Al-Hayat, Sept. 3, 1994; al-Muharrir, Sept. 26, 1994; Yedi`ot Ahronot, Nov. 25, 1994.
5 Al-Muharrir, Sept. 26, 1994; Yedi`ot Ahronot, Nov. 25, 1994.
6 Al-Hayat, Sept. 3, 1994.
7 Seale, Asad, pp. 475-82.
8 Ath-Thawra, June 2, 1994.
9 Tishrin, Sept. 13, 1993; Syria--Country Profile 1993-94 (London: Economist Publications, 1993), pp. 30-39.
10 Tishrin, July 13, 1994.
11 Al-Ba'th, Sept. 31, 1994; and Oct. 1, 1994; ath-Thawra, Sept. 29, 1994.
12 Middle East Watch, Syria Unmasked (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1991), pp. 41-42.
13 Alasdair Drysdale, "The Succession Question in Syria," Middle East Journal, Spring 1985, pp. 246-57; Seale, Asad, pp. 421-40.
14 Al-Muharrir, Mar. 30, 1992; Akhbar al-Usbu', June 25, 1992.
15 Al-Ba`th, Aug. 16, 1992.
16 He had been called Abu Sulayman, after his grandfather Sulayman (Ma'oz, Asad, p. 24), from birth until the early 1990s (Financial Times, Mar. 18, 1992).
17 The Independent, Oct. 22, 1992.
18 Al-Muharrir, Mar. 30, 1992.
19 Ha'aretz, Jan. 24, 1994; Interview with Yossi Olmert, Yedi`ot Ahronot, Jan. 28, 1994; and Yedi`ot Ahronot, June 16, 1995.
20 Tishrin, Jan. 22, 1994; and Jan. 23, 1994; al-Hayat (London), Jan. 23, 1994.
21 Ath-Thawra, Jan. 23, 1994; al-Hayat, Jan. 23, 1994.
22 Ha'aretz, Jan. 23, 1994; Tishrin, Jan. 23, 1994.
23 Ath-Thawra, Mar. 3, 1994.
24 See, for example, reports on Bashshar's meetings with Lebanese leaders, Ath-Thawra, Feb. 10, 1994; on hisparticipation in the "Ash-Sham" computer conference, al-Ba`th, May 10, 1994; and on his presence at the opening of equestrian championships, al-Ba`th, Apr. 15, 1994.
25 Ash-Sharq al-Awsat, Mar. 7, 1994; al-Wasat, Nov. 17, 1994; al-Wasat, May 7, 1995; and al-Watan al-'Arabi, May 25, 1995.
26 Shayhan, Feb. 5, 1994; ad-Dustur, Sept. 12, 1994.
27 Interview with Patrick Seale, al-Wasat (London), May 10, 1993.
28 Seale, Asad, pp. 421-40.
29 Al-Hayat, Jan. 23, 1994.
30 The Independent, Oct. 22, 1992.
31 Seale, Asad, pp. 421-40.
32 For further details, see Middle East Watch, Syria Unmasked (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1991), oo. 38-53.