Middle East Intelligence Bulletin
Jointly published by the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon and the Middle East Forum
  Vol. 2   No. 7 Table of Contents
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5 August 2000 

Syria's Praetorian Guards: A Primer

As Bashar Assad has consolidated his authority in the aftermath of the late President Hafez Assad's death in June, the Western media has focused on the formal transfer of power by the ruling Ba'ath party and formal institutions of the Syrian state. Underneath this formal veneer of power, however, the survival of the regime inherited by Bashar will continue to be dependent on the Alawite-dominated intelligence services, profiled in last month's issue [see Syria's Intelligence Services: A Primer, MEIB, July 2000], and the so-called "praetorian guards"--politically relevant military units stationed in and around Damascus. The latter are profiled in this report.

The Republican Guard

The Republican Guard (sometimes called the Presidential Guard) is the most important force protecting the regime from domestic threats and the only one with clearance to deploy within the capital itself. The 10,000-strong force is responsible for maintaining security throughout central Damascus, particularly the Presidential Palace and the Malki residential neighborhood where most top Syrian officials live.

The late Syrian president established the guard in 1976, after a series of violent attacks in Damascus by Palestinian groups opposed to Syrian involvement in Lebanon, and entrusted it to Adnan Makhlouf, a cousin of his wife. Only men of unquestioned loyalty have been appointed to its officer corps. It is said that in order to ensure their continued loyalty, the Republican Guard directly receives a significant share of revenue from oil fields in the Dayr al-Zur region.

In June 1995, Maj. Gen. Makhlouf was relieved of command (reportedly after a clash with Bashar), though he continues to be somewhat influential. Since then, the Guard has been commanded by Gen. Ali Mahmud Hasan, an Alawite in his late 50's.

Bashar, it should be noted, served as an officer in the Guard while being groomed for the presidency and has developed close contacts with many of its officers. Several figures close to Bashar have important positions in the Republican Guard. Maher Assad, his younger brother, is a brigade commander, recently promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel. Bashar's personal secretary, Lt. Gen. Abd al-Fatah al-Qudsi, is the head of the Republican Guard security branch.

The Special Forces

The Special Forces consist of around 10,000-15,000 elite commandos, organized into 8-10 independent regiments, and the 14th Airborne Division. The Special Forces are headquartered at al-Qutayfeh, about twenty-five miles northeast of the capital, but some of the units have been stationed in the past at other sensitive locations in Syria (Jabal Qasyun, a mountain overlooking Damascus, and the port of Tartus) and Lebanon (Bhamdun and Tripoli).

The commander of the Special Forces from 1968 until 1994 was Maj. Gen. Ali Haydar, a member of the Alawite Haddadin clan from the village of Hillat Ara in Jableh. In 1984, Haydar's troops were instrumental in blocking an abortive attempt by Rifaat Assad and his Defense Companies to seize the capital.

In 1994, Haydar expressed objections to the Syrian president's decision to bring Bashar home from his studies in Britain and groom him for the succession after the death of Basil, the eldest Assad son. He was quickly relieved of his duties and arrested shortly thereafter. His replacement, Maj. Gen. Ali Habib, is a member of the Alawite Matawirah clan from Safita who formerly commanded the Seventh Mechanized Division and led Syrian forces in the 1991 Gulf War.

Other Important Units

The following units are deployed on the outskirts of Damascus and play a critical role in the defense of the capital (not least of all against potentially rebellious military units stationed elsewhere in Syria).

The Third Armored Division

The Third Armored Division has been commanded since 1978 by Gen. Shafiq Fayyad, a cousin of Hafez Assad (the son of his aunt) from the village of Ayn al-Arus in Jableh. This division played a key role in the regime's suppression of Islamist activity in the Aleppo area during the early 1980's. In 1984, Fayyad's units moved into the capital to join Haydar's forces in the confrontation with Rifaat Assad's Defense Companies. Although one of Fayyad's sons is married to a daughter of Rifaat, his loyalty to Bashar is virtually unquestioned.

The Fourth Armored Division

The fourth armored division is a relatively new incarnation which evolved from Rifaat Assad's Defense Companies. After Rifaat's attempted coup in 1984, this force was downsized to about 15,000-20,000 men and shorn of its intelligence service and airborne units. The current commander of this division, Brig. Gen. Hikmat Ibrahim, is an Alawite close to the Assad family.

The Struggle Companies (Saraya al-Sira')

This 5,000-strong unit is deployed along the perimeter of the capital. It has been commanded since 1973 by Maj. Gen Adnan Assad, a cousin of the late Syrian president.

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