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Alexey Khlebnikov

Middle East expert and Russian foreign policy analyst, MSc Global Public Policy, Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota. PhD candidate, RIAC expert.

The role of the military and security services has been crucial to the stability of regimes in the Middle East for the last seven decades. Militarization of the ruling elites in the region was inherent in these societies as the wave of anti-colonial revolutions initiated by army officers in the late 1940s and 1950s brought them to power. Back then, they were the only force capable of taking power and ultimately protecting their countries’ independence and integrity.

In this regard, the Syrian context is very important, as the military and security apparatus in Syria is one of the most powerful and most incorporated into the country’s regime in the region, which makes it crucial to regime survival.

The four intelligence directorates are Military Intelligence (MI), Air Force Intelligence (AFI), the Political Security Directorate (PSD), and the General Intelligence Directorate (GID). Although theoretically some agencies are subordinate to the Defense Ministry or Interior Ministry, in practice, all agencies respond directly to the president and have a high degree of institutional independence.

Syria’s military and security forces also play a key institutional role, which has kept the country from total collapse during the last six years of war. This is why there is a legitimate concern about them being disbanded or reformed in an abrupt way; it might have negative repercussions for state integrity.

Even after the military defeat of major terrorist organizations in Syria, the threat of their resurgence is there to stay. It seems now that the only possible scenario involves major actors in the crisis exerting their influence on the opposition and government to start talks on political transition and ultimately initiate it. Without external observation and pressure, such a process seems almost impossible.

The role of the military and security services has been crucial to the stability of regimes in the Middle East for the last seven decades. Militarization of the ruling elites in the region was inherent in these societies as the wave of anti-colonial revolutions initiated by army officers in the late 1940s and 1950s brought them to power. Back then, they were the only force capable of taking power and ultimately protecting their countries’ independence and integrity.

For decades, the military and security apparatus have formed the elites in the majority of MENA countries. This has resulted in a ruling system that gives significant privileges to those who have served in the military or security forces. Moreover, in order to reduce the danger of concentrating power in one set of hands and minimize chances of a coup, the size and structures of the military and security institutions have been constantly changed and shuffled. This has led to the huge and highly fragmented structure of the security and military apparatus. As a major pillar of the existing state structure in most Middle Eastern countries, army and security services contribute (more or less) to the regimes’ rigidity and therefore to state stability.

One of the most important factors that determines whether security and military structures are key to a regime’s rigidity is their involvement in the political and economic life of their country. If the military and security circles have a big stake in the country’s economy or political regime, they are more devoted to defending existing structures, striving to keep their privileges and social status, and play a primary role in the country’s politics. This is just the case in Egypt and Syria, where the military and security do all they can to keep their grip on power.

If military/security involvement in political and economic life is limited or almost absent, or if it is under tight control (like in Tunisia, Lebanon, Turkey since Erdogan’s rise to power, Iran, etc.), military and security services are less likely to defend the existing regime and its structures, and less inclined to act in a time of turmoil.

In this regard, the Syrian context is very important, as the military and security apparatus in Syria is one of the most powerful and most incorporated into the country’s regime in the region, which makes it crucial to regime survival.

Syrian security apparatus — “mukhabarat”

The Syrian security services’ primary goal (like in the majority of Arab states) is to ensure the regime’s survival. Syria's four main intelligence agencies are directly under the control of the Syrian president, and have overlapping functions, so that the regime is not overly dependent on any one of them. It helps to keep them in competition, without one dominating the others.

There are four general directorates supervised by the National Security Bureau (NSB), which is a Ba'ath Party bureau directly subordinated to the president’s office. After the deadly terror attack in Damascus on July 18, 2012, when several key Syrian regime figures were killed, including Defense Minister and Army General Dawoud Rajiha, Assad's brother-in-law, Deputy Head of the Armed Forces and Director of the NSB Assef Shawkat, , and others, the Bureau was made directly subordinate to the president’s office. Assad appointed a trusted figure, National Security Advisor Ali Mamlouk, to be the new director of the NSB. Under his leadership, the Bureau shifted its focus from coordinating the security services and submitting general periodic reports to drafting security policies for the country, thus concentrating more power in one place.

The four intelligence directorates are Military Intelligence (MI), Air Force Intelligence (AFI), the Political Security Directorate (PSD), and the General Intelligence Directorate (GID). Although theoretically some agencies are subordinate to the Defense Ministry or Interior Ministry, in practice, all agencies respond directly to the president and have a high degree of institutional independence.

General Intelligence Directorate (إدارة المخابرات العامة — Idarat al-Mukhabarat al-‘Amma)

The GID is the main civilian security service in the country, and is directly subordinate to the president without going through any state body or ministry, except when coordinating with the NSB. The GID is divided into three main departments.

The internal security division is in charge of internal surveillance of the population in general (this overlaps with the PSD’s responsibilities). It is tasked with counter-espionage and control over opposition political groups, foreigners, and religious and ethnic minorities (like the Muslim Brotherhood). The Directorate deals with the fight against corruption and drug trafficking.

The other two deal with issues abroad: one is the external security department, which is in charge of controlling and eliminating opponents abroad, controlling and protecting Syria's diplomatic offices, and espionage; the second deals with Palestine, controlling the activities of Palestinian groups in Syria and Lebanon.

The GID has 12 central branches in addition to active sub-branches in each province.

Political Security Directorate (إدارة الأمن السياسي — Idarat al-Amn as-Siyasi)

Although administratively the PSD is subordinate to the Ministry of the Interior, it does not report to it. It reports directly to the president and has supervisory authority over the Minister of Interior, his officers, and staff, including the police.

This directorate’s most important branches deal with political parties, hotels, clubs, restaurants, students, employees, parties, and commercial and industry licensing. In general, it focuses on organized political forces and possible political activities, along with monitoring and overseeing government institutions. Its tasks include fighting against all political opposition, dissidents, and political parties that could undermine the current leadership; controlling and censoring the press and mass media; and monitoring foreigners in Syria and their communication with locals.

Covering the entire country and all segments of society and interacting directly with citizens, the PSD is now the most extensive directorate. It prepares special reports and studies based on a wide network of informants.

The Directorate has branches in Damascus, as well as 13 branches located in the rest of the provinces.

Military Intelligence Directorate (شعبة المخابرات العسكرية — Shu'bat al-Mukhabarat al-'Askariyya)

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The MID is the foremost and largest military intelligence body in Syria. Despite the fact that the Directorate is theoretically under Defense Ministry jurisdiction, it reports directly to the president, and the Ministry does not have authority over it. Moreover, the MID is involved in the process of appointing the Defense Minister, his deputies, and his chiefs of staff. Its own chief is appointed by the president.

Its main responsibility is to obtain primary military intelligence on Syria’s adversaries and to monitor the security of military personnel and installations. The Directorate oversees other security services’ activities and monitors their behaviors to check their loyalty. Additionally, it is believed that the MID is responsible for providing Palestinian, Lebanese, and Turkish extremist groups with military and logistical support, and for monitoring political dissidents abroad.

Air Force Intelligence Directorate (إدارة المخابرات الجوية — Idarat al-Mukhabarat al-Jawiyya)

The Air Force Intelligence is known for being the most loyal state body and possessing the strongest manpower and best technical skills of all the security services. It was established during the early days of Hafez al-Assad’s stint as commander of the Air Force. Not coincidently, it is also treated as the most influential and powerful security service in Syria since Hafez al-Assad’s time. Despite its being theoretically subordinated to the Defense Ministry in terms of its administration, finances, and armaments acquisition, the minister does not have any authority over it. The AFI, along with the MID, watches over the minister’s work and plays an important role in his appointment.

Initially the prime goal of Air Force Intelligence was to protect Syria’s military weaponry, in addition to the president’s airplane, his safety while abroad, and the security of embassies. With time its responsibilities expanded beyond military matters. The Directorate has also become involved in combat missions against anti-regime groups. It managed the operations against the Muslim Brotherhood revolt in Hama in the 1980s and against Hizb at-Tahrir in December 1999, played an important role in arresting the regime’s civilian opponents, and organized secret operations abroad.

The Directorate has six subordinate branches in Damascus, its own investigations branch, and six branches in the provinces.

Transition Challenges for the Syrian Security Services

As mentioned above, all Syrian intelligence agencies have a number of overlapping responsibilities. In peacetime, that allowed Assad to cross-check their activities and make sure none of them were becoming overly dominant. With the start of the civil war, the entire security apparatus started to focus more on territorial control and repression of the opposition and the insurgents. As a result, these agencies now fulfill a policeman’s role more than an intelligence one.

In Syria, where the security apparatus and armed forces play a crucial role in the existing system and the military phase of the civil war is coming to the end, the question of structural reforms and changes will be among the key ones. Considering that the Syrian intelligence services were deeply involved in the country’s system of management, oppression, and interrogation, and later in the civil war, their status and the question of systemic, functional change are going to be on the agenda of the parties in the conflict.

There are certain obstacles to such reforms, as security matters traditionally play an important role, especially in recent decades (in the Middle East) and years (in Syria). That is why compromise on this issue is going to be a huge roadblock for opposition groups and the Syrian government.

Several important questions now arise. When should restructuring take place? Before or after political reforms, or simultaneously alongside them? In order to answer this question, one needs to consider the main obstacles to reform in military and security institutions in Syria, as well as possible steps towards compromise.

Bad Security and Institutional Environment

As was previously mentioned, the four branches of the Syrian intelligence apparatus operate independently and generally outside the control of the legal system, and all four repress internal dissent and monitor individual citizens. Moreover, they directly report to the president.

In other words, the intelligence network in Syria is designed by the regime to serve its interests and thereby ensure its survival. This means that security apparatus restructuring goes hand in hand with the fate of the country’s leadership, political reforms and change in state structures. So far, those questions are the most sensitive and hard to compromise on.

The military and security forces also play a key institutional role, which has kept the country from total collapse during the last six years of war. This is why there is a legitimate concern about them being disbanded or reformed in an abrupt way; it might have negative repercussions for state integrity. In light of this, Russia’s leadership argued that one of the main reasons it decided to deploy its forces to Syria was the risk of institutional collapse. Moscow referred to the Syrian army and security services, which are key state institutions in a time of turmoil. Russia often uses the example of Iraq to demonstrate the results of an abrupt change in a country’s military and intelligence that led to the total dysfunction of state security institutions.

Even after the military defeat of major terrorist organizations in Syria, the threat of their resurgence is there to stay. This will force any government or transition government to focus on solid measures that can provide an adequate response to security challenges. As a result, it will slow down the reform process, as the majority of the opposition calls to disband all security services.

Because of this, reformation of the Syrian security and military apparatus is even more complicated than it seems. On one hand, security is absolutely necessary and important in the context of any transition process. It is a precondition for the launch of political processes (and security services and the military, among other actors, must provide it). On the other hand, in the Syrian reality, a large part of the opposition seeks to dismantle all regime-related forces, which will lead to insecurity. As a result, a very cautious approach should be implemented, one which will simultaneously initiate restructuring of the security apparatus under public and/or international scrutiny and allow existing structures to provide security. Otherwise, there is a high risk of another escalation.

In addition to that, the task of rebuilding trust between Syrian intelligence structures and society is enormous. This is why a political process should be launched to initiate reform of the intelligence services in Syria. This process should help bring positive results on less sensitive issues that are required to precede with more complicated ones. Such a process is only possible when both sides of the conflict are ready to compromise. For now, prospects of this look dim.

It seems now that the only possible scenario involves major actors in the crisis exerting their influence on the opposition and government to start talks on political transition and ultimately initiate it. Without external observation and pressure, such a process seems almost impossible.


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  1. Korean Peninsula Crisis Has no Military Solution. How Can It Be Solved?
    Demilitarization of the region based on Russia-China "Dual Freeze" proposal  
     36 (35%)
    Restoring multilateral negotiation process without any preliminary conditions  
     27 (26%)
    While the situation benefits Kim Jong-un's and Trump's domestic agenda, there will be no solution  
     22 (21%)
    Armed conflict still cannot be avoided  
     12 (12%)
    Stonger deterrence on behalf of the U.S. through modernization of military infrastructure in the region  
     4 (4%)
    Toughening economic sanctions against North Korea  
     2 (2%)
 
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