Syrians toppled the state and left the Assad regime

The report of the arrest of Bashar Al Assad's spy chief Ali Mamlouk underlines that even those in Syria are thinking past Mr Al Assad, writes Hassan Hassan.

Profound divisions within the regime over the role of Iran continue to take a toll on Bashar Al Assad. EPA
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On Monday, The Daily Telegraph newspaper in the UK reported that Maj Gen Ali Mamlouk had been sacked from his role as Syria’s national security chief over a coup plot.

According to the newspaper, the general, who had reported directly to Bashar Al Assad since 2012, was accused of holding secret talks with countries backing the opposition and exiled members of the Syrian regime.

He is, the newspaper added, one of a growing number of regime loyalists who are discontented with how Iranian generals and advisers now hold sway over the country.

Maj Gen Mamlouk became the National Security Bureau head after the bombing of four top regime officials on July 18, 2012. Before that, he headed the state security intelligence branch, and has been one of the pillars of the Assad regime.


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Within opposition circles he was also tasked with “the manufacturing of pseudo-opposition” inside the country to legitimise the regime and divide its opponents.

He often held “secret” talks with backers of the opposition, including members of the French intelligence in February, as reported by Le Figaro. Also, according to many Syrian sources, high-level regime officers who have left the country either because they defected, resigned or were sidelined, maintain links with officers inside the regime. So the accusations against Maj Gen Mamlouk are credible, even if his sacking is not yet confirmed.

Profound divisions within the regime over the role of Iran continue to take a toll on Mr Al Assad. Sources I have spoken to reveal how the regime is facing a real challenge of military leadership, especially in northern and southern Syria.

Long-standing Alawite officers believe that they, along with their family members, have built Syria’s security and military institutions over decades. When Iranian and Hizbollah officers started to take a lead role in the conflict in 2011, many of those officers felt alienated. While such tensions do not always bring action, such discontent is becoming more obvious as generals leave their jobs to sit at home or leave the country. Many of them blame the president for mismanaging the conflict and for empowering Iranian and Hizbollah operatives at the expense of the army generals.

The sources say that high-level army leadership that commanded the military for decades is now almost non-existent. Instead, the regime replaced them with lower-ranking officers who had little experience and so became reliant on Hizbollah and the Iranians. Since the conflict began, scores of officers have exited the stage – either killed in action, assassinated, defected or because they simply preferred to stay on the sidelines. Some other officials have left the country.

Even though such officials oppose the president’s policies, most of them have not sided with the opposition or gone public about their discontent. When asked why such officers do not organise to replace Mr Al Assad, one source, who does not hide his contempt for the opposition, said the officers prefer to disengage from politics as “organising requires massive resources and is highly risky”. While officers are opposed to Iranian dominance, that does not mean they necessarily look for a change from outside the inner circle. The main concern, for some of them, is that the army is crumbling in favour of militias and those backed by Iran, which will consequently mean the regime is unsustainable.

Iran has focused on building the National Defence Forces (NDF), a paramilitary force bankrolled by Tehran. The focus on the NDF and negligence towards the army may very well be a major cause of the recent setbacks facing the Syrian regime in Idlib and Deraa, as the military shows signs of fragility. Most of the gains made by the rebels since December were swift, lasting anywhere from a few hours to four days. Besides focus on the NDF militias, the military has been weakened over the past four years, as many of the army soldiers remained in their barracks because the regime feared mass defection and high-level officers were neutralised for various reasons.

Any area where the regime relies on the organised military as a line of defence, rather than local militias, faces a serious challenge of leadership and resources. Over the course of the conflict so far, the army defied expectations of a swift collapse. But the absence of its traditional leadership and the focus on the NDF as a substitute for it are bad news for those advocating the protection of the country’s institutions. As one of the sources said, Syrians rose up to topple the regime and preserve the state, but they toppled the state and preserved the regime.

Hassan Hassan is a Middle East analyst and co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror

On Twitter: @hxhassan