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In early 1987, the Syrian government remained an autocracy in
which power was concentrated in the hands of President Assad.
Assad (the name means "lion" in Arabic and was chosen by Assad to
replace his actual family name of Al Wahash, which means "beast")
had tightened his grip in sixteen years as chief of state.
Assad's leadership was legitimized through such governmental
structures as the Baath Party apparatus, the People's Council,
and the Council of Ministers. These institutions, however, were a
veneer for military rule, and the holders of nominally important
political posts rarely wielded independent power. Assad's true
base of support lay in his control of key military units, various
praetorian guards, and the intelligence and security services.
The commando forces, bodyguards, and secret police--referred to
generically by Syrian citizens as the mukhabarat--were
instrumental in maintaining the Assad regime's power. The men
Assad entrusted with command of these forces often exerted
political influence disproportionate to their official positions
and had a greater political voice than civilian politicians.
Ultimately, however, Assad was more inclined to designate
responsibility to his underlings than to delegate authority to
Until the mid-1980s, the Syrian power elite was composed of
Assad and his family. The president's younger brother, Rifaat,
commanded a division-sized praetorian guard called the Defense
Companies (Saraya ad Difa), which was stationed in Damascus as a
countercoup force. His older brother, Jamil al Assad, commanded a
militia called the Murtada. A nephew, Adnan al Assad, commanded
the Struggle Companies (Saraya as Sira), while another nephew,
Fawwaz, led a security force stationed in Latakia. These commando
forces were not under the command of the regular armed forces;
rather, they were constructed as counterweights to the power of
the regular military. Jamil was put under house arrest in 1981
after an unsuccessful challenge to his brother, and in 1984
Rifaat was exiled to Europe and his Defense Companies
incorporated into the army when he likewise sought to attain
power. Assad was therefore compelled to dilute the power of his
family members because they posed a threat to him.
In 1987 Assad was not the apex of a pyramid of power nor had
he created a hierarchical power elite below him. Rather, he
relied on a coterie of about a dozen men with approximately equal
power who commanded key military units or security services. In
competing to protect their positions, they counterbalanced and
neutralized each other. Their areas of responsibility were
compartmentalized and overlapping, and they reported directly to
the president rather than coordinating with their counterparts.
Consequently, they could not easily build their own power bases
or form coalitions that might pose a threat to Assad's rule.
This cell structure allowed Assad to retain power in Syria
for an unprecedented period of time. Most of the elite group
belonged to Assad's Alawi minority, and many belonged to Assad's
own Numaylatillah clan and Matawirah tribe within the Alawi
minority. Some were related to the president and to each other by
blood or marriage, further ensuring their loyalty. Moreover,
Assad reportedly had been assiduous in paying homage to the Alawi
traditional tribal elders to reinforce this minority power base.
In theory, the most important men in Syria after the
president were the vice presidents. However, Assad's appointment
of three vice presidents in 1985 reflected the divide-and-rule
strategy he applied elsewhere in the government. In order to
maintain family solidarity, Rifaat al Assad was made vice
president for security affairs, but by 1987, stripped of his
military command, he had no real power. As a matter of protocol
to symbolize the continued importance of the party, Baath Party
functionary Zuhayr Mashariqa, a Sunni Muslim, was appointed vice
president for party affairs. Abd al Halim Khaddam, the former
foreign minister, was promoted to vice president for political
and foreign affairs. Of the three vice presidents, Khaddam acted
as the true deputy to Assad and was firmly ensconced in the
president's inner circle. In early 1987, foreign observers tended
to view Khaddam as a candidate to succeed Assad as a compromise
Non-Alawis were also influential in the Assad regime.
Khaddam, for example, was a Sunni Muslim (athough his wife was a
Matawirah Alawi). Prime Minister Abd ar Rauf al Kassim, Speaker
of the People's Council Mahmud az Zubi, Baath Party assistant
secretary general Abdallah al Ahmar, and Armed Forces Chief of
Staff Hikmat Shihabi were other Sunni Muslims holding high
government positions in 1987. Minister of Defense Mustafa Tlas
was also a Sunni Muslim, although his mother was an Alawi. Most
Sunnis who had risen to prominence in the military since the
Baath Revolution, including Shihabi and Tlas, had a similar
background: they were born in and grew up in rural villages,
rather than in Damascus or other large cities. Such men, although
belonging to the nation's Sunni majority, were never members of
the old privileged Sunni elite and shared a common socioeconomic
class origin with the new minority elite. Assad's refusal to
designate a successor was typical of his refusal to share
political power. His mysterious demeanor seemed to justify his
nickname, "the sphinx," which he earned while a member of the
secret officers' conspiracy in Egypt in the late 1950s.
In 1980, however, Assad began to cultivate the support of
members of the old Sunni Damascene elite, a class that contained
many of Syria's influential technocrats, intellectuals, and
merchants. He propelled some of these people into high-profile
(if not powerful) positions in his government. Assad's patronage
gave the Sunni elite a vested interest in accommodating itself to
the new order, which helped legitimize and stabilize his regime.
For example, Prime Minister Kassim is from an old Damascene
family. Minister of Culture Najah al Attar is the sister of
exiled Muslim Brotherhood opposition leader Issam al Attar.
Because the Attar family is respected by Damascene Sunni Muslims,
her appointment served to discourage the Muslim fundamentalist
opposition from operating in Damascus.
Another less-known pillar of regime support was the tacit
coalition of minorities that Assad had constructed. Non-Muslims
such as Christians and Druze's, heterodox Muslims such as
Ismailis and Yazidis, and non-Arab Muslims such as Kurds and
Circassians had made common cause with the Alawi minority because
of the shared fear that they would be persecuted under an
orthodox Sunni government. Consequently, members of such minority
groups were appointed to important posts in the Assad government.
In addition to these groups, several important and
influential military figures supported Assad in 1987. Major
General Muhammad Khawli, chief of air force intelligence and head
of the National Security Council, was Assad's right-hand man.
Khawli was a Matawirah Alawi and a long-time trusted friend of
Assad. His position was especially sensitive because Assad rose
to power through the air force, and this service has been the
breeding ground for several abortive coup attempts. Khawli's
deputy, Lieutenant Colonel Haitam as Said, was allegedly involved
in sponsorship of terrorism in Europe
(see Sponsorship of Terrorism
, ch. 5). Ali Aslan, also a Matawirah Alawi, was deputy
chief of staff of the armed forces. Aslan, a rising political
star, was promoted to army corps general in 1984, a rank shared
only by the minister of defense and the armed forces chief of
staff. Both Khawli and Aslan were elected to the Baath Party
Central Committee in 1984. Adnan Makhluf, the president's
brother-in-law, commanded the Republican Guard, a presidential
protection force. Other core members of the Syrian power elite in
1987 included Air Defense Commander Ali Salih and Army
Intelligence Chief Ali Duba, both Alawis of the Matawirah tribe.
In 1987 Duba reportedly was leader of a clique that included Army
First Division Commander Ibrahim Safi and Syria's intelligence
chief in Lebanon, Ghazi Kanaan; this coterie was competing for
influence with a group led by Khawli and Aslan.
Members of the power elite occasionally fall from grace.
After the 1984 power struggle, General Intelligence Directorate
Chief Ahmad Diab, a staunch supporter of Rifaat's bid for
succession, was demoted. However, Assad, pursuing his evenhanded
policy, also chastised Rifaat's rivals for power; Ali Haydar,
commander of the Special Forces, and commander of the army's
Third Division Shafiq al Fayyad were removed from their commands
as well. Rifaat al Assad was exiled to Western Europe once again
in early 1986, where he remained in early 1987. These men
probably could be rehabilitated and restored to rank if they
proved their renewed loyalty to Assad.
In 1987 the power elite remained in a state of flux in which
people were rising to power, being demoted, being rehabilitated,
and forming and breaking alliances. Assad permitted and
manipulated much of this maneuvering because it both revealed and
dissipated the ambitions of potential rivals.
In 1987 the question of who will eventually succeed Assad as
president remained open. In a 1984 interview, Assad stated that
his successor would be nominated by the Baath Party and the
People's Council, which constituted the "supreme legitimate
authority in the country," and elected by public referendum.
Although Assad has governed Syria through a power elite, his
answer expressed his desire for Syria to be governed in the
future by institutions rather than personalities.
Data as of April 1987