Assad Purges Armed Forces, Keeps up Anti-US Terror Front

Obeying a tradition of more than a quarter of a century, the Syrian army shifts some officers around twice a year – in summer and winter. It is a game of musical chairs with little impact on the armed forces as a whole.
This time was different.
On June 1, DEBKA-Net-Weekly exclusive military sources uncovered the largest single purge in the annals of Syria’s armed forces that was carried out on the orders of President Bashar Assad.
Forty percent of the staff officers with the general command in Damascus were dismissed or forced into retirement; half the Syrian divisional commanders in Syria and Lebanon relieved of their duties – laid off or assigned to minor staff positions in Damascus and elsewhere. The top level of the Syrian air force has been peeled off and replaced with younger men – except for the top commander and the head of its intelligence branch.
Hundreds of officers were swept away in the purge – according to our sources, on the advice of General Ali Aslan, the late Hafez Assad’s most trusted military adviser. Aslan, now retired, advised Bashar’s father for years on how to keep his minority Allawi sect firmly in control of the regime and the opposition from raising its head. Assad Senior’s agents were planted deep inside in Muslim and Palestinian groups In the 1970s and 1980s in obedience to one of Aslan tactics.
Assad junior’s purge appears to be aimed primarily at cutting military spending by slashing its largest budget, namely wages. But he also needs to solidify his grip on the military. Last month, Mustafa Tlas, who at 72 is still regarded as Syria’s strongman, retired as defense minister. Aslan warned the president against further direct moves against Tlas, but rather to take advantage of his exit to cut him off from his power bases in the armed forces.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military experts do not see the purge leading to radical changes in the Syrian army command structure, the deployment of Syrian divisions or the firepower available to its antiquated military. At best, Syria’s warplanes and navigation systems date back to the mid-1980s. The navy’s missile boats are in such bad shape that no competent task force can be mustered. Quite simply, Assad is short of the cash to modernize his military. The only fully functional segment of Syria’s defense system are the military industries a military intelligence. Large funded by Iranian money, Syrian factories turn out short-to-medium-range Scud C and D surface-to-surface missiles, various types of weaponized chemical substances and some biological warfare items.
Our military sources note that, for the relatively modest investment of $45 million to $60 million a year, Iran has acquired control over the most sophisticated sectors of Syria’s military industries. They are available as Tehran’s backdoor suppliers of missiles, non-conventional weapons and ammunition for any contingency, such as the Iranian armed forces or a surrogate, like the Hizballah, being called upon to fight in a part of the Middle East that is far from the Islamic Republic’s borders.
debkafile‘s military analysts note that while the Syrian army is not directly mixed up in US-insurgent warfare in Iraq, its military intelligence remains a separate and potent instrument of the Assad regime’s strategic policies. This entity is currently proactive on four fronts:
1. Iraq. Syrian military intelligence supports the Baathist guerrilla campaign by recruiting, training and dispatching combatants to Iraq from among the terrorist groups Assad sponsors such as the Lebanese Hizballah and such radical Palestinian organizations as the Jihad Islami and Jibril’s Popular Front – General Command. Recruiting also takes place in Syrian city slum districts and among Palestinian refugee camp inmates with Syrian citizenship.
2. Palestinian front. Syrian military intelligence engages in smuggling on this border too – arranging for Hizballah and radical Palestinian combatants, arms and money to infiltrate the West Bank via the Golan Heights.
3. Hizballah. The military and intelligence alignment between Syria and the Hizballah is as close as ever. As we reported last week, the sporadic attacks the Lebanese Shiite group has been carrying out against northern Israel were at the behest of President Assad who demanded an escalation of war tension.
4. Al Qaeda. Damascus persists in disavowing involvement in al Qaeda’s operations and its adherents’ participation in the Iraq war. Nonetheless, Syria is still the main highway taken by Osama bin Laden’s followers and other anti-US combatants for entering Iraq.
Assad appeared to step briefly out of character last month when he ordered arrests of volunteers for the Iraq war, including al Qaeda members. The aberration did not stem from penitence but was the outcome of an in-family Assad episode that came to a head in the purported April 27 terrorist attack in the Maza diplomatic quarter of Damascus. The strike was carried out with the familiar terrorist weapons of a car bomb, machine guns, grenades and rockets; the (empty) UN offices were set on fire and the Canadian embassy targeted. The only odd feature was its location in the state capital of a prime terrorist sponsor.
A thick blanket of secrecy was quickly drawn over the episode. Initially, debkafile and DEBKA-Net-Weekly identified the perpetrators as Syrian al Qaeda members back from fighting in Fallujah. Since then, our sources discovered that, although al Qaeda members were involved, this was not an authentic terror attack. European-based Rifaat Assad, Bashar’s uncle has a running dispute with the owners of a building and parcel of land in the al Maza quarter. Claiming they cheated him out of the property, he hired al Qaeda heavies living in Damascus as hit-men to blow up his opponent’s family home and make it look like a terror attack. The president, once he caught on to his uncle’s game, scrambled to hush it up before the full extent of al Qaeda operatives sheltering in Damascus was discovered.

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