According to a tradition going back more than a quarter of a century, the Syrian army shifts various officers round twice a year – in summer and winter. This game of musical chairs is usually incidental and has little impact on the armed forces as a whole.
This time was different.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s exclusive military sources have uncovered the largest single purge in the annals of Syria’s armed forces carried out on the orders of President Bashar Assad.
Forty percent of the staff officers serving in the general command in Damascus have been dismissed or forced into retirement; half of the Syrian divisional commanders in Syria and Lebanon relieved of their duties – laid off or assigned insignificant 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 have been caught up in the purge.
According to our sources, Assad made the grand sweep on the advice of General Ali Aslan, his late father’s most trusted military adviser. Aslan, now retired, advised Hafez Assad for years on how to keep his minority Allawi sect firmly in control of the regime and prevent the rise of rivals. In the 1970s and 1980s, Assad senior had Muslim and Palestinian terrorist groups deeply penetrated by his agents 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 base 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. Syria’s warplanes and navigation systems date back, at latest, to the mid-1980s. Its missile boats are in such bad shape that the navy can no longer deploy any competent task force. Quite simply, Assad doesn’t have the cash to modernize his military. The only fully functional segment of Syria’s defense system is the military industries. Large funded by Iranian money, they 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 can be used 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.
In addition to reshuffling the military, Assad took two epic steps.
He began a process of reconciliation with the Muslim Brotherhood after a feud of two decades. In 1982, his father ordered Alawite-commanded troops to massacre an estimated 20,000 Islamic insurgents in the northern Syrian city of Hama. The Syrian president entered into the first direct talks since then with the sect’s representatives in European exile.
The second step was to order wide-scale arrests among the Syrian and Palestinian slum dwellers of Damascus who signed up at recruitment centers in Syria to fight the Americans in Iraq.
He was impelled to both these steps by domestic concerns.
Assad’s intelligence services warned him that Islamic movements in Syria are growing too strong to be brushed aside any longer. He therefore summoned influential Muslim Brotherhood leaders from around the Arab world for secret talks at the presidential palace in April.
Yusuf al-Qardawi, al Jazeera television station’s senior Muslim preacher and head of the European Council for Fatwa and Research – ECFR.
Fathi Yegen, secretary general of Jamaa al-Islamiya, another name for the Muslim Brotherhood in Lebanon. Yegen is based in the southern Lebanese port of Sidon.
Hamza Mansour, a Jordanian legislator who also serves as secretary general of the Islamic Action Front, a cover name for the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan where the organization is banned.
The main topic of their talks was permission for Ali Bayanuni to return home. This Syrian Muslim Brotherhood leader has lived in exile in Europe since the 1980s along with several dozen activists and their families.
Suddenly, on Monday, June 7, Assad without warning performed an across-the-board turnabout:
1. He broke off his dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood. 2. He issued a decree banning all political activity including the publication of newspapers for the twenty small political parties which make up the Syrian opposition. 3. All imported printed matter was seized at post offices.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources have discovered there were several causes for the Syrian president’s abrupt about face.
The dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood was broken off in reprisal for a snub administered by Bayanunu who announced he wanted no more negotiations. The Syrian president could not afford to let this slap in the face go unanswered without losing face in the Arab world.
As regards the ban on political activity, this Assad imposed after learning that the opposition was preparing large-scale sit-down strikes by hundreds of protesters waving placards calling for constitutional amendments to give Syrians more liberty and rights and the abolition of the military regulations in force since 1982.
The arrests of volunteers for the Iraq war against the Americans had a separate rationale that stemmed from the purported April 27 terrorist attack in the Maza diplomatic quarter of Damascus.
DEBKAfile and DEBKA-Net-Weekly both reported at the time that a car bomb accompanied by machine gun, grenade and rocket assaults set UN offices on fire and singled out the Canadian embassy. We also cited the perpetrators as being Syrian al Qaeda members returned home from fighting in the Iraqi city of Fallujah.
Our intelligence sources have come upon fresh information on this incident. They say that although al Qaeda members took part, it was no terror attack. Syrian fighters were hired by the European-based Rifaat Assad, the late president’s brother and Bashar’s uncle, to put muscle behind his business dispute over property with the family that owns a building and parcel of land in the al Maza quarter. Assad contends he was cheated out of the property. He therefore found mercenaries to blow up his business opponent’s family home and make it look like a terror attack. Once he got word of his uncle’s game, president Assad scrambled to hush it up.
But his security agents brought him an unforeseen windfall. The hired al Qaeda hit-men were carrying cell phones containing the numbers of their comrades in Damascus and the Palestinians associated with them.
Arrests soon followed.