Five Syrian generals received invitations to lunch with president Bashar Assad at his Damascus palace Sunday, August 8. They were not exactly delighted with the menu.
“I want to thank you for your dedicated service, your loyalty to me and everything you did for my father and I,” Assad told the generals – deputy defense minister Ahmed Abd al-Nabi, deputy chief of staff Farouk Issa, division commander Tawfik Jalil, deputy defense chief Ibrahim Safi and manpower chief Abdel Rahman Sayad.
The stunned expressions on all five faces were testimony to the heads on the chopping block. The generals had thought they were in the clear after having escaped the massive purge Assad carried out several months ago. (See “Assad Purges Armed Forces”, DEBKA-Net-Weekly 161, June 16). And, they were sure their jobs were fully insured – the ailing Hafez Assad had charged them before his death in 2000 to look after his son after he was gone. He made them swear to watch over Bashar and teach the young and inexperienced leader the ropes of governance.
After Hafez died, the five generals were true to their word, arranging for the physical protection of Bashar and his family and guiding his first political and military steps – so much so that they became popularly known in Damascus and the Arab world as the “Five Mentors”.
To cushion some of the shock, Bashar staggered their retirement dates. Issa will step down in February 2005 and Safi on April 18, 2005. All five were informed that if they tried to challenge the presidential decree, they stood to forfeit their comfortable retirement benefits.
Not content with axing the five mentors, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources report Bashar went on to sack another group of senior officers:
General Hisham Abu Tayeb loses his job as director-general of the security directorate, General Hassan Halil , as chief of military intelligence, General Izz a-Din Ismail, as head of air force intelligence and General Ghazi Canaan, as chief of political intelligence. Canaan served for years as Syrian intelligence chief in Lebanon. Under Hafez Assad, Canaan performed the function of Syrian proconsul in Beirut.
President Assad is thus completing a grand clearance of his father’s most loyal generals. After this purge is over, between February and April 2005, the Syrian general staff, intelligence and the defense ministry pass under completely new management.
Two key figures stand out as the rising top men and closest to the president: General Bahajat Suleiman, chief of general intelligence, and General Asaf Suachat, director of the intelligence department of the defense ministry. The latter is also Bashar’s brother in law.
But the names of the new men to fill all the vacancies are still a tightly-held secret in Damascus.