The two most powerful men in Damascus, President Bashar Assad and his military intelligence chief Gen. Asef Shawqat, are locked in a titanic struggle for power.
Shawqat, who is married to the president’s sister Bushara, was one of Assad’s closest advisers. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources report that today, they are at daggers drawn. For the moment, the president has gained the upper hand against his rival by loosening his grip on military intelligence, the regime’s most powerful prop.
The president has achieved this by forcing a wholesale shake-up down the throat of Shawqat, its director.
Assad’s man, Gen Ali Younes, has been appointed deputy chief of the service with extracurricular powers to act as watchdog over his boss, Shawqat, and a direct line to the president. Younes comes from the job of head of Branch 293, military intelligence’s operational arm for keeping watch over ranking officers in Syrian security services. Shawqat was on the point of putting Younes out to pasture when the presidential decree landed on his desk.
He was also taken unawares by the appointment over his head of a new general as MI commander of Damascus.
General Muhammed Shear was transferred from command of the Mediterranean town of Tartus, one of Syria’s key military ports. His most outstanding feature is his unwavering loyalty to Bashar Assad. He therefore displaced General Hassan Mofeid, who was transferred to the northern town of Aleppo.
This was a blow both above and below the belt to the president’s rival.
Shawqat is also hit in his pocket
Mofeid was one of Shawqat’s business associates. It is par for the course in Syria for senior intelligence officers to use their positions to go into business, usually in partnership with their superiors, a sort of insurance that works both ways. The loss of a loyal officer and business partner therefore substantially undermined Shawqat’s personal authority in the MI and hit his pocket. Senior officers under his command picked up the signal and diverted their business relations to other quarters.
The presidential shakeup also reached into the MI’s State Security Division which is responsible for bugging phones and shadowing intelligence targets. Its director General Ali Mamluk, an intimate Shawqat crony, was kicked out and replaced by Col. Hafez Makhlouf. The heads of the Makhlouf family are first cousins of the Assads.
Fired with Mamluk were the Circassian general Walid Avaza, head of the political department of MI, who has not yet been replaced, and the chief of aviation security, which is responsible for spying on civil and commercial airlines operating in the Persian Gulf and Middle East. His successor is expected to be another Assad loyalist Gen. Hassan Sharif.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources report that the presidential aide who masterminded the purge and shakeup of MI and leads the war against its director is Gen. Muhammad Nasif, who bears the title of presidential adviser on intelligence matters.
He is a veteran carry-over from the inner circle of president Hafez Assad, Bashar’s father.
Fighting back, Shawqat is aiming his fire against General Nasif, blackening his name in political and military circles of Damascus by accusing him of being in cahoots with American intelligence and acting on their orders.
The rumors allege that Nasif’s ties with the Americans go through his wife, Basmeh, who has family in the United States. Shawqat claims that on her frequent trips to the States she carries messages to and from her husband in Damascus and his US intelligence controllers.
That Shawqat dares to impugn one of his closest loyalists with such serious charges is a measure of the intensity of the power struggle in force between Assad and his brother-in-law.