President Bashar Assad, Syria's sole ruler, is reinventing the military and security arms of his regime by a reshuffle for loosening the grip the secular Baath Arab Socialist Party has maintained since 1973 through its powerful security services. As president, his father Hafez Assad gave the Baath party a decision-making monopoly under a National Command.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence and military sources report that, to boost his own stature at the expense of the party hierarchy, the Syrian president has brought his brother-in-law, Asif Shawqat in out of the cold and appointed him next Chief of Staff of Syria's armed forces. This would end Shawqat's 25-year stint as head of the powerful military intelligence service and restore him to a place of honor after months of strained relations with the president.
Secret Presidential Directive No. 36, signed last week, gives him the appointment and promotes him to the rank of full general, adding a fifth star to his epaulette. The appointment goes into effect in 2011 after Shawqat undergoes a period of apprenticeship for learning the ropes under the incumbent Chief of Staff, Gen. Daoud Hawaja, who will then move up to the post of minister of defense held now by Gen. Alil Habib.
(Before he inherited the presidency, Bashar's own father apprenticed him for a learning period to Gen. Mohammed Suleiman, who was mysteriously murdered in Latakia on August 5, 2008. General Suleiman was latterly in charge of Syria's foreign nuclear relations with Iran and North Korea).
Shawqat's return to the magic circle winds down Hariri inquiry
Shawqat's sudden return to the magic circle is significant in more than one respect.
1. Married to Assad's sister Bushara, he was estranged from the president from 2006 to 2008 at the peak of the UN inquiry which fingered him as the Syrian figure who masterminded the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri in Beirut.
One of the witnesses questioned by the UN inquiry commission testified that the decision to liquidate Hariri was taken in September 2004 at a meeting between the Syrian military intelligence chief Shawqat, the head of the presidential guard, the president's younger brother, Maher Assad, and Lebanese General Jamil al-Sayyed, a former internal security chief, who was arrested in September at the request of the UN investigator, Detlev Mehlis.
In December 2005, five Syrian intelligence officers appeared before the commission in Vienna.
Although summoned, Shawqat failed to appear.
Throughout this period, Assad was afraid of being implicated in the crime by the testimony of – or even association with – his kinsman, whereas Shawqat feared Assad would crack under the international pressure spearheaded then by Washington and Paris and throw him to the wolves to turn suspicion away from himself.
These fears receded when George W. Bush was succeeded in the White House by Barack Obama.
2. President Assad calculated that the Obama administration's quest for engagement would relieve the Syrian regime of the suspicion of masterminding the murder of the anti-Syrian Lebanese statesman. This lifted the heavy cloud hanging over his regime and he decided it was now safe to restore is brother-in-law to high eminence.
3. Whereas the Bush administration sought to rid Lebanon of Syria's oppressive influence, Presidents Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy have decided they need Assad's good will for establishing stable national unity government in Beirut and reconciling the warring Palestinian factions.
This policy reversal was confirmed by the visits to Damascus this week of French foreign minister Bernard Kuchner and Fred Hoff, the head of the Syrian desk on the staff of US Middle East envoy George Mitchell.
It very likely winds down the international Hariri inquiry hanging over the Assad regime's head.
Baath's ruling National Command dismantled, replaced with US-style NSC
The second part of Syrian President Directive No. 36 annuls the National Command, the Baath's senior decision-maker on national security, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources reveal, and creates instead a National Security Council. Like its American model, most council members will be civilians.
The National Command has for decades supervised and coordinated the operations of four clandestine and security agencies – military intelligence, air force intelligence, general intelligence and state security intelligence. A permanent institution of Baath party and Assad family rule was the National Command's regular Wednesday meetings, chaired since 2005 by its head, Gen. Hisham Ikhtiyab. Those meetings passed all major decisions, such as appointments to all ranks of the four security agencies and government positions associated with national security.
The end of the National Command also spells the end of the Baath party's control over Syria's intelligence and security machinery and started a round of musical chairs.
Gen. Abdel Fatah Qudusiya departs the post of Air Force Intelligence chief. (This body is not part of the air force but a special covert unit Syrian intelligence for operations in and outside Syria, akin to the American CIA's special units.)
Qudusiya takes over military intelligence when the post is vacated by Shawqat.
He is replaced at Air Force Intelligence by Gen. Jemayel Hassan, current deputy chief of State Security Intelligence, whose job passes to Gen. Zuhair Mahmoud.
Assad's reshuffle works perfectly on paper. DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources estimate that the key to its taking shape is his brother-in-law's consent to move into his appointed slot as Chief of Staff. This has not yet been obtained. Our sources report that Shawqat is waiting to see whom the president names as head of the new National Security Council. In his view, a strong appointee such as Assad's closest confidant, Gen. Ali Mamluk, would reduce the post of army chief to little more than a sinecure. If it goes through, Shawqat will fight the president's plan to the finish.