Systemic, functional, and structural change in the security services is a crucial issue that awaits objective solutions that take into account the rapidly shifting circumstances and variables throughout Syria. Because security reform is a complex process, it will be remedied – in light of Syria’s particular situation – by neither pre-packaged reform theories nor theses that ignore the nature and importance of national security while overlooking the necessity of cohesion and preventing collapse. Rather, theories are needed that entail a professional nation-wide effort consistent with local, regional, and international security requirements as well as the nation’s overarching goal: the construction of a coherent security sector.
This study finds that the Syrian state does not possess a “security sector” from a technical definition perspective sufficient enough to deserve reform. As it stands, security work in Syria falls into two categories: The first concerns forces of control and repression. Among these are the Air Force and Military Intelligence Directorates, which are divisions of the Syrian Army and the Armed Forces; the General Intelligence Directorate, which is a division of both the National Security Bureau and the ruling party (the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party), while political security forms a division of the Ministry of Interior. The second category is military-security networks (such as the Republican Guard, the 4th Armored Division, and the Tiger Forces) that bear the responsibility of engineering the security process, determining its relationships and foundations, ensuring the regime’s security, and carrying out all measures and operations within society whenever there is sign of a security threat. Accordingly, two flaws and aberrations can be identified: The first relates to the security structure’s fragmentation, which in the past has helped curtail community activity, while also limiting its progress and development. The second issue relates to the function of these services, which is characterized by fluidity and boundlessness, with the exception of its permanent role consolidating and bolstering the regime’s stability. Indeed, any reform process of these services must target their function and structure at the same time.
Security is necessary and important in the context of any transition process, but this is particularly the case in a place like Syria, which operates as one of the sensitive regional and international counterbalances. To be sure, it is the most important of the state’s functions, whether in terms of maintaining social stability, protecting the country, or preserving its identity and culture from any encroachments. This need for security underscores that it is out of the question to dismantle security services, end their work, and not rebuild a national alternative with a cohesive structure and functions, as some are proposing. This is particularly true for the next phase of the new Syria, which has seen an increase in schemes that seek to cut across its national borders. Thus it seems that the requirement most consistent with the dualism of both rejecting the existing approach and confirming the necessity of security is the restructuring of the security services in the next phase so that they keep pace with those of developed countries that serve both the citizens and the nation.
This study shows that restructuring measures should be based on principles of change, smooth transition, and cohesion – for fear that a sudden change could have repercussions for the cohesion of the country. This will ensure that the security services resume working within the national framework and complement state institutions. Certainly, these measures are a reflection of a series of political arrangements that signal the real desire for change and political transition. Consequently, they are void of any competitive, acquisitive or authoritarian calculations. To this end, the study proposes three phases for carrying out the reform and development process: The first phase relates to the legal system, which will ensure the principles of integration, rebalance, change of function, and strengthened oversight. The second phase is linked to the development of the human, administrative, and technical structures. As for the third stage, it will comprise a set of measures that aim to complete the construction of a cohesive and functional security sector.
Ever since the Ba’ath Party came to power in Syria in 1963, its Military Committee has relied entirely on the intelligence services as a tool for strengthening its governance and entrenching its base. During the reign of Salah Jadid towards the end of the 1960s, Abd al-Karim al-Jundi (President of the Security Services and the National Security Bureau at the time) followed the policy of kidnapping and torturing the party’s opposition. After coming to power in March 1971 following his coup November 1970, Hafez al-Assad used the security services to control security, politics, culture, the economy, and even religion, turning them into powerful appendages of his authority that pervaded the nation, society, and public life. His son, Bashar al-Assad, did not deviate from this path, as these apparatuses continue to follow all of the same policies that endeavored to limit citizens’ activities by using security restrictions and surveillance. These institutions, in addition to the military establishment, were the regime’s first and last lines of defense by virtue of their firm discipline and operational engineering, which enabled them to create the Syrian Army’s sectarian structure. This has enabled the army to control leadership and power centers populated by Alawites and those who owe their absolute loyalty to the regime. This type of engineering became clear following the disagreement between Hafez al-Assad and his brother Rifaat, who almost overthrew him in the 1980s. Following the event, Assad restructured the army and security services, adjusting security operations so as to consolidate his rule and undermine both political movements as well as the overt and covert ways for people to reject his regime.
In 2011, the Syrian uprising broke out having been caused largely by a hidden, yet growing, popular discontent directed towards the security services’ destructive and authoritarian practices that denied even of the most basic human rights. The security services followed these developments – seeing the gatherings of demonstrators as no more than “riff-raff, rebels, and terrorists” – and served as the main force to carry out policies of repression and systematic violence against the revolutionary movement. With the spread of the movement and the sharp spike in the level of the conflict, the international community has desperately attempted to put established rules in place to initiate a “political process” along a negotiated path. However, this process is still stalled as of the time that this study was prepared. All signs indicate that the necessary political solution, according to the international community, includes “preserving state apparatuses, chief among them the institutions of security and defense.”
As mentioned above, the study of Syria’s security situation, as well as discussion about the need for functional and organizational change in the security services, represent a compound problem that must be unpacked. Indeed, any political path that anticipates solutions to the Syrian crisis without taking into account the security component – along with its excesses and questions about its role in the Syria’s transition and future – will not work. Therefore, this study attempts to provide an accurate description of the security services’ current functions and program so as to touch upon the most significant levels of discernable deficiencies, as well as the conclusions that can be derived from this that will help create an objective picture of the security issue for the future.
Assumptions: The study proceeds from a number of assumptions, namely:
Study Approach: This study follows both descriptive and behavioral approaches to show the philosophy and reality of the security services, their current organizational and functional nature, as well as the desired outcome. In identifying flaws and structural setbacks, the study relies on interviews with officers, individuals, and dissident security experts. Their insights constitute an essential documentation for finding out information about security operations and their methods, which the study considers to be a key foundation for the cohesion of the security services and their complete loyalty to the regime. Moreover, the study uses a comparative method in presenting its examination of the most important security reform experiences in Arab Spring countries in order to measure them against Syria, explore their most important lessons and conclusions, and carry them over as necessities that should be recognized and taken into consideration during Syria’s own security reform process.
Previous Studies: The most important studies published concerning security reform issues in Syria can be summarized as follows: The first is entitled Syria Transition Roadmap, published by Syrian Expert House and the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies in 2013, the ninth chapter of which details the restructuring of Syria’s security services by surveying the following:
That said, this study was completed in the context of the ongoing conflict in 2013, which has subsequently become more complex in light of certain types of crimes, the sheer volume of accumulating security issues, and the number of security threats from either religious or ethnic sources that have begun to overlap. Moreover, these complications are further compounded by the appearance of specific challenges, some of which relate to the continuing effects of security reform in Arab Spring countries, not to mention the multiple actors and stakeholders in areas of Syria that experience relatively stable forms of governance and local administration.
Similarly, the “Day After Project” designed to support democratic transition in Syria in 2013 published an important chapter on “Reforming the Security Sector,” which proposed dissolving the current security services and establishing new intelligence agencies (both for military and foreign affairs). The project proposes a 14-month timetable for initiating reforms based on the theory of jettisoning the security structure and establishing new security formations assigned local security functions, such as that of civilian police forces. The study subjected the security landscape to deconstruction and restructuring theories while at the same time pointed to the absence of a so-called “security sector.” The study further indicates that all security services are divisions of control belonging to different institutions, the most important being the army, Ministry of Interior, and the Ba’ath Party. Based on this view, the main actors in control of security and its institutions are networks engineered by the regime so as to ensure that these institutions serve to strengthen its authority. In this way, the regime relies on specific Alawite families that compete amongst themselves to show their loyalty and maximize their private interests. This structure makes it a strategic matter to break up these security networks while simultaneously creating a cohesive security sector based on the necessity of functional and structural change to the security services.
Yezid Sayigh’s Carnegie Center studies, which monitor and analyze the dynamics of security reform in Arab Spring nations, constitute an essential perspective that this study relies on to extract the most significant obstacles and issues that resist reform processes. His most important studies include: Crumbling States: Security Sector Reform in Libya and Yemen and Dilemmas of Reform: Policing in Arab Transitions. In these studies, Sayigh deconstructed the security reform processes in these countries, which he saw as faltering for several reasons. Perhaps the most prominent factors he identified were the legacies of dictatorial and factional regimes and the politicization of transition processes. Moreover, he recognized the significance of these governments’ focus on terrorism and their unwillingness to take on any other serious security agenda or consider the political economy dilemmas of this process, particularly with regards to costs.
The Emergency Law enacted in 1962 and the declaration of a State of Emergency on 8 March 1963, along with subsequent constitutional amendments introduced under Hafez al-Assad in 1973 allowed the security services to exceed the powers granted to them by the laws and decrees under which they were created. They thus became a means to impose repression, commit acts of torture, restrict freedoms, and suppress public opinion, and moreover inflict heavy setbacks on Syrian society. As a concept, “security” means constant research and investigation for the sake of stability and civil cohesion. Under Hafez al-Assad, however, this principle was completely ignored and replaced by a conception of the security services as the private security of the ruling authority, whereby security agencies and other military and civilian sectors were either subjected to its control or created from scratch in order to control domestic interactions on all levels and forcibly exclude them from effective participation in the public sphere.
A survey of security work and conduct during the rule of Hafez al-Assad and his son Bashar al-Assad reveals that the philosophy of security activity involved a binary of: loyalty to the regime and private interests, which constituted the real guarantee that they would remain the principal actor in all domestic interactions and an absolute bulwark of the ruling regime.
The main features of this philosophy are as follows:
1.Absolute Powers and the Link Between Community Activity and Security Trends:
The security services have received complete independence and wide-ranging powers in all aspects of political, economic, service, and social life as well as have adopted several methods of intervention. Perhaps the most important method is devotion to the principle of so-called “Approvals and Security Studies.” The essence of this principle is that it gives the security services the right to “object” to all community practices and demands, which results in intrusion into the simplest aspects of everyday life, from obtaining a street vendor’s license, to registering real-estate and inheritance information, to holding membership to parliament, to promoting army officers, forming cabinets, or even appointing judges. Just getting a public sector job, no matter how small or large, is contingent upon security research results that are determined to be positive towards the regime’s political position.
2.Competing for Loyalty and Inter-Agency Hostility
In asserting his control over the security services, Hafez al-Assad relied on the strategy of generating hostility and creating an atmosphere of competitiveness between the different security agencies and their senior officials. Performance indicators were linked to standards of absolute loyalty and obedience. In order to create a special interest sphere for security officials, they were given access to all levers of the state, which provided them with obscene wealth. At the same time, an entire file was prepared for each and every “corrupt individual and transgressor,” which facilitated the process of seamlessly terminating them if their ambitions grew too large. As for the era of Bashar al-Assad, he went about sowing conflict and mutual competition within his areas of influence and control. Control over border passages was distributed so that each one was subordinate to a specific security agency that rules and controls it and its revenue. Accordingly, boarder passages with Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey are each respectively subordinate to the General Intelligence Directorate, Air Force Intelligence Directorate, Military Security, and Political Security.
3.Compounded Fear of the Security Forces:
Over time, the condition of fearing security, embodied by the culture of fear propagated by the security services themselves, grew by leaps and bounds, as did weariness about surveillance within institutions. This transpired as a contradictory sectarian structure was enshrined within the decision-making centers of each government branch. Moreover, this pervasive fear spread as the culture of “reporting” deepened in society and within the security establishment itself – as making mistakes, whatever they may be, was constantly feared. Within the community, restrictions proliferated that hampered people’s activities, keeping them bound and fearful of taking any collective or individual action. As for internal fear, it comes from signs of negligent performance of either security tasks or any action in which loyalty and belonging to the ideology and doctrine of the “nation’s leader” is minimized.
4.Duties Related to the Ruling Regime’s Security
Totalitarian and autocratic states impose major duties and burdens on the security services, which bring them into alliance with the ruling regime. These duties connect their fates with the survival of the regime, putting the regime’s security ahead of its internal security issues on different social, political, safety, and economic levels. This has increased the number of abuses committed by security services, inflated their roles in carrying out repression, and deepened their connection to systematic legal and human rights violations. Over the past few decades, a certain security doctrine has been propagated that justifies the transformation of the state’s security functions into a goal in and of itself that is separate from the rest of the roles and functions of the state. The allocations for essential state functions, such as education and health services, have in many cases been reduced so as to provide greater resources for security, which maintains its survival at the helm. In this way, it ignores the foundations for building security services, which should be preserving the security, peace, and the stability of the nation and its citizens.
5.Restricting Political Activity
Throughout Assad’s rule, the security strategy has aimed to promulgate the philosophy of separating society from politics, both in word and deed, rendering it the exclusive domain of the ruling family and its supporters while denying and marginalizing the middle class and subjecting its intellectuals and innovators to strict surveillance. This approach has effectively linked the middle class to several organizational structures that fall under the umbrella of the Ba’ath Party, thus making it interact with, and become influenced by, only a small partisan circle. Those who fall outside of this circle, are numerous and unsuccessful because of their lack of access to state tools and mechanisms, not to mention their direct targeting at the behest of security institutions.
The security services strove to reduce politics to the figure of Hafez al-Assad in theory, practice, and approach, while also working on disseminating “his values and achievements” among all society’s classes and institutions. This focus bordered on deification, which resulted in an absence of true political representation, instead replacing it with another deceptive and rigid politics based on authoritarian and self-interested balancing acts and calculations.
6.Exhausting and Overwhelming Bureaucratic Structures
The regime has relied on a policy of controlling the capital city and the rest of Syria’s provinces according to the principle of overwhelming their administrative, service, and social structures with a massive number of branches, each with different overlapping and contradictory authorities and multiple functions. This has generally left citizens to come up with their own living solutions within the margins opened up by “red lines,” “national security,” and “national unity” cultures that have left them susceptible to exhaustion if they stray outside of them. It may reach the point that citizens continue to turn to the security services over a long period of time without ever getting their problems attended to, simply because mutual coordination between these services has been eliminated without any legislative or legal action. Furthermore, most branches dispatch several agents to follow and monitor the work of other official security services. This lays the foundation for contradictory policies, favoritism, and deepens the culture of reporting, which aims to either let a certain agent carry out other agents’ work or to coordinate with them to ignore “offenses committed” for their own collective benefit.
As a general outcome, the philosophy of security work in Syria is based on enshrining a group of security rules, customs, and standards that completely bind Syrian society, render it immobile, and push it to deduce the limits of what is permissible and forbidden when it is not exposed to regime security. This process has always involved intervention from security and defense institutions to manage political and government affairs until they literally become the source for laws that govern society. This hampers the developmental or reformative action that restructures the authoritative system of action and links its functions to serving citizens and their advancement. The figure on the left clarifies the levels of security work and shows the role each plays within this philosophy.
The security and intelligence services are comprised of four general directorates that are supervised by the National Security Bureau (NSB). The main headquarters for all of the services is located in the capital and includes four central branches. Falling under this directorate are branches located in every province that contain offices with specializations corresponding to those of the central branches. In other words, the branch is a microcosm of the general administration. The figure below clarifies the security services’ general structure.
This is the office that took the place of its former counterpart by virtue of Presidential Decree No. 36 in 2012 shortly after the bombing of “the Crisis Cell operation room in the National Security building” in 2012 which was responsible for the security agency’s plan to counter the uprising and protest movement. The NSB was assigned the task of “drafting security policies in Syria” and presided over by the former director of the Directorate of Intelligence Major General Ali Mamlouk.
The Regional Command of the NSB was previously presided over by Mohammed Saeed Bakheitan, who is considered one of the members of the old guard that kept their leadership seats in the Ba’ath Party’s 10th Regional Congress alongside Farouk al-Sharaa, General Hasan Turkumani, and Major General Hisham Ikhtiyar. The former NSB had been subordinate to the regional command of the Ba’ath Party, convened weekly, and decided on a number of important issues pertaining to the country’s security. After the 2012 Presidential Decree, the NSB was made directly subordinate to the President’s Office and, under Mamlouk’s leadership, it shifted from being responsible for coordinating the security services and submitting general periodic reports and summaries to being more focused on leadership and guidance.
The General Intelligence Directorate (GIC) was previously named “State Security” and established by Decree no. 14 in 1969 after Hafez al-Assad assumed power. The directorate is directly subordinate to the president under the name “Unit 1114” without going through any state body or ministry except when coordinating with the NSB. The GIC encompasses 12 central branches in addition to active sub-branches in each province. Furthermore, the directorate includes the Higher Institute for Security Sciences, which was established in 2007 so that state representatives and diplomatic missions undergo intensive security trainings. The GIC is notable by its large number of civilian contractors and its officers, who are assigned by the Ministries of Defense and Interior.
According to the law that established the GIC, it is a civilian department even though all active military personnel are commissioned by the Ministries of Defense and Interior and hence report to them financially and organizationally. As for other civilian members of GIC, they are subject to the State’s uniform workers code. Accordingly, military officers overwhelmingly dominate positions of power, leadership, and agenda-setting posts, while civilians carry out administrative work in branches under the authority of military personnel. The percentage of Alawites among managers and heads of departments is approximately 70%, whereas the remainder belong to other sects. Recruits in the Syrian Army are selected to go to the directorate and tasked with guarding and protecting administrative workers.
Structure of the General Intelligence Directorate
The Military Intelligence Directorate (MID) falls under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Defense administratively, financially, and in terms of obtaining armaments. However, the Minister does not have any authority over it. Conversely, the MID is involved with appointing the Minister of Defense, his deputies, chiefs of staff, and dictates the transfer of army officers and personnel. Meanwhile, the MID’s chief is appointed by the president. Upon its establishment, the MID was made responsible for military units, borders, as well as the security of officers, personnel, and military installations. The Chief of the MID is currently Mohammad Mahla, who was appointed in 2015 following his predecessor Rafiq Shahadah’s tenure.
The MID, which is considered to be the Syrian Army and Armed Forces’ security division in society, goes by the motto “safeguarding the principles and values of the establishment,” which it uses as a pretext to instill an ethos that “Assad’s army is sacred.” At the same time, this approach is used to justify its role as an overseer and partner of other security services in their efforts to police local activity via determinants that bolster the regime’s authority. The directorate’s officers – the majority of which herald from a variety of different military units – are tasked with monitoring the behaviors of military personnel based on standards of loyalty and adherence to the regime’s command. The MID also constantly investigates any potential reform initiatives that may be carried out by commissioned or non-commissioned officer ranks, volunteers, and conscripts.
Structure of the Military Intelligence Directorate
First: Central Branches operating in Damascus:
Second: Provincial Branches: These branches are spread throughout each province and, depending on the need, may have sub-departments, divisions and units in each administrative district of the province. Each branch is assigned a number.
A noteworthy and important observation in the MID is that approximately 80% of commissioned officers, non-commissioned officers, and personnel are Alawites, and the majority of them are commissioned by army units to MID with the exception of some conscripts who are assigned duties such as guards, gatekeepers, and raiding targeted sites. The MID is also in charge of the military intelligence school, which trains MID volunteers and personnel.
The Air Force Intelligence Directorate (AFID) was established during the early days when Hafez al-Assad took office and remains the regime’s most loyal state body. It is famous for possessing the strongest manpower and best technical skills of all of the security directorates. AFID contains the lowest percentage of non-Alawite officers compared to other directorates. While AFID is theoretically subordinate to the Ministry of Defense in terms of its administration, finances, and armaments acquisition, the Minister of Defense does not have any authority over it. On the contrary, AFID, along with the MID, oversees the Minister’s work and has an important role in his appointment. Major General Mohammed al-Khuli has remained AFID’s head for a long period of time after Hafez al-Assad relied on him during security operations against his opponents after seizing power. This directorate’s main responsibility is to protect the Syrian Air Force, the president’s airplane, and to provide security when he is outside of the country.
Structure of the Air Force Intelligence Directorate
AFID contains six subordinate branches in Damascus, its own investigations branch, and six branches in the provinces :
These branches each have corresponding departments spreading throughout provinces that do not house a main headquarters. They also have other departments and sub-units in other regions and administrative districts and villages according to the need.
While the Political Security Directorate (PSD) financially and administratively falls under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Interior, but it does not report to it in terms of its professional performance. Furthermore, PSD has a supervisory authority over the Minister of Interior, his officers and staff including all police units. In other words, it is practically independent in that it can communicate directly with the President. Indeed, this directorate is the most pervasive in society, interacts the most with civilians, is most widespread among citizens, and spans the entire country and all segments of society. Moreover, the directorate carries out copious exchanges with civilians, demanding work and construction permits approved by PSD, which has a vast reservoir of the regime’s information about citizens. This drives PSD officers and personnel to exploit their influence, accept bribes, and impose “tribute” on citizens on a massive scale. PSD officers and personnel are chosen by the Ministry of Interior, with the exception of the PSD head, who is appointed by a Presidential Decree. Major Generals Adnan Badr Hassan, Ghazi Kanaan, and Mohammed Dib Zaitoun are among the most prominent of PSD’s former chiefs. Currently, the Druze Major General Nazih Hassoun, who was appointed following the tenure of his predecessor Rustum Ghazali, serves as PSD president.
It has become customary for the PSD president to come from the security or military services’ leadership. Unlike its counterparts, the directorate is more of an administrative apparatus than a fieldwork civilian one in that it, to a large extent, serves an administrative intelligence role. Its responsibilities are entirely domestic in that it does not carry out any activities abroad like other directorates (with the exception of the Arab and Foreign Affairs Branch, which monitors Arabs and foreigners within the country). The directorate’s provincial branches are named after the provinces themselves (for example, the Political Security Branch of the Damascus Suburbs) instead of being assigned a three-digit number.
Structure of the Political Security Directorate
The directorate is made up of a number of branches in Damascus as well as the following branches located in the rest of the provinces:
It is worth mentioning that most of those who belong to the PSD are graduates of police academies and colleges and interact directly with citizens to conduct special reports and studies. The percentage of Alawites in the PSD and its branches is less than their percentage in other directorates according to estimates by PSD defectors.
The ruling regime has assigned the task of security strategies oversight to certain military units that profess absolute loyalty to the regime primarily as a result of special arrangements followed in the recruitment of its human resources by relying mostly on Alawites, as well as the nature of tasks assigned to them including inter-agency and intra-agency oversight. The regime also grants these units unrestricted powers to firmly put in check aspects relating to criminal and societal security that are not within the jurisdiction of the traditional official police force. One can assess the regime’s security policy by closely analyzing these networks that were mastered and attached directly to the regime. The most important units include:
First: Republican Guard
The Syrian Republican Guard Forces (RG) are considered the most prominent of the Syrian Army’s elite divisions as well as its most heavily armed. Their main task is to protect the capital from any internal or external threats. Thus, they are the only military unit allowed to enter Damascus.
Confirmed information on the RG is scarce, however some reports indicate that they are distinguished by their strong armaments. Furthermore, they are composed of nearly 10,000 soldiers spread throughout several different brigades and its officers are given a portion of Syrian oil revenues to maintain their loyalty. The establishment of the RG dates back to the end of the 1970s after armed clashes broke out in Hama and Aleppo between Hafez al-Assad’s regime and his Muslim Brotherhood opponents.
The RG maintain a high degree of Bashar al-Assad’s confidence, as he has pursued the same approach as his father in terms of appointing leadership positions of its brigades and regiments to members of specific Alawite families in Syria. For instance, at present, Major General Bassam al-Hassan heads the RG, which are tasked primarily with protecting Damascus City and preventing any local or foreign forces opposed to the regime from evolving within the city. The RG also dictates security rules and relationship schemes that govern inter-branch engagements as well as the relationship between citizens and the regime on the other hand. It is also considered to be the official state body responsible for the coordination of military and militia activities in Syria after the outbreak of the uprising, including the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Lebanese Hezbollah, and Shiite Iraqi militias.
As the RG’s leadership is considered among the most prominent leaders nationally, its forces has intervened and thwarted serious threats and societal security risks including the Kurdish Uprising in 2004, the Alawite-Ismaili clashes in 2005, as well as Druze-Bedouin conflict in 2001. The RG forces are organized with several regiments and brigades operating independently but report administratively to the leadership of the RG. Its units and divisions are known with names and numbers ranging from 101-106. The most prominent include the following:
Perhaps the most important reasons behind the strength and cohesive nature of the RG that binds its forces together (which some security experts see as capable of carrying out a bloodless coup) are the following:
Second: The 4th Armored Division
This a division of the Syrian Army subordinate to the First Corps. It receives special training and support to make it the regime’s strategic safeguard. It was founded during the rule of Hafez al-Assad when his brother Rifaat, who led the “Defense Companies” responsible for the Hama massacres in 1982, established it. The Defense Companies were later integrated and merged into the Division after Rifaat was “exiled” in 1984.
According to French media sources, the 4th Armored Division consists of 15,000 fighters, the vast majority of which are Alawite. Moreover, the division is considered to be among the top units of the Syrian Army in terms of training and artillery, possessing the most up-to-date heavy weaponry, such as Russian T-72 Tanks.
The Division is made up of several brigades and regiments with headquarters at the main gateways of Damascus. The 555th Paratrooper Regiment led by Brigadier General Jamal Yunes, the 154th Regiment led by Brigadier General Jawdat Ibrahim Safi, the 40th Armored Brigade, and the 138th Infantry Brigade are all stationed in Muadamiyat. Zabadani, on the other hand, is home to the following battalions: military police, chemistry, engineering, monitoring, and training camp. Meanwhile, the 41st Armored Brigade is stationed in Yaafour and the 42nd Brigade is located in al-Sabboura. It should be noted here that all leaders of these brigades and regiments are Alawite. The 4th Armored Division’s forces’ most important responsibilities and security functions include:
To complete this summary, it should be noted that the 4th Armored Division is the only power whose responsibilities are limited to areas outside of Damascus. Its headquarters is located in as-Sabboura and it is not permitted to enter the capital, which stems from the concept of military sectors organizational structure with assigned responsibilities. Currently, Brigadier General Maher al-Assad leads the division and most of its officers are connected in some way to the RG, Ministry of Defense, Officers’ Affairs Bureau, and the Officers Branch.
Third: Tiger Forces (cross-military and security unit forces):
The “Tiger Forces” is a cross-agency special unit that intersects through military and security agencies. It is structured with three main elements: security and military core, volunteer and recruited Alawite manpower, and a customized administrative framework (Ministry of Defense) with an unrestricted authority to freely operate. This force has a wide margin of action and was formed to carry out a number of military and security duties, which include:
The Tiger Forces were formed as an alliance between AFID, the army, and the 4th Armored Division in 2013. They receive clear social support from most Alawites, funding from Rami Makhlouf’s Bustan Association, and coverage from state media outlets. Led by Brigadier General Suheil Al Hassan, the Tiger Forces enjoy a wide range of authorities and powers, including the ability to mobilize all state institutions – including civilian and military airports – to carry out their duties. Tiger forces have intervened in most areas of military conflict, including the Damascus Suburbs, Hama, Idlib, Homs, or the Latakia suburbs.
These are a group of official state agencies already existing or recently formed for the purpose of blocking and curtailing the revolutionary movement’s work and supporting central agencies with updated and accurate information. The presence of these agencies is indicative of the transformation and deployment of executive branch institutions to serve the interests of the regime and its security agencies of infiltrating and weakening revolutionary forces and push it to change coarse away from its intended objectives. Some of these agencies and bodies include:
This directorate was formed in early 2011 after the outbreak of the Syrian uprising. It is closer to being a special task force comprised of: Landline and Cellular Communications Surveillance Branch (known as Branch 225 of the MID), Signals Branch 211, Technical Branch from the GID, and other technical branches in other directorates, in addition to al-Ghadeer Project that is under Iranian Management. All wiretapping and jamming projects stationed in different directorates were also merged into this directorate.
Its primary mission is to surveil all landline and cellular communications, internet, and television programs concerning topics on the revolutionary movement. The directorate also furnishes other security agencies with information collected from monitored communications, grants licenses for importing communication devices, and resolves conflicts between different directorates. It is also clearly noted that most recruits to this newly formed directorate are Alawite.
Since the start of the uprising, all personnel and employees in the Ministry of Interior have been enlisted as informants for the PID. Furthermore, the ministry was tasked with the responsibility of helping and aiding some security branches by making arrests, conducting raids, and breaking up sit-ins by force of arms.
These are divisions, sections, and branches of the Ba’ath Party spread throughout Syria and tasked with collecting security-related information and reports and providing it to the security directorates and the NSB. The regulated deployment of Ba’ath Party leaders and members in society helps the regime control all social activities and trends, particularly by granting the party complete powers of oversight, coordination, and surveillance over its auxiliary grassroots organizations, such as the Revolutionary Youth Union, the Students Union, the Workers’ Unions, and the like.
In every military unit, from the corps, directorates, and divisions, to the smallest military unit, there is a security services officer who is stationed there to secretly surveil everything that occurs within his unit among his officer colleagues, his superiors, subordinates, and even their families and civilian acquaintances. The deployed officers submits reports pertaining to the simplest matters of everyday affairs to the MID or the AFID so that they, in turn, can investigate the issue further. Most of the time, the MID and AFID carry out their measures without verifying the credibility of the information in such reports.
After the spark of the Syrian uprising, the Syrian regime, with direction from Iran and coordination with the RG, resorted to forming so-called National Defense Forces or People’s Committees, which transformed during the crisis from military bodies to auxiliary security institutions with their own special prisons and investigation commissions. These groups are essentially an army of mercenaries, crime lords, and unemployed citizens who have been hired to fight alongside the army and the security services. These individuals enrolled in the National Defense / People’s Committees not out of belief or faith, but to earn an illegal livelihood by carrying out theft, looting, blackmailing, and kidnapping. In addition to their work as informants for the army and security services, most of the time the information they provide is frivolous and sectarian, the goal of which is to prove their loyalty to Assad. These reports cannot be contested by other agencies and are rather taken as is and used as bases for random arrests and even murders.
Based on what has been previously mentioned, it is noticed that all of the Syrian state’s facilities and institutions during Assad’s rule are essentially at the disposal and control of the security services directorates that serve the President’s interests, other individual interests, or both at the same time.
The abuses and violations committed by Syrian security agencies have mounted on all levels: socially, economically and politically to the extent it has become a systematic and a well-known culture and practice expected by all security officers and agencies. These abuses can be categorized on five levels, all of which create a climate of suppression and corruption in society. These levels are listed below:
Security work has been bound by the objective of tracking “direct violations” and monitoring social and economic functions according to fluid standards not regulated by any specific legal foundation. Furthermore, upon examining duties and performance outcomes of security agencies it becomes clear there is no indication of any strategic plan on all levels:
Several “laws” have been coached into society’s public awareness that have been derived from the security services’ collective practice and culture, from its detainment procedures, to its investigations and accompanying inhumane methods used to extract confessions, and to its abuses of detainees. These practices were legalized and normalized, particularly after the power structure was consolidated during the events of the 1980s through practices that were engaged in by individuals and adopted by the security establishment as a whole. The most significant elements of this culture include:
Security agencies’ heads and commissioned officers are appointed on a sectarian and confessional basis so as to preserve power within those groups. For example, the majority of personnel and officers in AFID are Alawite, and the majority of officers and key personnel in critical departments and divisions of other security directorates are Alawites. On a secondary level, other minorities are also disproportionately appointed to key influential positions. Loyalty, rather than competence, remains the main basis for appointments. There are nonetheless sensitive positions within the security services that must remain dominated by Alawites, such as Branch 251, which is the internal branch in the GID. This also goes for the MID’s Branch 293 and the SID’s Investigation Branch. In fact, it has been impossible for any non-Alawite to head any of these branches.
The institutionalized practices of non-coordination across agencies resulted in officers and agents abusing their powers by exploiting private and public state institutions, facilities and resources. This lead to the incapacity of societal oversight, the restriction of any public engagement, and the forced nonparticipation of citizens. On the other hand, the decentralized nature of security related decision making processes such as investigating and detaining, makes citizens liable for questioning on the same matter at multiple security branches, effectively crippling any societal movement with a prevailing security culture.
The constant interference of security agencies in the work of the police force, anti-drug units, and all other institutions including civilian and service providing bureaus as well as the judiciary has contributed to the wide spread phenomenon of “blatant encroachment” by these agencies on the power and authority of both governmental and private institutions for personal interests not related to intelligence work. This has also contributed to the propagation of practices that result in personal gains and material benefits while turning a blind eye to administrative, professional, and even penal crimes. At the same time, this conduct has deepened the culture of favoritism, malicious informant reporting, and led security personnel to exploit their authority that is sanctioned by the regime, namely to blackmail businessmen, manufacturers, and investors. All of these actions stem from a lack of an oversight authority over security personnel and restricting any disciplinary actions to internal procedures dependent on the discretion of their superior officers. It should also be noted that procurement contracts for the purchase of technical equipment needed by security agencies is done secretly without government supervision through deals between officers and security agents with domestic or foreign entities. This makes corruption and embezzlement ever present and unavoidable, while cases of security information leaks for the purpose of blackmail and direct material benefit have increased due to lack of respect for confidentiality within security service departments.
Over the past few decades, the Syrian security services have been the “big stick” in the hand of the regime and have been used, from the beginning, to deepen its authority, dominate the country, and eliminate its opponents. They have earned the terrifying reputation as the first guarantors of government stability. As a result of the role they have played in strengthening and protecting the President rule, they have gone on to significantly expand their powers by interfering in all aspects of social, economic, political, and religious life. This also has spread corruption, favoritism, and illegitimate wealth accumulation throughout the security services’ different detachments, turning them into a distinguished social class apart from the rest of society. Consequently, what makes the security services deficient is their prevailing work philosophy and security doctrine, which serves the needs of the ruler more than those of the ruled.
There are two main sources of the security service’s failings and aberrations that can be identified. The first source lies in their complex and deeply invasive structure, which has helped curb the societal activities and limited its ability to advance and develop. The second source pertains to their fluid and unrestricted functioning mechanisms, except when it pertains to the duty of protecting and preserving the regime stability.
Other reasons behind the deviation of the security agencies in Syria from fulfilling their objectives, includes the following:
These continual failures and defects have swelled discontent and intensified popular resentment among Syrians towards security agencies and their overarching unrestricted authority over civilian life in the past few decades. This has rendered the continuation of the security services’ past structure and function impossible in the aftermath of the Syrian uprising and the policies of repression and corruption that have followed along with it. This is particularly the case ever since the security services began enlisting the Shabiha, ex-criminals, and Alawite youth to confront popular protests. In the face of this level of corruption combined with the transformations witnessed in Syria’s decaying infrastructure, the collective conviction that there is no need for security services in the future has deepened.
In spite of the horizontal deployment of the military and security services on the local structural levels, as well as their violent modes of operation, the Syrian uprising has revealed a number of facts that indicate signs of failure in the agencies’ professional conduct according to its own said functions. These indicators can be itemized in the following points:
The “general strategy” adhered to by security networks and agencies in dealing with the uprising relied on pushing society towards their sphere of “control and influence.” From this, several systematic policies have emerged to achieve this end without regard to losses of human life, tradition, economic power, and state institutions. The figure below illustrates the security agencies’ geographical spread at the start of the uprising.
Security agencies have also exaggerated their ability to “achieve success” by draining and exploiting other state institutions to achieve their own ends. This has thrown other state agencies into the heat of conflict with the uprising. Military and security options have only prevailed from the perspective of the political, media, and administrative agencies that justify and legitimize their actions.
No serious study only develops visions and strategies for improving the performance of security agencies without first clearly providing answers to the primary question at hand with regards to the subject of reform and development. Does the Syrian state possess a security sector or does it merely have a group of agencies and networks that work in the regime’s favor?
The notion of a security sector/system refers to a system that encompasses all of the state’s institutions and other relevant bodies, and that undertake the role of ensuring the security of the state and its citizens. The most important of these bodies include:
Based on this definition, the Syrian state does not possess a security sector to be reformed. The requirement of a viable, effective, and beneficial security sector is a key demand during any transition process to a safe and stable state. If scrutinized closely, we will discover that security work in Syria falls into two categories:
First: Control and policing divisions: The MID and AFID are divisions of the Syrian Army and the Armed Forces, the GID is a division administered jointly by the NSB and the Ba’ath Party, whereas the PSD is a division of the Ministry of Interior.
Second: Regime Military-Security Networks: This particularly relates to the RG and 4th Armored Division, which shoulder the burden of engineering security operations, regulating their foundations and relationships, ensuring the regime’s security, and carrying out all procedures and operations within society when any security threats arise.
Accordingly, the official security agencies, as well as the legal system regulating their operation– whether in terms of legitimizing or legalizing certain societal security responsibilities – are the target of the reform (or deconstruction) process. This will occur in line with clear social considerations and standards and on the basis of building a truly cohesive security sector.
Despite the particularity of every country undergoing transition, the localized characteristics shared between Arab countries that have experienced widespread social unrest are numerous. At the top of this list is the concept of security and its associated institutions and formations. Demands for reforming and building a new security sector consistent with a dynamic community is a fundamental instigator behind the spread of demonstrations. In this context, the outcomes of these countries’ reform processes can be derived as an objective dimension, the details and observations of which should function as lessons in reforming Syria’s own security services. The process of reforming the security sector in Arab countries still faces a number of complex issues, which Yezid Sayigh, in his study on the dilemmas of reform and policing in Arab transitions,encapsulates in several topics, the most important of which are as follows:()
As a review of the faltering, halfhearted attempts at security sector reform in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen after 2011 shows, their interim governments neither leaned instinctively toward openness nor methodically pursued wide-ranging dialogue with the security sector, political partners and rivals, or civil society. This presents a negative reality in the face of promoters of change and reconstruction of an appropriate security sector capable of dealing with all urgent and unexpected variables, particularly outcomes posed by the binary of extremism and confrontational policy choices.
The most important lessons gleaned from the experiences of Arab Spring countries that should not be neglected during Syria’s own reform and what comes before it can be condensed, in spite of the density of the information on them, into the ten following lessons:
Deep-rooted challenges that hinder security sector reforms on multiple levels stem from a deteriorating state of affairs of a “failed state,” caused by two factors:
The first is the hijacking of security agencies by the regime forcing it to adapt and implement its security and military policies as dictated by the security/military networks detailed above. Additionally, the regime intentionally left a vacuum in the societal functions of the state as a result of prioritizing military and political dimensions by most relevant actors that did not take any action to prevent societal divisions and polarization, and the politicization of public services for the benefit of the regime even in the basic affairs of daily life.
The second factor relates to the monopolization of power by religious, social, and economic groups that are most loyal to the regime and their domination in key decision-making posts within state institutions while completely eliminating and crushing other opponents and depriving them of government services. This naturally reinforces pragmatist perspectives that effective reform policies should be comprehensive and not enacted individually since the process of rebuilding the state and a constructing a democratic governance system are essential requisites for the rehabilitation of security sectors and subjecting them to objective government oversight.
There is no doubt that all of these challenges that continue to impose itself on the scene during the years of conflict will become an exhausting factor in any reform procedures and processes. This demands unity of national perspectives and positions with regards to the new national security strategy. Of these challenges we can highlight the following:
It is worth reaffirming the assumptions of this study here, as it is not possible to discuss the restructuring of security agencies in Syria without first discussing the form that the Syrian state will take after the war. There is more than one scenario concerning this question: a centralized state, an administrative decentralization, or a federal or confederate system. What has been outlined is consistent with both scenarios: administrative decentralization or a central state.
Based on what has been mentioned above with regards to the security agencies’ serious flaws and deviances both structurally and functionally, calls to fully dissolve and do away with the security services entirely have become more frequent. This is because of a growing conviction among some segments of society that there is no need for these apparatuses any more. This position may seem reasonable as an immediate reaction by many to the grossly abusive practices and attitudes of security agencies witnessed by Syrians, as well as its systematic chronic failures to protect citizens and preserve humanitarian values. The agencies have proven to only work on bolstering its absolute loyalty to the regime and protecting its authority tirelessly by repressing all activities that undermine the regime’s continued rule. This can be viewed from the perspective of the close link and mutual interest shared by the regime and security agencies, such that the absence of either one leads to a loss of interests that are deemed by security agencies as “legitimate and ongoing”.
In spite of the objective justifications for these calls, security is an absolute necessity and of utmost importance in the context of any transition process, particularly in Syria and its position as a sensitive regional and international counterbalance. Generally speaking, the most significant function of the state is that of providing security in order to attain social stability, shielding the country from security breaches that threaten its social cohesion, and protecting the sovereignty of the state. Safety and security in any country is the foundation of sustainable development and without it the country will face tremendous challenges especially in post-conflict phases when society is exhausted and distracted while simultaneously undergoing reconstruction and rebuilding processes. The absence of real and sustainable development puts a stop to reform processes and thus an absence of social, economic, and political stability.
The proposal to dismantle security agencies and networks and cease all its operations without rebuilding a national alternative with a coherent structure and functions that are closely related to its nature must be ruled out, particularly during the next phase of new Syria that has witnessed many cross-border projects that attempted to deeply root itself within Syrian society. Therefore, the theory of dismantling the existing security agencies will lead to the complete collapse of the state. Hence, the demand most consistent with the “rejection of its practices and approach / necessity of security” binary appears to be the imperative of restructuring security institutions in the next phase so that they maintain a reasonable matching standard of operation to that of other advanced countries based on solid foundations of serving the nation and its citizenry.
The term “restructuring” is defined as making the necessary correction to the administrative, technical, economic, and financial structures and systems of a given agency in such a manner that allows it to remain in operation achieve its appropriate benefits. The main goal of restructuring an institution is to increase its efficiency and benefits that correspond with its new objectives and the requirements of the next phase. In this context, the process of restructuring security agencies involves rebuilding them in a manner consistent with the public’s interest to be protected from threats to their security and stability, and safeguarding the free operation and growth of civic activities and institutions. Thus, the restructuring process must include the following:
Any country’s national security derives its theoretical and practical frameworks from two main principles that represent the core of the state’s existence. The first is sovereignty, which is defined as the country’s control of full jurisdiction over its territory independent of any other authority, as long as this jurisdiction is not restricted by international laws. National security functional domain is considered a direct outcome of its sovereignty in that it is an idea based on the state’s legal authority to defend itself and protect its security by taking all necessary measures. The second principle relates to the state’s essential and vital interests, which refers to a very fluid concept that at its core grants the state higher privileges and inherent authorities to fulfill its interests over all other individuals and groups, therefore, state security represents the prime domain of its interests. National security may at times become an obsession that is then constructed within the core political doctrine of the state, thus influencing its approach and practice by dealing with security as a mean and end goal at the same time. This is especially observed when the state adopts a terminology of conspiracy theories or obsession with threats and enemies in its domestic and foreign strategies, which is the justification used by police states. The orientation of a police state is reflected in many practices and norms, the most prominent of which is its suspicion and lack of confidence in the intentions of others and violent conduct domestically and abroad. In the context of preserving national security, the state further justifies actions on many fronts and often creates situations that distract from internal chronic crises or deficiencies within itself thus justifying intrusions into private spheres, purchasing new arms and weaponry and attempting to militarize society. The most dangerous and predominant goal of these types of regimes is that of violently curbing freedoms and reducing authority to an individual to justify totalitarianism.
Establishing the national pact, that determines the dimensions and scope of the mutual relationship between the security agency and society and clarifies its mandate, rights, and responsibilities, is a necessary prerequisite for initiating the reform process. To this end, this study recommends a number of fundamentals that this social pact should incorporate:
The goal of restructuring the Syrian security agencies in the future can be summed up in the protection of the state and citizens or “national security”, rather than exclusively protecting certain individuals and groups at the expense of national security. Accordingly, the specific objectives of restructuring security agencies can be outlined as follows:
First: Ensuring the safety and security of the country and its citizens through a series of measures and policies that reinforce objective conditions for achieving stability. Among these measures are the following:
Second: Building and developing the professional capacities for security sector personnel to elevate the standards of operation of the security sector consistent with the requirements posed by the transitional period through the following steps:
Third: Ensuring the synchronization and collaboration between the justice and security sectors: This is one of the most important factors for the success and advancement of the security sector that will curb its unlawful and disenfranchising powers, and limit its intrusive and authoritarian aggression over societal policies, provided that justice sector institutions also undergo rigorous reform processes that isolate it from the regime and its networks. The most important measures in this regard are as follows:
Fourth: Confronting all potential security risks and threats in Syria by adopting a series of counter-measures and policies, the most important of which include:
The diagram to the right illustrates the stages and necessary measures for the restructuring process that are based on principles of change and a seamless coherent transition, in fear of unexpected results of sudden changes on the integrity of the country. It also ensures that security agencies are restructured within the national framework and complementing other state institutions. These processes shall reflect a series of political agreements representing the true will for change and political transition without any controlling or authoritarian ambitions.
Phase I: Issuing a set of legislation and decrees that are necessary for the restructuring process to address the following points:
Phase II: Launching systematic reforms to internal structure to include the following steps:
Phase III: Constructing the remaining components of the security sector and establishing complementing working conditions between the security and civil sectors:
An Overall Vision for the “National Public Security Agency”
From what was mentioned above, after the restructuring of the security agencies, two new security apparatuses will be created:
The limits of cooperation between these two agencies is based on the principle of “information sharing” according to the mandate for each agency while collaborating to protect the state domestically and abroad, and protecting its sovereignty.
National Public Security Agency
This agency is concerned with safeguarding the country’s domestic security, protecting state institutions, preventing security breaches and information leaks, uncovering espionage, coordinating with the state institutions such as education, media, and economic institutions in service of the national interest, and preserving the unity and integrity of the nation and society. It comprises two agencies. The first is the Domestic Intelligence Agency, and the second is the Foreign Intelligence Agency. This is clarified in the figure below:
First: Domestic Intelligence Agency (DIA)
The Domestic Intelligence Agency (DIA) encompasses intelligence and operational functions. Its intelligence activity centers around the following measures:
The DIA’s operational activities focus on information gathering and source management. One of its most important objectives is preserving the security and secrets of the state, and the political, economic, and security resulting ramifications. Additionally, it provides border control services to monitor inward and outward movements, safeguards all national political activities whether of the authority or other local political entities, uncovers and prevents sabotage activity, and provides security for important national sites (such as ministries, electricity plants, factories, etc.) and critical military and civilian targets.
Operational activities are assigned according to the following departments:
Second: Foreign Intelligence Agency (FIA)
The Foreign Intelligence Agency (FIA) is tasked with protecting and maintaining state interests abroad, and managing external intelligence stations. It includes the following departments:
Political consensus over the importance of security sector reform both structurally and functionally is a primary basis for the success of the transitional process towards a state with real institutions under the rule of law. Therefore, national dialogue about the paths, mechanisms, and forms of transition away from political polarizations while focusing more on security threats facing the state and its citizens is an essential step. A truly national dialogue works to recognize unique and local conditions that may lead to a total collapse of the state, and explores strategies and mechanisms to avoid becoming a failed state while being fully conscious of the requirements and requisites of regional security, by means of highlighting the goal and priority of solidifying local and regional stability, and reinforcing mutual collaboration and coordination with civilian components or with relevant agencies in neighboring countries.
In order to transition away from a state of “cancerous swelling” by existing security agencies towards a coherent national security sectorthrough a relatively smooth process, it is necessary to take several steps and measures on civilian, military, and security levels that stem from a necessity of interconnectedness and synchronization between the overall reform and transition processes and national trends and constructive societal and political interactions. This realization further facilitates reaching a true political solution, and in this sense the current negotiations track in Geneva -that continues to debate non-essential issues because of the US-Russian talks - does not indicate a commitment to establish a transitional period that ensures real change on political, constitutional and social levels. This is stalling the progress of reform. Serious work by the international community to discuss the core issues at hand -and not avoid or sideline them- will help create a conducive environment with necessary factors for regaining societal and national stability.
There is no doubt that questions regarding security reform (systematically, functionally, and structurally) are among the most important questions awaiting objective responses that take into account the emerging conditions and escalating variables that shook Syria. This process, in and of itself, is complex and will not be fixed – based on Syria’s unique situation – using or borrowing prepackaged reform theories, or models and schemes that ignore and undervalue the nature and importance of national security, on one hand, or theories that overlook the necessities of maintaining cohesion and preventing full collapse and chaos on the other. This requires a professional, national effort that both recognizes the demands and requirements set forth by local, regional, and international security structures and seeks to build a cohesive security sector.