Last week, the daily Al-Joumhouria published the transcripts of the surveillance tapes in the case of former minister Michel Samaha, who was recently arrested and charged for plotting a campaign of terrorist bombings in northern Lebanon. Samaha was caught red-handed, and his conversations with the head of the cell that was to execute these bombings were taped, as this operative himself had been recruited by the Internal Security Forces.
These transcripts offer a unique window into the Syrian regime’s decision-making process and chain of command when commissioning terror operations in Lebanon. But more importantly, they provide us with an interesting insight into the current structure of the regime. What they reveal is that, over the course of the uprising, Bashar al-Assad has further consolidated the security services. In effect, the regime is little more than Bashar himself.
Misunderstanding the nature and structure of the Assad regime has been a chronic problem that has long affected Western analysis and policymaking. Misinterpretation became even more acute after Bashar inherited power after his father died in 2000. The most infamous example was the “old guard” thesis: that is, the notion that a “reform-minded” Bashar was constrained by entrenched remnants from his father’s time. Similarly, several analysts posited the existence of a “hardline” faction within the regime, and spoke of autonomous security chiefs who were able to pursue certain policies without Bashar’s knowledge, and, presumably, against his wishes. Bashar, in other words, was presented as merely a “figurehead”—the president who, in the words of Paul Salem, “does not command.”
Thus, it was hardly surprising when, following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, many Arab and Western pundits often claimed that it probably wasn’t Bashar personally who gave that order. Even though Bashar reportedly threatened to “break Lebanon over [Hariri’s] head,” these pundits nevertheless maintained that such a decision was either made without his knowledge, or, at best, was forced on him by the powerful elements of the regime who “really” make major security decisions, if not general policy.
Likewise, following the uprising against the regime, some analysts played along with the conceit that Bashar himself was not responsible for the security services’ brutal response. It was his brother Maher, or the supposedly autonomous security agencies, or the “rogue” shabiha paramilitaries. “We may never know who made the decision … to unleash these inhumane gangs … though I doubt Bashar al-Assad did,” writes Stephen Starr in his new book on the Syrian revolution.
Such analysis was not only the result of wishful thinking or advocacy. It was also the product of faulty speculation based on questionable assumptions about Bashar. The Samaha transcripts now offer a corrective.
In their first meeting, the ISF informant asks Samaha about the status of the Syrian command, especially following the late July explosion that killed Assad’s brother in law and three other top officials.
Samaha dismissed the informant’s concern, explaining to him that the fuss was the result of “ignorance of those who don’t know the nature of the edifice.” People “don’t know who is essential” in the regime. Those killed, Samaha added, were “the front” and “didn’t have command on the ground.” Not even Asef Shawkat— Assad’s brother in law, who died in the blast—was in the inner circle.
More important was Samaha’s comment on Bashar, whom he presents as a leader totally in command of his security chiefs. “Bashar has been working full days for 17 months. He knows who orders whom, who’s out, and he has constructed his own edifice.” In other words, Samaha is making clear that the Syrian president is fully in control of the entire security apparatus, even as Assad designates certain key figures to implement his policies.
Throughout, Samaha emphasized the role of General Ali Mamlouk, the former head of the General Security Directorate who was appointed director of the National Security Bureau (NSB) following the July bombing. Samaha noted that Bashar had changed the role of the NSB director. Whereas this position used to not have any actual authority, “now all the [security] agencies report to him.” When it comes to the issue of security, Samaha clarified, Mamlouk has a direct relationship with the president.
In this security hierarchy, Samaha explained that Bashar was at the top with Mamlouk right under him. Here we see an important transformation in the dynamics of Syria’s intelligence apparatus. Before the uprising, Assad’s role was to balance and manipulate redundant security organs; after the uprising, he has consolidated them under his command, through Mamlouk’s office. Assad’s direct control over the security services becomes apparent when Samaha describes the directive to execute the operation in Lebanon. Samaha reassures the informant that only two people in Syria know about this matter, and about the informant’s role in it: Mamlouk and his overlord Bashar.
While the limited number of people in the know reassures the informant, he was nervous as to why he, in particular, was chosen for this task. “Trust, trust, trust,” Samaha replies. Mamlouk, Samaha explains, had talked with him about these operations, and the informant’s name was brought up. Mamlouk knew who he was and agreed that this was the trusted figure to carry out the operation.
Samaha’s description shows how even on the level of operational minutiae, the chain of command leads to the top of the Syrian pyramid, namely Bashar himself, who ultimately gives the go ahead. Mamlouk organizes it with the Lebanese middleman, Samaha, who liaises with the commander of the cell.
This diagram is of consequence today. Analysts like Salem have maintained “Bashar is not the top killer.” But Michel Samaha, his trusted Lebanese friend, says different. In reality, Samaha has described how Bashar has absorbed the entire security apparatus of the Syrian state, consolidating all the regime’s most significant security institutions through a surrogate, Ali Mamlouk.
The Obama administration continues to insist that Syria’s “state institutions” must be preserved. However, what the Samaha case makes clear—by drawing a direct line from Assad’s assets in Lebanon to his deputies in Syria—is that Assad has arrogated to himself all of the Syrian institutions that really matter: the security establishment. In other words, the effect of the White House’s policy is not just to preserve Alawite hegemony in Syria, but to preserve the cult of personality that Bashar has institutionalized—even after Bashar himself is gone.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.