The Power Elite

Syria Table of Contents

In early 1987, the Syrian government remained an autocracy in which power was concentrated in the hands of President Assad. Assad (the name means "lion" in Arabic and was chosen by Assad to replace his actual family name of Al Wahash, which means "beast") had tightened his grip in sixteen years as chief of state. Assad's leadership was legitimized through such governmental structures as the Baath Party apparatus, the People's Council, and the Council of Ministers. These institutions, however, were a veneer for military rule, and the holders of nominally important political posts rarely wielded independent power. Assad's true base of support lay in his control of key military units, various praetorian guards, and the intelligence and security services. The commando forces, bodyguards, and secret police--referred to generically by Syrian citizens as the mukhabarat--were instrumental in maintaining the Assad regime's power. The men Assad entrusted with command of these forces often exerted political influence disproportionate to their official positions and had a greater political voice than civilian politicians. Ultimately, however, Assad was more inclined to designate responsibility to his underlings than to delegate authority to them.

Until the mid-1980s, the Syrian power elite was composed of Assad and his family. The president's younger brother, Rifaat, commanded a division-sized praetorian guard called the Defense Companies (Saraya ad Difa), which was stationed in Damascus as a countercoup force. His older brother, Jamil al Assad, commanded a militia called the Murtada. A nephew, Adnan al Assad, commanded the Struggle Companies (Saraya as Sira), while another nephew, Fawwaz, led a security force stationed in Latakia. These commando forces were not under the command of the regular armed forces; rather, they were constructed as counterweights to the power of the regular military. Jamil was put under house arrest in 1981 after an unsuccessful challenge to his brother, and in 1984 Rifaat was exiled to Europe and his Defense Companies incorporated into the army when he likewise sought to attain power. Assad was therefore compelled to dilute the power of his family members because they posed a threat to him.

In 1987 Assad was not the apex of a pyramid of power nor had he created a hierarchical power elite below him. Rather, he relied on a coterie of about a dozen men with approximately equal power who commanded key military units or security services. In competing to protect their positions, they counterbalanced and neutralized each other. Their areas of responsibility were compartmentalized and overlapping, and they reported directly to the president rather than coordinating with their counterparts. Consequently, they could not easily build their own power bases or form coalitions that might pose a threat to Assad's rule.

This cell structure allowed Assad to retain power in Syria for an unprecedented period of time. Most of the elite group belonged to Assad's Alawi minority, and many belonged to Assad's own Numaylatillah clan and Matawirah tribe within the Alawi minority. Some were related to the president and to each other by blood or marriage, further ensuring their loyalty. Moreover, Assad reportedly had been assiduous in paying homage to the Alawi traditional tribal elders to reinforce this minority power base.

In theory, the most important men in Syria after the president were the vice presidents. However, Assad's appointment of three vice presidents in 1985 reflected the divide-and-rule strategy he applied elsewhere in the government. In order to maintain family solidarity, Rifaat al Assad was made vice president for security affairs, but by 1987, stripped of his military command, he had no real power. As a matter of protocol to symbolize the continued importance of the party, Baath Party functionary Zuhayr Mashariqa, a Sunni Muslim, was appointed vice president for party affairs. Abd al Halim Khaddam, the former foreign minister, was promoted to vice president for political and foreign affairs. Of the three vice presidents, Khaddam acted as the true deputy to Assad and was firmly ensconced in the president's inner circle. In early 1987, foreign observers tended to view Khaddam as a candidate to succeed Assad as a compromise leader.

Non-Alawis were also influential in the Assad regime. Khaddam, for example, was a Sunni Muslim (athough his wife was a Matawirah Alawi). Prime Minister Abd ar Rauf al Kassim, Speaker of the People's Council Mahmud az Zubi, Baath Party assistant secretary general Abdallah al Ahmar, and Armed Forces Chief of Staff Hikmat Shihabi were other Sunni Muslims holding high government positions in 1987. Minister of Defense Mustafa Tlas was also a Sunni Muslim, although his mother was an Alawi. Most Sunnis who had risen to prominence in the military since the Baath Revolution, including Shihabi and Tlas, had a similar background: they were born in and grew up in rural villages, rather than in Damascus or other large cities. Such men, although belonging to the nation's Sunni majority, were never members of the old privileged Sunni elite and shared a common socioeconomic class origin with the new minority elite. Assad's refusal to designate a successor was typical of his refusal to share political power. His mysterious demeanor seemed to justify his nickname, "the sphinx," which he earned while a member of the secret officers' conspiracy in Egypt in the late 1950s.

In 1980, however, Assad began to cultivate the support of members of the old Sunni Damascene elite, a class that contained many of Syria's influential technocrats, intellectuals, and merchants. He propelled some of these people into high-profile (if not powerful) positions in his government. Assad's patronage gave the Sunni elite a vested interest in accommodating itself to the new order, which helped legitimize and stabilize his regime. For example, Prime Minister Kassim is from an old Damascene family. Minister of Culture Najah al Attar is the sister of exiled Muslim Brotherhood opposition leader Issam al Attar. Because the Attar family is respected by Damascene Sunni Muslims, her appointment served to discourage the Muslim fundamentalist opposition from operating in Damascus.

Another less-known pillar of regime support was the tacit coalition of minorities that Assad had constructed. Non-Muslims such as Christians and Druze's, heterodox Muslims such as Ismailis and Yazidis, and non-Arab Muslims such as Kurds and Circassians had made common cause with the Alawi minority because of the shared fear that they would be persecuted under an orthodox Sunni government. Consequently, members of such minority groups were appointed to important posts in the Assad government.

In addition to these groups, several important and influential military figures supported Assad in 1987. Major General Muhammad Khawli, chief of air force intelligence and head of the National Security Council, was Assad's right-hand man. Khawli was a Matawirah Alawi and a long-time trusted friend of Assad. His position was especially sensitive because Assad rose to power through the air force, and this service has been the breeding ground for several abortive coup attempts. Khawli's deputy, Lieutenant Colonel Haitam as Said, was allegedly involved in sponsorship of terrorism in Europe. Ali Aslan, also a Matawirah Alawi, was deputy chief of staff of the armed forces. Aslan, a rising political star, was promoted to army corps general in 1984, a rank shared only by the minister of defense and the armed forces chief of staff. Both Khawli and Aslan were elected to the Baath Party Central Committee in 1984. Adnan Makhluf, the president's brother-in-law, commanded the Republican Guard, a presidential protection force. Other core members of the Syrian power elite in 1987 included Air Defense Commander Ali Salih and Army Intelligence Chief Ali Duba, both Alawis of the Matawirah tribe. In 1987 Duba reportedly was leader of a clique that included Army First Division Commander Ibrahim Safi and Syria's intelligence chief in Lebanon, Ghazi Kanaan; this coterie was competing for influence with a group led by Khawli and Aslan.

Members of the power elite occasionally fall from grace. After the 1984 power struggle, General Intelligence Directorate Chief Ahmad Diab, a staunch supporter of Rifaat's bid for succession, was demoted. However, Assad, pursuing his evenhanded policy, also chastised Rifaat's rivals for power; Ali Haydar, commander of the Special Forces, and commander of the army's Third Division Shafiq al Fayyad were removed from their commands as well. Rifaat al Assad was exiled to Western Europe once again in early 1986, where he remained in early 1987. These men probably could be rehabilitated and restored to rank if they proved their renewed loyalty to Assad.

In 1987 the power elite remained in a state of flux in which people were rising to power, being demoted, being rehabilitated, and forming and breaking alliances. Assad permitted and manipulated much of this maneuvering because it both revealed and dissipated the ambitions of potential rivals.

In 1987 the question of who will eventually succeed Assad as president remained open. In a 1984 interview, Assad stated that his successor would be nominated by the Baath Party and the People's Council, which constituted the "supreme legitimate authority in the country," and elected by public referendum. Although Assad has governed Syria through a power elite, his answer expressed his desire for Syria to be governed in the future by institutions rather than personalities.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress