A Syrian citizen, now living in the European Union but still having strong contacts with his homeland through friends and relatives, answered to a set of questions about the country’s situation. This person’s identity is not revealed for obvious reasons.
This first – out of three – part will provide the reader with particularly accurate details on how the Syrian so-called security forces are divided, subdivided and kept under the regime’s control.
There we go.
Some Western newspapers often report civilians as being killed by what they call « security forces ». There are however at least three names that we have heard of: the Army, the Mukhabarat and the Shabeeha. What are the differences between them? Is each of these forces even more subdivided into branches, for example according to religious or social considerations?
The Syrian army.
The president of Syria is the commander of the army. The military service is compulsory for males reaching the age of 18 (unless he does not have brothers, in this case he is exempted from this service), and for a period of 18 months. The army counts for 200,000 regular soldiers and around 300,000 doing the obligatory service. It is estimated that 70% of regular soldiers are alawites. Although they are less than 15% of the whole population. And 80% of officers are alawites. Which are very close to the Assad alawite family. It worth noted that Syria sent 30,000 soldiers to Lebanon from 1975 till 2005, while the Lebanese army count was 18,000 soldiers.
The Syrian army has 5 divisions:
- Ground forces: it has three Corps, around 20 independent brigades, and two special divisions « protecting damascus »: the 4th armored division and the republican guard armored division. The 4th armored division and the republican guard are the most advanced divisions of the army, with the most up-to-date weapons, and heavy training, and they are 100% alawites. The 4th armored division count between 15,000-25,000 and the republican guard around 10,000 soldiers. During the 1970s The 4th armored division was called the Defense Companies and was led by the former president brother, Rifaat Assad, this division was the main army division responsible for the 1982 Hama massacre. Now both divisions are commanded by the current president brother Maher Assad. And those two divisions that are mainly attacking people now.
- Naval forces: around 4,000 soldiers.
- Air forces: around 60,000 soldiers.
- Management: no comment.
- Military intelligence division: I will detail it in the next section, because although they are called military intelligence but they do the same work as other intelligence services, or what we call: Mukhabarat.
Mukhabarat: it has 4 divisions.
- Military intelligence division: It has 15 branches:
1- Damascus intelligence branch
2- Front intelligence branch
3- Alep intelligence branch
4- Swaidaa intelligence branch
5- Homs intelligence branch
6- Hama intelligence branch
7- Military interrogation branch
8- Raids and incursions branch
9- Military security branch (Officers’ affairs)
10- Military security branch (Computer branch)
11- Foreign branch
12- Security of forces branch
13- Palestine branch
14- Patrols branch
15- Wireless branch
- General Intelligence Department (State Security): It has 10 branches
1- Internal branch
2- Raids and incursions branch
3- Spying branch
4- Information branch
5- Investigation branch
6- Daraa intelligence branch
7- Qamishli intelligence branch
8- Der Ezzur intelligence branch
9- Idleb intelligence branch
10- Halbouni branch
- Political Security Division: It has 5 branches
1- Damascus branch
2- Damascus-suburb branch
3- Investigation branch
4- Mayssat branch
5- Hama branch
- Air Intelligence: It has two branches
1- Airport branch
2- Investigation branch
They are thugs that commit crimes knowing that they will not be punished, they appeared in late 1970s from groups of smugglers and armed gangs led by the Assad family members. They would smuggle anything from cigarettes, drugs, alcohol, cars, electric devices, even arms. Some of these gangs had their own ports on the Syrian coast. All of them are led by different relatives to the Assad family. Like Monzer Assad, Hilal Assad, Haroun Assad, Ali Assad, Somar Assad, Sewar Assad, Fawaz Assad etc. They are armed people with complete loyalty to the Assad family, they are nothing more than criminals.
Do all these forces collaborate one with the other, or are they more in a mutual surveillance scheme?
They do NOT collaborate, each branch has its own database and information system. The different Mukhabarat branches are in mutual surveillance scheme. The army is under surveillance by the different branches of the military intelligence division. An army officer would do anything to please an intelligence officer even of lower rank. The intelligence officers have much more privileges than the army officers « which they have privileges too, like cars, houses, even farms ». But in the current events I think the different branches are coordinating somehow at least at the command level.
Does the fact of belonging to the Mukhabarat or Shabeeha give an « official » status to a person, implicating that they have to obey to particular hierarchy and organization?
Being a member of Mukhabarat means that you have the status of a soldier or a policeman, depending to which branch you belong. So they have hierarchy and organization. As far as the Shabeeha goes, they are criminals with license to do crimes, so there are different gangs and each one of them is protected by an Assad relative. And there has been many events in the past were they have problem with each other, so we hear about intensive fire shooting mostly in the coast cities, where they run their business. They had also some bases in the suburb of Damascus. The current president brother Bassel Assad, run a big cleaning campaign against them especially from Damascus, he did not mind that they do their activities but he thought there is no need that they should be armed, since a lot of them were loyal to the former president brother Rifaat Assad, who was expelled from Syria because of conflicts between him and his brother. He even surrounded the presidential palace with tanks trying to get the power from his brother Hafez. Eventually Bassel Assad was killed in a « car accident » in the mid 1995, and that’s when Hafez called the younger son Bashar in to take over the throne.
To what extent is the Mukhabarat mixed and hidden within the population?
There are a lot of them in the society and they are not hidden, they clearly show themselves specially because they wear civil clothes and they have a gun on their belts. But there is a big number of informers, mostly taxi drivers. So you’re a poor guy from a village were you have far relative know some intelligence officer. He can find you a job as a taxi driver, so the intelligence officer gives you a taxi, so you collect information and money for him. It is very complicated « ecosystem ».
Which means do they use to spot potential dissidents?
Whenever they have any lead, « even false leads » they would go with full arms to his house. They would use all kind of information sources: informants, internet, telephone, old records.
How does the regime manage to keep this impressive but fuzzy repressive machine under control, given that some officers have very large degree of freedom?
They have a very large degree of freedom to oppress the people, and to do whatever they want in respect to the mafia objectives, and never cross the lines drawn by bigger shark. Whenever an officer or whoever behaves otherwise, he is eliminated. I gave you the example of the son of the former president, we have also a lot of examples of the supporters of the former presidents brother that they were eliminated. The more they climb in the hierarchy their punishment is bigger if they defy the mafia.
Damascus and Aleppo seem to be relatively quiet, whereas Homs and Daraa undergo more severe repressions. How can this be explained?
- The huge presence of Mukhabarat in damascus and aleppo.
- In Aleppo there is a lot of rich people who have good ties with the regime and who benefit from its existence.
- Many Assad supporters live in Damascus, you know all the families of the alawite army officers and intelligence officers.
- In Damascus there are lot of people who believes that they need stability and peace. They lived during the 1980s where the former president brother Refaat Assad and his Defence Companies terrorized damascus. e.g. They would stop the bus and remove all the veils of the women and insult them in front of their parents, husbands, kids, etc. without anyone begin able to do anything against it
It seems that Al-Rastan was kept out of Syrian authorities control since May, until the end of September. Why this particular city?
Al-Rastan is the city of the former defense minister Moustafa Tlas who was very close to the former president. Tlas family and sons were running their business in Syria using the influence of their father not using the Shabeeha way. So a lot of its inhabitants were enrolled into the army and got high ranks, they have around 1,900 officer and 2,000 regular soldiers. And it has a high educational ratio compared to other cities.