AS fighting rages in Damascus, and the Assad family that has ruled Syria for four decades struggles for its life against a growing rebellion, a picture is emerging of a tight inner group determined to fight its way out of the crisis, even as support for the government falls away.At its head is President Bashar al-Assad, who inherited power from his father in 2000 and who friend and opponent alike say appears increasingly detached from reality, convinced he is fighting a conspiracy against him and Syria.
Around him is a tight circle of family and clan members, and a security establishment staffed mainly by adherents of the Alawite minority to which the Assads belong, a branch of Shi’ite Islam in a country that is three quarters Sunni.
“Even those who love him feel he can no longer provide security,” said Ayman Abdel-Nour, an adviser to Assad until 2007 and now an opposition figure. “They think he is useless and living in a cocoon.”
“He thinks of himself as God’s messenger to rule Syria. He listens to the sycophants around him who tell him ‘you are a gift from God’. He believes that he is right and that whoever contradicts him is a traitor. Many of his close friends and advisers have either left him or distanced themselves from him.”
In response, Assad has taken charge of a military crisis unit and takes all the daily decisions, from the deployment of army units to tasks assigned to the security services, as well as mobilisation of the Alawite Shabbiha, the feared militia accused of a series of massacres in the past two months.
“Bashar remains the centre. He is involved in the day-to-day details of managing the crisis,” said a Lebanese politician close to the Syrian rulers. “He set up an elite unit led by him to manage the crisis daily.”
In this unit, intelligence chief Hisham Bekhtyar is responsible for security coordination, Dawoud Rajha is minister of defence, Assef Shawkat, the president’s powerful brother-in-law, is deputy chief of staff of the armed forces. Alongside them are Ali Mamlouk, special adviser on security, Abdel-Fattah Qudsiyeh, head of military intelligence, and Mohammad Nassif Kheyrbek, a veteran operator from the era of Assad’s father.
Maher al-Assad, the president’s younger brother and Syria’s second most powerful man, commands the main loyalist strike forces.
“Maher is directly involved in the confrontation on the ground and is in direct contact with every one of them. He has direct military responsibilities,” the Lebanese politician said.
While there has been no shake-up in the leadership, its inner circle is beginning to realise it faces a serious crisis. “In the hierarchy of the authorities you don’t see a noticeable change”, he said. Abdel-Nour, the former Assad adviser, paints a darker picture of the inner circle. He stresses that there is nothing autonomous about the way government units operate, whether the shelling of opposition neighbourhoods by Maher’s armoured columns or the killing of villagers by the Shabbiha militia. All units are under Bashar’s command and many have family ties.
Each region has its own Shabbiha leader and many of the central cities are led by Shabbiha men related to Assad. The 46-year-old Assad said last month that Syria was at war and ordered his government to spare no effort in pursuit of victory against rebels he has described as terrorists.