Today, the reign of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria is teetering in the face of a popular uprising. His Baath Party, which used to administer the state, has collapsed giving way to a quasi-Assad family-military rule. The security forces and intelligence agencies are faltering in their attempt to suppress the rebels as well. A look at how the Syrian regime has been run shows close similarities to the rule of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Both ran their governments not through institutions, but with family. The two Baathist dictators were also afraid of coups, and therefore undermined their own militaries and intelligence agencies to protect themselves. The shortcomings of such strategies are now all to apparent as Assad is expected to eventually fall from power.
Family rather than competence was what ran the Iraqi state under Saddam (center) pictured here with sons Uday (left) and Qusay (right) (Reuters)
Family and tribal ties, not position, institutions or abilities were how Saddam Hussein and Hafez and Bashar al-Assad ran their countries. In Iraq, Saddam’s sons, cousins, extended family, and those from his home region of Tikrit in Salahaddin province were given prominent positions throughout the government. His son Qusay for example, was given control of the Special Republican Guard and the Republican Guard. He also ran the Special Security Organization, the Directorate General of Intelligence, the General Security forces, and was a member of the Baath Party’s Regional Command, and deputy of the party’s Military Bureau. Saddam’s older son Uday controlled the state media, and was in charge of the Saddam Fedayeen militia. Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri was Saddam’s number two, and the vice chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council, Northern Region Commander, deputy Secretary General of the Baath Party Regional Command, and Deputy Commander of the Armed Forces. He was from the Tikrit region, and his daughter was married to Uday Hussein for a time. Saddam’s cousin, General Ali Hassan al-Majid was better known as “Chemical Ali” for his role in the Halabja massacre and the Anfal campaign against the Kurds. At various times he was the Defense and Interior Minister, head of the Security Office, Secretary General of the Northern Bureau of the Baath Party, and the military governor of Kuwait after the 1990 invasion. Likewise in Syria, nepotism runs rampant. President Assad’s brother General Maher al-Assad commands the Republican Guard and the Army’s 4th Division. His cousin, Hafez Makhlouf is a deputy director in the State Security, and has more influence over it than the actual head. Assad’s brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, is the army deputy chief of staff, his other cousin Zual Hima Chalich is head of presidential security. Two more of his cousins, Fawaz al-Assad and Munzer al-Assad, run the Shabiha militia. All are currently at the forefront of fighting the Syrian rebels. In both countries, the fear of coups, uprisings, and the desire to hold onto power as tightly as possible led the dictators to turn to their families to ensure control and protection. The hope was that when crises arose they could be assured of loyalty and ruthlessness to preserve the regime. At the same time, the leaders were sacrificing expertise and sound advice for sycophants who would only tell the leaders what they wanted to hear, because their fates were directly tied to the autocrats. In Syria for example, the government could have tried to compromise with the opposition when it first started. Instead, it immediately turned to violence, because it was so afraid to give up even an inch of power to those outside of Assad’s inner circle.
Like Saddam, Hafez al-Assad (center) relied upon his sons Maher (left) and Bashar (right) to help run the Syrian state (Lonely Planet)
The fear of being overthrown also led both Saddam and Hafez al-Assad to create multiple military units, and security and intelligence agencies that were all meant to check each other. Saddam looked at Iraqi history, and saw a series of military takeovers. There were several attempts in the 1990s for instance, one of which included members of the elite Republican Guard. He therefore interpreted this to be the main threat to his rule. Saddam’s response was to form a variety of new units, agencies, and militias all with overlapping responsibilities to keep an eye on each other, the government, and the public. Some of these organizations included the Special Security Office, the Iraqi Intelligence Service, the Directorate of General Security, the General Directorate of Military Intelligence, the Republican Guard, the Special Republican Guard, the Saddam Fedayeen, Al Quds, and the martyrs brigades. An Iraqi officer told American interrogators after the 2003 invasion that, “The main function of the Republican Guard Security Office was to monitor and ensure the loyalty of Republican Guard forces. All phones in Republican Guard offices were monitored and all meetings were recorded. High-ranking officers were subjected to constant technical monitoring and surveillance in and out of their homes. The Republican Guard Security Office monitored all aspects of senior Republican Guard officers’ lives, including their financial affairs and diet.” The extreme mistrust the Iraqi dictator felt for his own forces meant that he did not allow them to train or conduct military maneuvers that often. Only the Special Republican Guard was allowed within Baghdad itself. The Republican Guard was placed outside of the capital, and then the regular army units. He didn’t allow any military units to coordinate with each other. Officers couldn’t visit other units, and commanders couldn’t move their forces without permission from the top leadership. There were also constant purges and murders of officers. This caused fear and mistrust throughout the military. On top of that, Saddam broke the country up into four security regions, and placed loyalists in charge of each who had no real expertise in military affairs. All together that meant the Iraqi military was completely unprepared for the 2003 invasion. There was no meaningful preparation, because all of the decisions were made by people with no understanding of strategy and tactics just their ties to Saddam. As the U.S. led Coalition quickly swept through the country, the military couldn’t respond, because they could show no initiative, and only wait for commands from Baghdad. The same fears and problems exist in Syria. President Hafez al-Assad came to power in 1963 in a Baathist take over. In 1970, he held his own coup against rival members within the party. To protect himself from another military putsch, he created 15 different security and intelligence services including the General Intelligence Directorate, Military Intelligence, Air Force Intelligence, the Special Forces, the Presidential Guard, the Republican Guard, and others. Like in Iraq, these all had overlapping duties so that none could really do their job completely, and each would be a rival of the other. There are also agencies whose sole duty is spying upon the military. The armed forces were also divided, and militias were created as well. The Army Command for example, has direct control of the Republican Guard, the Desert Guard, the 120th Mountain Infantry Brigade, and several other units. As stated before, there is also the Shabiha militia run by members of the Assad family. Even though the Syrian army and security services were meant to protect the government from coups and uprisings, the division of duties amongst multiple groups actually hollowed them out. Each undermines the other, and there is fear and suspicion throughout the ranks just as in Iraq under Saddam. They also can’t act without orders from the top making them unable to effectively respond to the changing situation on the ground. What Saddam and the Assads saw as coup proofing their regimes, actually worked against them when they were faced with real challenges to their rule.
The Hussein and Assad families followed very similar paths to power. Both Saddam and Hafez were members of the Baath Party, and seized power in coups. They later got rid of their rivals within the party to become sole authorities in their countries. They were then intent upon preventing themselves from being deposed in a similar manner. They turned to relatives to help them rule, and divided up their militaries and security services into multiple units and agencies with divided commands, so that none could emerge as a threat. As a result, the security forces were emasculated. When 2003 came, that meant the Iraqi military could not provide much of a defense for the regime against the U.S. and British. The same is happening today in Syria as the armed forces are hampered by the system created by the Assads in their fight against the rebels. When the government eventually falls there, it will be a result of their nepotism and fears created by their autocratic rule.
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Belhadj, Souhail, “The Decline of Syria’s Baath Party,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 12/5/12
Bennett, Richard, “The Syrian Military: A Primer,” Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, August/September 2001
Cloud, David and Barrionuevo, Alexei, “Hussein’s Two Sons Are Killed In Firefight With U.S. Troops,” Wall Street Journal, 7/23/03
Global Security, “Ali Hassan al Majid “Chemical Ali”
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Hendi, Ahed, “The Structure of Syria’s Repression,” Foreign Affairs, 5/3/11
IraqSlogger, “Rise and Fall of Chemical Ali,” 8/22/07
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Woods, Kevin with Pease, Michael, Stout, Mark, Murray, Williamson, and Lacey, James, “A View of Operation Iraqi Freedom from Saddam’s Senior Leadership,” Iraqi Perspectives Project, 3/24/06
One of the things I noticed you didn't mention in this post is that the Hussein regime held deep ties with the Syrian government. I guess it's safe to say it's a "no-brainer", but that would help explain a little bit of the reason the Assad's are having a difficult time. Too close to Hussein; too much like him in style of governship.
It's something to think about...
I see the relationship between Assad and Hussein as being more difficult. First they were from rivals factions of the Baath Party. When the Syrian Baath Party turned on its founder Michel Aflaq, Iraq took him in, and he later became good friends with Saddam. In the 1970s Saddam opposed plans for Iraq to join with Syria in an Arab union. Assad also let in many anti-Saddam factions such as the Dawa party. Don't forget that Syria also took part in the Gulf War on the U.S. side. At the same time there was plenty of illegal smuggling between the two countries, especially during the sanctions period. Still, I wouldn't say they had a close relationship.
I think what united them was their worldviews. They were both autocrats and both feared coups, and that largely shaped how they ruled.
Dianne Sawyer asked Hafez al-Assad in a 1991 interview "what are the differences between you and Saddam Hussein." The Syrian leader laughed and paused with his reply that there were no similarities between the two so he had trouble answering the question.
But I have an answer to convey from William Dalrymple's "From the Holy Mountain" about Hafez the father which related to Bashar the son--unlike Saddam and his first son Uday who used violence for sport and pathological entertainment the Syrian government only used violence as a last resort. This article insults the tragedies of the victims by failing on this point. Shame on this author for these transgressions.
Wow, you do a great job apologizing for a dictatorship.
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