Power in Syria today is based on a narrow, clannish system, more akin to what was described by Ibn Khaldoun 600 years ago than to Western “development theory” or “the non-capitalist road.” Family ties are key. In the Syrian army, a major can have more power than a general if he is, like Mouin Nasif, a relative of Rif‘at al-Asad. Muhammad Makhloud, director of the State Tobacco Monopoly, is the president’s brother-in-law. A veritable army is responsible for protecting him and his family. His house in Damascus has practically been transformed into a fortress.

A good measure of the power of each member of the clan is the size of their personal guard. The president has a guard of 12,000. The three generals who head the state security services have 60 each. Only four are assigned to such personalities as Faysal Dayyub, dean of the dental school, or Asad ‘Ali, professor of Arab literature at Damascus University and one of the regime’s most zealous apologists. When the top brass meet together, the extent of bodyguarding is especially evident. In the summer of 1980, the Iranian foreign minister came to Damascus and invited several high-ranking Syrians and the three generals heading the security services — nine altogether sat down at the table. Since each had brought with him his personal bodyguard, no less than 300 people arrived in the neighborhood and tramped around near the restaurant. Obviously, this weighs heavily on the national budget. The bodyguards must be equipped, they must have their automobiles, they and their families must be moved from the ‘Alawi regions of the country to the capital and given proper lodging and amenities. People come to measure the importance of personalities by the deployment of bodyguards near their homes: Do the guards occupy a simple doorway, the sidewalk in front of the building, or is the entire street blocked off?

Intellectuals occupy an important place in the constellation of power, even if they are clearly secondary to the military. Most are employees of the Ministry of Information, an enormous bureaucratic machine with an annual budget of 300 million Syrian pounds. They are responsible for reproducing the regime’s Arab nationalist and anti-imperialist ideology. Each day, orders are given from the top — from the minister or even from the presidential palace — governing the tone of the headlines and editorials. Television news warrants special care. It is controlled down to the smallest detail, and focused on the personality of the president. [1]

These intellectual agents of an unpopular regime are today in a tricky position. Muhammad Hawrani, a television commentator on presidential addresses and a member of the mukhabarat, was assassinated just a week after he proclaimed that the fundamentalist opposition was finished. Some of these intellectual bureaucrats now have phalanxes of bodyguards rivaling those of the military chiefs. Fadil Ansari, head of the party organ, al-Ba‘th, has a personal guard of 28 men, all from his religious sect.

The ‘Alawi religious community is a buffer between those in power and the society as a whole. Since his accession to power in 1970, Hafiz al-Asad has made every effort to tie the fate of the ‘Alawi community to his personal fortunes. He had eliminated community leaders who favored maintaining good relations with others, especially with the Sunnis of Damascus. Gen. Muhammad ‘Umran, assassinated in Lebanon in 1971, was close to the civilian, Bitar wing of the party and was himself a long-time leader of the Baath military committee. Muhammad al-Fadil, rector of the University of Damascus, was married to a Damascene Sunni and had been minister of justice in the Bitar government of 1965. His 1976 murder was ascribed at the time to the Muslim Brothers.

Since 1980, the ‘Alawi community has been mobilized to combat the broad popular agitation against the regime. [2] Black Shirts were recruited and marched throughout the ‘Alawi region. Organizations were set up, supposedly for “humanitarian” purposes, but in fact to coopt local people in exchange for such benefits as water and electricity for their villages.

High-level ‘Alawi leaders met in mid-August 1980, with Hafiz al-Asad in attendance. This was in Qardaha, his native village, on the occasion of the feast of Ramadan. Asad had chosen to celebrate the ‘id in his “fief” and not at the grand mosque of Damascus. Such major ‘Alawi meetings occur at crucial junctures, and define the long-term policy of the community. Those at Qardaha in 1960 and at Horns in 1963 considered how ‘Alawi military officers could further infiltrate the Baath Party apparatus. In 1980, Hafiz al-Asad insisted that the religious and lay leadership of the ‘Alawi community unite to overcome the current crisis. Reproachfully, he asked them to stop thinking about living off the society — that is, as parasites, as a “community with a percentage take” — but instead to “enter the society” and challenge the Sunni bourgeoisie in the economy! Finally, the meeting decided to “modernize” the religious apparatus, so as to establish a tighter grip on the community and to strengthen ties to mainstream Shi‘ism.

The latter decision corresponded to the regime’s plans to set up a Shi‘i axis, from Lebanon to the frontiers of Pakistan. This sought to strengthen the regime internally against Muslim fundamentalism and to give it leverage with the Gulf states which are Syria’s main source of funds. This strategy includes an alliance with the new Iranian regime and Syrian influence with the Lebanese Shi‘is. Finally, there is Iraq, with its Shi‘i population of over 50 percent. Syria would desperately like to see the Iraqi regime overthrown.

Internally, the Syrian regime wanted to wipe out the opposition movement which shook the country from the summer of 1979 to the spring of 1980. The extent of the repression and the violence used were unprecedented in contemporary Syrian history. From the very first days of this campaign, the state abandoned all pretense at a facade of “civil society,” relying on the most naked force.

With great fanfare, it reinforced its corporatist state system. Fascist-like “phalanges” were set up among the peasants, the workers, the students, the women and others, supposedly to “defend the revolution.” The youth, as might be expected, was placed in the vanguard of this movement. By contrast, the last independent organizations — such as the professional societies of doctors, lawyers, engineers and pharmacists — were dissolved on April 9, 1980. These organizations had led the struggle for a return to democratic freedoms and an end to the state of emergency in force since March 8, 1963.

The Special Forces and the Third Division carried out search-and-destroy operations in Aleppo and Hama and in their adjacent countryside, in the spring and summer of 1980, while special courts carried out their assignments with swift dispatch. The Muslim Brothers were not the only victims of the repression. Everywhere, leaders and dignitaries of local communities were affected. In Hama, during the curfew of April 1980, doctors and lawyers were assassinated in their homes. It was as if a deliberate attempt were being made to eliminate civil society by cutting off its head.

There were a number of mass killings: nearly 200 dead in March in Jisr al-Shughur, a large town southwest of Aleppo, and 81 dead in August in the same town, found near the cemetery on the day of the feast of Ramadan. All were shot against the wall of the same building, as a reprisal for an attack against a soldier of the Special Forces. Among the victims were seven members of the Baath Party.

The most demented reprisal occurred after Hafiz al-Asad barely escaped assassination on June 25, 1980 by a member of the Presidential Guard. At dawn the next day, Rif‘at al-Asad sent 80 of his men, in eight helicopters, to the prison at Palmyra. Their mission: to gun down the largest possible number of prisoners. Three of the executioners, caught in Jordan in January 1981 on a mission to assassinate the Jordanian prime minister, testified that between 500 and 700 prisoners were liquidated. [3] A report of the mukhabarat, obtained by the opposition, lists the number of victims as exactly 1,181. Four days later, on July 1, in an editorial in the newspaper Tishrin, Rif‘at al-Asad said he was ready to sacrifice a million citizens to regain order and save the revolution.

Finally, in the fall, the regime turned against the various currents of the left which had worked together within the National Alliance. The Socialist Union of Jamal al-Atassi was hard hit by this new wave of arrests. The main leaders and a large number of cadre of the opposition Communist Party were jailed. Many independent intellectuals were victims, such as Michel Kilo and Wadi‘ Iskandar, whose only crime was not to know when to keep quiet. Today there are an estimated 12,000 political prisoners in Syria.

The state’s terrorism operates on an international scale. Salah al-Din al-Bitar was assassinated in Paris in July 1980. He was one of the founders of the Baath, but he had published an article which displeased the leader. Asad is very concerned about his image in the international press, and has sought to make all journalists understand this: Salim al-Lawzi, editor-in-chief of al-Hawadith, was assassinated in Lebanon. There were assassination attempts against the Reuters correspondent in Beirut (who was soon called home, along with the correspondents of the BBC and Le Figaro, threatened with the same fate). In West Germany an attempt was made on the life of ‘Isam al-‘Attar, leader until recently of the Syrian Muslim Brothers; his wife was killed in their home. In February, Syrian oppositionists were assassinated in Kuwait. The Jordanian charge d’affairs in Beirut was kidnapped and held hostage 68 days in the Bekaa under the cover of a “Jordanian Confrontation Front.” For the assassination attempt against the Jordanian prime minister, no such cover was deemed necessary: The Syrian mass media loudly claimed the “right of the Syrian people to punish Munir Badran” for supporting the fundamentalist “traitors” in Syria.

This gunslinger diplomacy advertises the desperate situation of Hafiz al-Asad. [4] Whatever the regime does, it falls back on its foremost excuse: its role in the progressive vanguard of the Arab world. It thus justifies its blows against the Muslim Brothers, the left and the international press, as well as massing troops on the Jordanian border, bombarding the Lebanese town of Zahla and so on. With no long tradition of central rule as in Egypt, nor the legitimacy of a traditional ruling family like the Hashemites, the Baathist state must justify its existence with the pretense of defending the Arab nation against Zionism and imperialism. The regime constantly has to prove itself by posturing, taking dramatic positions and insisting that its own problems are identical with those of the Arab nation.

The second element of its claim of legitimacy — its supposedly exemplary Arab socialism — poses yet another problem. In signing a Pact of Friendship with the Soviet Union (October 1980), Hafiz al-Asad won the support of all party-line Marxists throughout the world, but he marginalized his regime in a system of regional politics dominated by Saudi Arabia. Within Syrian domestic politics, the Syrian-Soviet treaty allowed Asad to appropriate all the claims of the left. After 18 years of Baathist power, however, this was hardly a great achievement, since the Syrian people shudder at the mere mention of “socialism.” In fact, the clan in power is not interested in production. It prefers to rent out its sword in the service of the Arab cause. As for industry, it is interested only in the large expenditures and the possibility of securing bribes and kickbacks.

Taxes have increased rapidly — 33 percent in 1981. Indirect taxes increased 62 percent. Then there is confiscation and outright seizure. In 1977, the entire fortune of the ‘Awani family of Hama was seized, allegedly for their complicity with Iraqi intelligence services. Later, the excuse was changed to complicity with the Muslim Brothers. The public sector, which accounts for 70 percent of gross domestic product, has in the past been a stimulant to the economy. The merchants of the Aleppo suq carried Hafiz al-Asad triumphantly on their shoulders on his first visit to the city as president in 1971. In 1979-1980, those same merchants supported the Muslim Brothers and in March 1980 they carried out the longest strike in the country’s history.

The decrees of April 22, 1980 were a gesture toward the merchants, allowing them to get their foreign exchange in a special market at less than the official rate. In this way, the state acknowledged its dependence on the market economy, while maintaining its facade of socialism. This move only worsened inflation, so the regime sought to limit the volume of imports. But even if the public sector could put off most of its capital projects so as to slow down imports of capital goods, it has proven unthinkable for the army and those in power to slow down their consumption of imported goods. Symbolically, the enormously costly construction of a new presidential palace has not been slowed at all.

Even the merchants of Damascus have begun to talk of the need for a political “alternative.” Though they sent a telegram of support to Hafiz al-Asad on March 8, 1980, at the worst moments of that period of crisis, they say now that the deteriorating economy and shifts in regional politics have changed their minds. One thing is certain: They are the only traditional, organized force in Syrian civil society. This gives them a strong position in a situation of possible change, when they might be key intermediaries between a dissident Baathist faction and the bankrollers in Saudi Arabia.

Translated by Jim Paul


[1] On this point, see Tahar Ben Jelloun, “Le desarroi du monde arabe et les refuges de l’histoire,” Le Monde Diplomatique (February 1981).
[2] For a presentation of the social actors and a retrospective of the events of 1978-1980, see Paul Maler, “La societe syrienne contra son etat,” Le Monde Diplomatique (April 1980).
[3] Al-Ra’y (Amman), February 26, 1981.
[4] Quarterly Economic Review of Oil in the Middle East 1 (1981).

How to cite this article:

Gerard Michaud "The Importance of Bodyguards," Middle East Report 110 (November/December 1982).

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