Members of Russian and Syrian forces stand guard near posters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin at the Abu Duhur crossing on the eastern edge of Idlib province on August 20, 2018. Photo: George Ourfalian / AFP

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad conducted a major reshuffle of his security apparatus this week, signaling that the conflict as Syrians knew it since 2011 is coming to a close and a new, Russian-led era has begun.

With the notable exception of Hussam Luka, the new head of political security, all of the newcomers are senior Alawite officers hailing from Assad’s clan. All are products of the post-2011 order, well-versed in warfare, and backed and trained by the Russians.

It is also noteworthy that all of them have very little room left in their careers, as they approach the age of 60. Meaning, they will collectively be retired by 2021.

Appointing officers who are so close to retirement is seemingly part of Russia’s vision for revamping the security services, breaking a long-observed Syrian tradition of keeping senior officers in power for years, or even decades.

That was the case with officers under Assad’s father, Hafez, who rose to power with him in 1970 and stayed in office until his death in 2000. Staying in power for too long gave these officers a feeling of immunity, enabling them to establish formidable fiefdoms within their security branches, which were often difficult to dismantle when it was time for them to go, by the late 1990s. That generation of the old guard outlived the Arab-Israeli War of 1973 and the crushing of the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama in 1982, making them unsinkable.

Things are notably different now, as most officers of Bashar’s old guard, who led the government offensive in 2011-2015 are either retired or dead.

News of the reshuffle was announced not through state media but surprisingly through the Facebook page of former security chief Bahjat Soleiman, a strongman who served as Syrian ambassador to Jordan until the outbreak of the Syrian conflict in 2011. 

Most prominent among those retired is veteran air force intelligence officer, General Jamil al-Hassan, who has been under US sanctions since 2011. Assad also retired the directors of state security, political security, and criminal security, ushering in a new team of officers. 

While the conflict grinds on in various forms across the country — in the past 24 hours alone, a car bomb struck a church in the contested city of Qamishli, Kurdish insurgents attacked a checkpoint in Turkish-occupied city of Afrin, and the battle for Idlib continued — many frontlines have cooled. 

Those who fought during the past eight years are being sent home, with all their secrets, to make way for a new generation. In this Russian-led era, officer tenures will be short, as will be their moments of glory.

Out with the old

Former general Jamil al-Hassan, now retired, was considered one of the most influential members of Assad’s inner circle. Born into a rural Alawite family in 1952, he joined the ruling Baath Party at a young age, rising through the military apparatus until becoming director of the Syrian Air Force Intelligence in 2009.

That security branch was already notorious throughout the country, feared for its role in hunting down members of the Muslim Brotherhood in the early 1980s. Many died in prison while others are still behind bars, almost 40 years later.

Hassan was supposed to have been pensioned off in 2012, when reaching the retirement age of 60, but the outbreak of the Syrian uprising led to his term being extended by Assad, a total of seven times, due to his delicate role in the Syrian conflict. In May 2011, he was sanctioned by the European Union for alleged involvement in the crackdown against demonstrators, and less than a month later, by the United States as well, which accused him of human rights abuses.

In November 2016, Hassan became the first senior Syrian security officer to speak to a foreign reporter, Robert Fisk of The Independent. The interview was seemingly sanctioned to refute numerous claims that he had been assassinated by the Turkish-backed opposition.

“His handshake is vice-like, and his eyes, which stare at you like an angry interrogator when he speaks, fixed their gaze upon me like a lighthouse beam when I asked him if he was a cruel man. This is not a man to be crossed,” Fisk described him. Since then, several photos of Hassan have appeared on social media networks, notably Facebook, the most recent while visiting troops in mid-June.

In recent years, Hassan earned widespread attention as the patron of Suheil al-Hassan (no relation), the powerful air force intelligence officer nicknamed “The Tiger” by friends and opponents alike. The younger Hassan, Suheil, stormed through the villages of Eastern Ghouta in 2018, playing a major role in retaking the entire Damascus countryside from the armed opposition, and then, ripped through the Syrian south, retaking the strategic city of Daraa. Due to his heavy involvement in battlefield tactics, Suheil was also present at a meeting between Presidents Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad in 2017.

Both Jamil and Suheil al-Hassan are considered pro-Russian, and to have very little battlefield coordination with the Iranians. So is Jamil al-Hassan’s successor and former deputy Ghassan Ismail, an Alawite officer from the town of Dreikiesh, east of Tartous.

Scratching beneath the surface, we find very little change in Hassan’s replacement: a Russian-backed hardline officer replaced with another Russian-backed, hardline officer. It was a smooth transition, which was barely felt at Air Force Intelligence. Jamil al-Hassan’s replacement was actually more of a dignified retirement, rather than a real change in the security apparatus.

Russia’s selection

The second appointment is that of General Hussam Luka, a Sunni Muslim, as head of state security, replacing General Deeb Zeitoun, who has held this post since 2012. As was the case with Hassan and Ismail, both Zeitoun and his replacement, Luka, are pro-Russian to the bone.

The State Security Bureau handles both internal and external security, with a special branch for Palestinians in Syria. It monitors dissent, jihadi groups, and telecommunications.

Luka, who hails from the village of Khanaser in the Aleppo countryside, rose to prominence eight months ago, when he was appointed director of Political Intelligence, replacing Mohammad Rahmoun, who was made minister of interior in late 2018. Previously he had handled political security in the city of Homs. Luka played a pivotal role in re-taking the areas around the city from the armed opposition, first through Hezbollah support, and since 2015, through Russian air cover. Replacing Hussam Luka at political security is General Nasser al-Ali, another Alawite officer.

Last of the appointments is General Nasser Deeb, who became director of criminal security, affiliated with the Syrian Ministry of Interior. Both Ali and Deeb are Russia’s selection as well – testimony to how deep Russian decision-making has gone within the Syrian security sector.

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