October 22, 2010

Syria - the rise of Asif Shawkat

Asif Shawkatآصف شوكت

Last month, Syrian President Bashar al-Asad realigned his security and intelligence agency chiefs as he positions his government to assume a greater role for Syria in the Middle East. The major agencies in the pervasive and myriad Syrian security and intelligence services are Military Intelligence, Air Force Intelligence and State Security.

The leadership of all three agencies was changed in September. Officers move between the agencies at the pleasure of the president.

The head of Military Intelligence, Major General Asif Shawkat was promoted to lieutenant general and is likely to be named the new minister of defense. Shawkat is married to President al-Asad's older sister Bushra.

Replacing Shawkat at Military Intelligence is Major General 'Abd al-Latif Qudsiyah, who vacates his post as chief of Air Force Intelligence.

The chief of Air Force Intelligence was replaced by Major General Jamil Hasan, was had been the deputy head of State Security.

At State Security, Major General 'Ali Mamluk retired upon reaching mandatory retirement age, and will become a special advisor to the president. Major General Zuhayr Hamad, a counter-terrorism specialist, was promoted from within State Security to be its chief.

The most interesting move here is the promotion of Asif Shawkat to lieutenant general and the news that he may be the next minister of defense. Shawkat owes virtually all of his good fortune to the fact that he is married to Bushra Hafiz al-Asad. If he becomes the minister of defense, al-Asad will have an absolutely loyal and trustworthy ally in that key position. While almost all of the senior officers in key positions are from the 'Alawite minority of the Latakia region, Shawkat is one better, he's family.

Shawkat, now 60 years old, has been the chief of Syrian Military Intelligence since early 2005, shortly after the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri in Beirut. Most Middle East observers (including me) believe there was a Syrian hand in the murder. We also believe Shawkat was involved in the planning, if not the execution.

After Lebanese public demands and demonstrations forced Syria to withdraw its forces from Lebanon, it appeared that al-Asad's control over the smaller country was disappearing. Through patience and back-channel maneuvering, Syria has again emerged as a major power broker in the country. One only needs to read this week's news to see how the situation has changed. See my piece from earlier this week,
Syria flexes it muscles in "the province" of Lebanon.

The maneuvering that regained Syrian influence was most likely the province of Syrian Military Intelligence, which has a long history of basically controlling Lebanon. Shawkat delivered Lebanon back to Bashar al-Asad. In return, he gets to be the Minister of Defense. Shawkat is now one of the most powerful men in Syria, possibly second only to the president.