Considering a Palace Coup in Syria

9 MINS READAug 7, 2012 | 10:32 GMT
Considering a Palace Coup in Syria
Syrian Defense Minister Dawoud Rajha (L), Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem (C) and Interior Minister Mohammad Ibrahim al-Shaar

Editor's Note: In the month since this analysis originally published, many of the officials listed have either died, defected or had their position changed. The analysis has been updated to reflect these changes.


Syrian President Bashar al Assad's regime has maintained its hold on power amid escalating violence and international criticism over the past year. However, pressure on the regime could eventually increase to a point that other members of the inner circle may attempt to supplant the al Assad clan. This small group of elites could even receive backing from Syria's allies, Russia and Iran. While such a coup scenario appears unlikely at present, the threats the al Assad clan faces from within the regime are at least as serious as the threats from external powers or the opposition.


Though the al Assad family is the public face of the Syrian regime and controls some of its most important positions, the regime also comprises other Alawites as well as Christians, Druze, other religious minorities and members of the country's Sunni majority. This inner circle includes Syria's most powerful and experienced political, military and civilian leaders, and these individuals view their own survival as tied to the fate of the regime. However, if al Assad began to lose his ability to hold together the disparate elements that form the Syrian regime, a group of regime elites could try to stage a palace coup and forcibly remove the family from power.

Another potential scenario involves coordination with external parties, likely Iran and Russia, both of which have deep intelligence networks in Syria. Although Iran and Russia provide significant financial and military backing for al Assad and the Syrian regime, they have contingency plans for a new regime if a power transfer becomes necessary. The imperative for these allies is not to keep the al Assad clan in power but to maintain a government in Syria that will remain friendly to their interests and does not deviate too far from the status quo.

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The ability of Syria's allies to engineer a coup is questionable. Moreover, a coup is unlikely at present because the regime does not show external signs of cracking and still possesses a largely united military and intelligence apparatus. However, if the situation calls for such action, Iran and Russia will work to maintain the overall structure of the regime. This could be pursued by brokering an official power transfer between al Assad and other top members of the regime, similar to the power transfer in Yemen. Because al Assad clan members are at the core of the president's inner circle, his close family would likely not be welcome to join the putative new government.

If al Assad were removed from the inside with or without foreign backing, key Sunni figures and allied minorities in the current regime would likely take over leadership. A more inclusive and diverse regime could use its sectarian composition to quell some of the opposition while still maintaining the overall regime structure and avoiding a power vacuum that could lead to greater instability.

Of the minority inner circle members, some of the most prominent include the heads of Syria's four intelligence agencies: Jamil Hassan, Abdel-Fatah Qudsiyeh, Ali Mamlouk and Muhammad Deeb Zaitoon. Aside from these intelligence leaders, an important minority leader to watch is Hisham Bakhtiar, a Shi'i in charge of the National Security Council who serves as a security and intelligence adviser to al Assad.

Prominent Sunni figures who could play a role in a post-al Assad government include Interior Minister Mohammad Ibrahim al-Shaar, commander of the elite Republican Guard forces Manaf Tlas, army Chief of Staff Fahd Jasem al-Farij and Assistant Regional Secretary of the Baath Arab Socialist Party Muhammad Said Bukhaytan.

Profiled below are figures with experience in managing the security and intelligence affairs of the state, and all except Bashar al Assad's close relatives could emerge as members of a new regime in the event of a palace coup or negotiated power transfer.

Minority Members of al Assad's Inner Circle

Deputy Defense Minister Gen. Assef Shawkat (Alawite) — died July 18

  • Considered one of al Assad's top security chiefs
  • Formerly head of military intelligence and deputy chief of staff
  • Joined the army in the late 1970s
  • The regime is rumored to hold him partly responsible for failing to prevent the 2008 assassination of Hezbollah military commander Imad Mughniyah
  • Married to al Assad's sister, Bushra
  • Maintains close relationship with Bashar but has a more difficult relationship with his Bashar's brother, Maher al Assad

Shabiha leader Namir al Assad (Alawite)

  • Bashar al Assad's cousin
  • One of the top leaders of Shabiha, the Syrian mercenary force frequently used in crackdowns against the opposition

The Republican Guard and 4th Armored Division head Maher al Assad (Alawite)

  • Bashar al Assad's youngest brother
  • Rumored to be Syria's second-most powerful man
  • Longtime member of the Syrian military and a member of the Baath Party's second highest body, the Central Committee
  • Known for his use of brute force
  • Allegedly shot Shawkat in the stomach in 1999
  • Commands the most elite and loyal forces

General Security Directorate head in Damascus Col. Hafez Makhlouf (Alawite)

  • Cousin and childhood friend of Bashar al Assad, close friend of Maher al Assad
  • Survivor of the 1994 car crash that killed the president's brother, Basil

Deputy Vice President for Security Affairs Muhammad Nasif Kheirbek (Alawite) 

  • Member of the Kalabiya tribe, the same Alawite tribe as the president
  • Connected to the al Assad family through his marriage to one of the daughters of former President Hafez al Assad's brother, Rifaat al Assad
  • Adviser and ally to Bashar al Assad
  • Former head of the General Security Directorate, the civilian intelligence service

Rami Makhlouf (Alawite)

  • Bashar al Assad's first cousin and Hafez Makhlouf's brother
  • One of the most powerful businessmen in Syria
  • Owns a wide variety of companies, including the Syriatel communications company, and is involved in many foreign companies' business deals within Syria
  • Allegedly uses much of the income from his business dealings to aid the regime's suppression of Syrian protests and rebel forces

Air Force Intelligence head Gen. Jamil Hassan (Alawite)

  • Added to the EU sanctions list in May 2011 for his involvement in the crackdown on the civilian population
  • Air Force Intelligence is an elite agency in Syria's intelligence apparatus and was used extensively by Hafez al Assad
  • The agency has played a direct role in the crackdown against protesters 

Military Intelligence head Abdel-Fatah Qudsiyeh (Alawite) — appointed National Security Council deputy head July 24

  • Added to the EU sanctions list in May 2011 for the Military Intelligence's role in the crackdown on the Syrian opposition
  • Former head of the Air Force Intelligence, personal secretary to al Assad and head of the Republican Guard's security office
  • Led the investigation on Mughniyah's assassination

Political Security Directorate head Muhammad Deeb Zaitoon (Alawite) — appointed intelligence chief July 24

  • Added to the EU sanctions list in May 2011 for the Political Security Directorate's role in the suppression of protesters
  • Former deputy head of the General Security Directorate
  • Assisted in the investigation of Mughniyah's assassination

Syrian General Intelligence Directorate head Ali Mamlouk (Alawite) — appointed National Security Council head July 24

  • Former deputy head of Air Force Intelligence
  • Close ties with the Political Security Directorate
  • Was placed on the U.S. sanctions list in April 2011 for human rights abuses and the use of violence against civilians
  • The General Intelligence Directorate has allegedly used deadly force when cracking down on anti-government protesters
  • His religion is disputed because Syrian authorities have at times presented him as a Sunni from Rif Damascus

Presidential Security chief Gen. Dhu al-Himma Shalish (Alawite)

  • Al Assad's first cousin
  • Formerly served as al Assad's personal bodyguard
  • Allegedly provided military resources to former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's regime

Special Forces Commander Gen. Juma al-Ahmad (Alawite)

  • Placed on the German sanctions list in December 2011 for violence against peaceful protesters

Defense Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Lt. Gen. Dawoud Rajha (Christian) — died July 18

  • Former chief of staff and deputy chief of staff for the Syrian army
  • Artillery specialist in the military academy
  • His inclusion in the inner circle is considered to be politically motivated, rather than merit-based, in order to garner the support of the Christian minority

National Security Council head Maj. Gen. Hisham Bakhtiar (Shiite) — died July 20

  • Provides security and intelligence advice directly to al Assad
  • Former head of the General Security Directorate
  • The United States accused him of funding terrorist organizations 
  • Added to EU sanctions list for Daraa crackdown in May 2011

Military Intelligence head Maj. Gen. Ali Younes (Alawite)

  • Appointed to his post July 24
  • Former Deputy head of Syrian Military Intelligence Branch 293

Military Security head Maj. Gen. Rafiq Shehadeh (Alawite)

  • Appointed to his post July 24
  • Former general in the state security section of the general intelligence apparatus

Sunni Members of al Assad's Inner Circle:

Interior Minister Lt. Gen. Mohammad Ibrahim al-Shaar

  • Former chief of the military police in Aleppo, director of Sednaya Prison and appointed interior minister during the 2011 unrest
  • Joined armed forces in 1971
  • Reportedly maintains a good relationship with the Alawites and also has contacts with members of the Sunni-led rebel insurgency
  • The regime has deliberately allowed al-Shaar to maintain contact with some armed opposition groups to secure knowledge of their activities and to have a conduit for dialogue
  • Rumored to have secured safe exit for anti-al Assad militant groups

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Fahd Jasem al-Farij — appointed defense minister July 18

  • Former deputy chief of staff of the Syrian army
  • From Hama, ethnically Bedouin
  • Allegedly appointed to his current post in order to appease residents of Hama after the crackdown in mid-2011

Vice President Farouk al-Shara 

  • Member of the Baath Party Regional Committee since 2000
  • Some believe his position is more symbolic and that unlike other inner circle members, he has not played a large role in quelling the uprising

Former Syrian Defense Minister Lt. Gen. Hasan Turkmani — died July 18

  • Joined the Syrian army in 1954
  • Ethnically Turkish and reportedly anti-Arab
  • Believed to be one of al Assad's strategists

Republican Guard Commander Brig. Manaf Tlass — publicly defected July 6

  • Son of former Defense Minister Gen. Mustafa Tlass and brother-in-law to Shawkat
  • Considered one of al Assad's closest friends and helped al Assad develop a support base among the Sunni merchant class.
  • Commands a battalion of the Alawite-dominated Republican Guard and is a member of the Baath Party Central Committee.

Air Force head Gen. Isam Hallaq 

  • Not viewed as powerful enough to restore law and order to Syria, despite his position

Military Intelligence chief in Damascus Rustum Ghazali — appointed head of Political Security Directorate July 24

  • Former chief of Syrian military intelligence in Lebanon and reportedly wielded great influence in Lebanese internal affairs
  • Placed on the EU sanctions list in May 2011 for the repression of the opposition in Syria 

Baath Arab Socialist Party Assistant Regional Secretary Muhammad Said Bukhaytan 

  • Served as the assistant regional secretary of the Baath Arab Socialist Party since 2005
  • Former director for the national security of the regional Baath Party and Hama governor from 1998 to 2000
  • Considered a close associate of Bashar and Maher al Assad and a high-level decision-maker in the regime

Deputy Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Munir Adanov

  • Deputy chief of staff and commander of the regular army's military campaign in Rastan, where several crackdowns have occurred
  • Reportedly accompanied al Assad on several high-level foreign visits
  • Placed on the EU sanctions list in August 2011 for his direct involvement in the repression and use of violence against the civilian population in Syria

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