Syria: Defense Minister Reshuffle Shows Nervous Regime

7 MINS READAug 9, 2011 | 01:25 GMT
Syrian President Bashar al Assad appointed a new defense minister Aug. 8, naming Gen. Dawood Rajiha, a Christian, to replace Gen. Ali Habib, an Alawite. Habib's health could be deteriorating, as the Syrian government claims. But the reshuffle likely has more to do with the regime's efforts to prevent protests from spreading, while mitigating the potential of a military coup as the country's armed forces come under increasing strain.
Syrian President Bashar al Assad issued a decree Aug. 8 replacing Gen. Ali Habib with Gen. Dawood Rajiha as defense minister. Syrian state press indicated that the deteriorating health of Habib, who was born in 1939, spurred the reshuffle. However, there is much more to al Assad's calculation. The move comes as his regime continues to struggle to stamp out what has proved to be a resilient protest movement. What is most notable about the new appointment is that it replaces an Alawite, Habib, with a Christian, Rajiha. This marks the first time since Syria's independence that a Christian has ever held the office of minister of defense. The regime is nervously monitoring the potential for protests in the country to spread more significantly — from Sunni strongholds in Homs, Hama, Jisr al-Shughour and Daraa to urban population centers like Damascus and Aleppo — and is trying to ensure that Christians and other minorities do not join the demonstrations. The al Assad-led Alawite-Baathist regime has taken great care to align itself with Christian and Druze minorities in the past to counterbalance the Sunni majority in the country. For this reason, Alawites, Christians and Druze in Syria largely form the economic elite in Syria, along with a select circle of Sunnis that the al Assads have incorporated into their patronage network. But even heavy media censorship cannot hide the fact that the regime is struggling immensely to stamp out protests across the country. This leads members of the Syrian business community to question where to place their loyalty. So far, there has been no tidal shift among the economic elite against the Syrian regime, but the al Assads have reason to worry that demonstrations could escalate in the country's two largest cities – Damascus, the political center, and Aleppo, the economic hub. Replacing Habib with Rajiha will do little to ameliorate al Assad's concerns. The generals are on excellent terms with each other and command a high level of authority over the armed forces. Both have allegedly been quietly approached by U.S. officials as potential alternatives to the al Assad clan. For these reasons alone, the Syrian president must live with the worrying prospect of his senior military command turning on him in a military coup. For now, al Assad's strategy is to keep both generals close, where he and his closest family members can keep a careful eye on them.

Crackdown Difficulties

The al Assad regime's bigger problem is sustaining an iron-fisted approach to demonstrators. The regime's military campaign is being led by the president's younger brother Maher — who leads the Republican Guard and the army's elite 4th Armored Division — and brother-in-law Asef Shawkat, the army's deputy chief of staff. The Syrian army is dominated by Alawite officers overseeing a largely Sunni conscript force. But in this campaign, the regime has been relying primarily on divisions and security units composed almost entirely of Alawites to crack down on protesters, choosing not to risk deploying divisions that are more prone to defections. The primary security resources being deployed include the Republican Guard, the 4th Armored Division, and the 14th and 15th Special Forces divisions, along with armed plainclothes shabbiha militiamen and riot police. These are deployed alongside intelligence units including military intelligence, air force intelligence, the General Intelligence Directorate and the National Security Bureau, as well as Baath Party security and the Political Security Directorate. The regime has been especially hesitant to deploy the country's air force, which is dominated by Sunni pilots, even though its command and control is handled almost exclusively by Alawites. Most military resources have been devoted to Damascus and Aleppo, where protests have so far remained fairly limited. But as the protest movement has spread across the country, Syrian military leadership is under increasing pressure to deploy additional units, including some that are more demographically mixed. The morale of the all-Alawite units is declining as their mission of suppression fails to yield clear results. Should significant unrest break out in Damascus and Aleppo, the regime may have little choice but to deploy additional army divisions, in which case the al Assads will face a greater threat of revolt within the armed forces. (click here to enlarge image)

Regional Pressure

The rising pressure the al Assad regime faces from its neighbors is exacerbating its internal struggles. In recent days, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt, Turkey and the Arab League have all strongly denounced the Syrian regime. Rumors are meanwhile circulating that Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu will deliver a harsh message to the Syrian president Aug. 9 when he travels to Damascus to pressure the regime to ease up on the crackdown. Speculation continues to suggest that Turkish leadership is building Arab support and justification for military action in Syria in defense of the protesters. However, the threats so far appear to be limited to rhetoric. Neither Turkey nor Saudi Arabia are prepared to deal with the fallout of accelerated regime change in Damascus, and it is highly unlikely that the United States will entertain another military campaign in the region to deal with the al Assad regime. Moreover, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are taking care to balance their increasingly confrontational stances with Syria by managing their respective relationships with Iran, which fears losing a crucial foothold in the Levant should the al Assad regime fall. The more realistic concern for Syria is a long-term collaboration between Turkey and Saudi Arabia to build Sunni political opposition in Syria. This could be used to challenge the al Assad clan and sow divisions within the ruling elite. This is a process that will take a considerable amount of time but appears to be slowly gaining steam as Ankara and Riyadh lose patience with Damascus and feel the need to counterbalance an increasingly assertive Iran.

Al Assad's Dilemma

Al Assad will thus be trying to determine the amount of room he has to maneuver in the medium term. He does not face an imminent external threat from regional Sunni powers looking to undermine his regime's stability. However, he appears to lack the loyal military resources needed to successfully stamp out the protests. In order to stave off external pressure and maintain cohesion in the army, the Syrian president must ease the crackdown and find another way to clear the streets of protesters. In the near term, al Assad is likely to attempt largely cosmetic moves (such as officially ending the Baath Party's monopoly while developing an alternative system of one-party rule) to try to work around this dilemma. But regional heavyweights like Turkey, Saudi Arabia and even Egypt will continue searching for ways to prop up Sunni opposition and push for a more open political system. As STRATFOR has illustrated before, there are four key pillars that must be monitored to assess the survivability of the Syrian regime:
  • Power in the hands of the al Assad clan
  • Alawite unity
  • Alawite control over the military-intelligence apparatus
  • The Baath Party's monopoly on the political system
Each of these pillars is so far holding, though Alawite control over the military-intelligence apparatus looks increasingly precarious, while the regime faces a more distant threat of being pressured into creating political space for Sunni opposition. Should the protests spread in significant size to Damascus and Aleppo, drawing more army units into the conflict, the regime's army pillar will be left standing on much shakier ground.

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