Al-Ahram Weekly Online   8 - 14 March 2012
Issue No. 1088
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Few defections in Syria

No significant defections have been recorded from the Syrian regime, possibly because of the all-encompassing control of the security forces, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

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A man sits next to the bodies of a three Free Syrian Army fighters allegedly killed by the Syrian army during their funeral in Idlib

Though the past year has been a blood-soaked one in Syria, with human rights monitors saying that some 10,000 people have been killed by the security forces putting down the uprising against the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, thus far there have been no significant defections from the ranks of the regime or from the ruling Syrian Baath Party.

The security crackdown on the uprising has seen parts of many Syrian towns and cities destroyed and has displaced tens of thousands of families and led to the arrests of tens of thousands of civilians. While members of the security forces are believed to have been trying to distance themselves from the regime, and individual and group defections from the Syrian army have led to the formation of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) that is fighting the regime, such defections have not been seen from Syrian government, diplomatic or Party institutions.

According to opposition activists, the regime has always routinely appointed Party loyalists to government positions at the expense of the more qualified, explaining such individuals' unwillingness to defect. State security agencies also oversee all government institutions, making defection even more unlikely.

"The fact that there have been no defections from diplomatic or Party ranks in Syria is evidence of the interdependence, not the strength, of the regime," said Nasser Al-Ghazali, director of the Damascus Centre for Theoretical Studies and Civic Rights, in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly.

Al-Ghazali said that the structure of the Syrian regime meant that all its institutions were dependent on each other, creating a network from which it is difficult to escape. "Power does not lie in the hands of the Party, government, parliament or judiciary alone, or in these institutions combined," he said. "Power in Syria is in the hands of the security agencies and some military institutions. All the other institutions are empty shells."

Commenting on the fact that no senior diplomats had yet abandoned the regime, Al-Ghazali said that the "security agencies are the cornerstone of the country and profess absolute loyalty to the presidency. They employ individuals from every social background and from all regions of the country, and anyone employed by them receives the same rigorous training."

"There have not been any defections from any major state institution because of their strong links to the security agencies."

Ayman Abdel-Nour, a former adviser to the Syrian president who left Syria a month before the start of the uprising, told the Weekly that the country's security agencies hold data on everything that goes on in the country. "Each civilian ministry has a security department that monitors its work,"Abdel-Nour said. "In fact, the security agencies have more information on each ministry than the notional minister in charge."

"The security agencies manage most of the country's foreign policy," Abdel-Nour explained. "Relations with Lebanon are run by one specialised branch, as are ties with Iraq, which go through the security agencies' national security office. There are specialised units on Palestine, and one on relations with the Arab and foreign media that is run by the security agencies and not by the official ministry of information."

"Relations with the US are managed by the presidency. The foreign ministry, like other ministries, is a civilian fa│řade for the security system, as is the Baath Party itself. This is just the visible front of the regime, used when the regime wishes to mobilise public opinion."

According to the Syrian opposition, the country's security agencies dominate the state and direct domestic, foreign and economic policy. "The security agencies target individuals the minute they begin working in any state institution and subject them to unremitting control irrespective of their social class or region of origin," Al-Ghazali said.

"Society and individuals alike are continuously exposed to this policy, whereby regime loyalists are cultivated to form an interdependent web and files are kept against everyone to be used whenever necessary."

"This is the reason there have been no defections from diplomatic and Party ranks in Syia," Al-Ghazali said. "While the security and corruption at diplomatic institutions is stronger and more cohesive, within the Party corruption is a favourite tool to be used by the security agencies whenever necessary."

Abdel-Nour, a former associate of Al-Assad who had access to the regime's political mechanisms, agrees. "No post in Syria is given on grounds of merit," he said. "A major in the army who is close to al-Assad can be much more important than the prime minister, and the intelligence agencies control all strategic decisions."

Syria is ruled under emergency legislation that was imposed in 1963, just hours after a group of officers from the now ruling Baath Party took power in a coup d'etat. The emergency law places restrictions on the freedom of assembly, residence and movement, allows the arrest of anyone who is seen as a threat to the regime, allows all communications to be monitored, imposes censorship on all the country's media, and gives the security agencies the right to decide business hours, to regulate transport, and to seize any property, company or institution.

As a result, the security agencies have mushroomed in size over the past half century and now control everything in the country.

Protests against this system began in the southern Syrian town of Deraa one year ago, with demonstrators demanding dignity and an end to corruption. These protests have since evolved into explicit calls for the end of the regime and an end to the control of the security agencies over all aspects of life.

As the violence and deaths have escalated, the protests have turned into a revolution demanding political freedom, the release of all political prisoners, freedom of the press, the dismantling of the security agencies, and the overthrow of the regime.

"At the core of the uprising is a rebellion against the security agencies because of their domination of all facets of life and violations of human rights over the past four decades," al-Ghazali said.

"The uprising has broken the fear barrier, causing large sectors of society to rally to it. However, civil servants and others have been reluctant to defect from the regime because of their fear of the unknown. Events in Iraq have also made a strong impression on members of the ruling Baath Party in Syria, when they saw what happened to former Baathists after the collapse of the former Iraqi regime."

While defections from the regime by officials in the Syrian government and party could help accelerate the collapse of the regime, as they did in the case of Libya, they are not essential for the collapse of the al-Assad regime.

This is already losing ground, with a spokesperson for the opposition Coordination Committee of Forces for Democratic Change, the opposition inside Syria, telling the Weekly that "during the present uprising, the Syrian regime has lost much of its supremacy over society as a result of its illegal crackdown. This is further evidence of its already weak structure: the more the regime feels threatened, the more it uses violence."

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