5 Sep 2013

Inside the Assad regime

World leaders are meeting in St Petersburg just days before a crucial vote in Washington on a possible military strike against Syria. But who is calling the shots inside Damascus?

Bashar al-Assad, president of Syria

Educated in London and married to a Syrian-English wife, President Assad’s most potent skill has been exuding the impression of being a contemporary and reformist leader – the antithesis of his authoritarian father, Hafez, who ruled Syria for nearly three decades. But since 2011 that image has been shattered beyond repair.

Now just days until America decides whether to intervene with military strikes, President Assad is still to answer to the growing catalogue of atrocities that his regime is alleged to have perpetrated – most recently the alleged chemical attacks on the August 21.

With the world uniting in condemning recent events, Mr Assad is likely to look for support from both Russia and traditional ally Iran, while his troops have been bolstered by fighters from Lebanon’s Iranian-backed Hezbollah.

Maher al Assad, Republican guard chief

The president’s brother is the feared figure within the regime. As commander of the 10,000-strong Republican Guard and the Fourth Armoured Division, he has been at the heart of the bloodiest episodes in Syria’s two and a half year civil war. Activists claim he was seen shooting at unarmed protesters at the start of the Arab Spring in 2011.

A year later he was said to be commanding the troops in Homs and Aleppo – some of the most intensely fought battle grounds of the conflict. He lost a leg in a bombing last year, but fights on.

Farouk al-Sharaa, vice president of Syria

Served as Syrian foreign minister for almost two decades. During this time al-Sharaa has become an advocate of Syria’s hardline position on Israel and its call for greater unity among Arab states. Sharaa comes from Daraa, the birthplace of the uprising that erupted in March 2011.

European diplomats say he was torn between his loyalty to the regime and the bloodshed and destruction suffered by his home town and sought to serve as a mediator at the beginning of the crisis but was blocked by regime hardliners.

Ali Mamlouk, director, National Security Bureau

Special adviser on security to Assad and a former Mukhabarat chief who is close to most of Syria’s intelligence agencies. Mamlouk features in leaked US cables released by WikiLeaks boasting of Syria’s prowess in penetrating terrorism in the region because “we are practical and not theoretical”.

Also commands great respect from the top: President Assad asked Gen Mamluk to lead the National Security Bureau after its director, Gen Hisham Ikhtiar, died after a bomb attack on its headquarters on 18 July 2012.

Abdel-Fatah Qudsiyeh, head of military intelligence

The major general is Syria’s head of military intelligence and has a depth of experience; first serving in the Republican Guard and later the air force intelligence service. He is also the deputy director of the National Security Bureau.

He remains under close scrutiny by the European Union and the US who imposed sanctions in May 2011 on grounds that he was “involved in violence against his civilian population”.

Qudsiyeh led the security committee investigating the 2008 assassination of the Hezbollah military commander Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus, widely blamed on Israel.

Muhammad Nasif Kheirbek, deputy vice-president for security affairs

An influential advisor to the president, particularly on matters concerning Iran. A leaked US diplomatic cable in 2011 described Gen Kheirbek as Syria’s “point-man for its relationship with Iran”. The same year, the General is reported to have flown to Tehran and discussed the formation of a supply route enabling Iran to transfer military hardware directly to Syria. His son also occupies a senior post in internal security.

Asma Assad, first lady

No one generates more speculation than the first lady to President Assad, whose role in the escalating crisis is somewhat more muted than in May 2011, when she declared her priority was to get Syria’s large youth population involved in “active citizenship”.

Born in London to Syrian parents, Asma grew up in west London; studied at Kings College; and then forged a career in banking, working at JP Morgan.

Since marrying President Assad at the turn of the century, her life has changed completely. In the early years of the Arab Spring, her glamorous and fashion-conscious persona caught the attention of magazines such as Vogue which described her as “glamorous, young and very chic – the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies”. The article was subsequently withdrawn.

Bouthaina Shaaban, media advisor

Described as the Syrian “regime’s face to the outside world”, Shaaban remains defiant that the unrest in Syria is the fault of terrorist forces acting inside the country.

Born in Homs and educated at the University of Warwick, where she gained a PHD in English literature, Shaaban’s rise within the regime is part due both to her sharp thinking and fearsome loyalty to the Assad family (she is friends with Bashar’s only sister).

See her trenchant defence of the Assad regime in an interview with Channel 4 News recorded on 4 September:

She recently told Channel 4 News that al-Qaida were responsible for the outbreak of violence in Syria and dismissed German claims of telephone interceptions between Hezbollah and the Syrian government as “laughable”.