Loyal, Secretive Security Forces Keep Syria Leader in Power

(Los Angeles Times) Borzou Daragahi - Unable to stem a growing popular uprising with promises of reform, ceaseless propaganda and restrictions on the news media, Syria's government still retains one powerful weapon: the solid support of a secretive web of security forces that so far show no signs of abandoning President Bashar Assad. Unlike in Tunisia and Egypt, there have been few defections in the Syrian armed forces despite a burgeoning protest movement. "The president is chief of the armed forces just as he's president of the people," said a Lebanese army officer who has worked extensively in Syria. "He takes part in military exercises and inspects the army. It's not like Ben Ali and Mubarak, who only had political authority." The relationship between the government and armed forces in Syria more resembles that of Libya. As with Iran's 2009 protests, the Syrian government has also relied on mobs assigned to break up demonstrations with force. "It is the shabiha, gangs, many of them related to the Assad family," said Yassin Haj Saleh, a prominent writer in Damascus. "They're lawless and protected in a way. They will not be arrested, not be brought to court." Syria's 300,000-man, largely conscription army generally shares the values and political aspirations of the people. Only the 4th Armored Division, led by the president's brother Maher Assad, has been regularly deployed around the country to quell the unrest. Hafez Assad, a member of Syria's Alawite community, recruited senior officers from the country's minority Alawite, Druze, Ismaili and Christian faiths, positioning them in a life-or-death struggle with the large Sunni Muslim majority. "The minority networks dominate the command structure," said Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "They see it as an us-versus-them situation. It galvanizes them against the kind of splitting that you saw in Egypt or Tunisia."

2011-04-22 00:00:00

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