A political taboo was quietly shattered this month, when one of Syria’s most powerful security officials, Lieutenant General Jamil al-Hassan, gave his first-ever interview to a Russian news site.
Though Hassan mostly voiced common pro-government positions that are in themselves unremarkable, the interview itself was a groundbreaking event. As head of the Air Force Intelligence Directorate, Hassan has almost never been heard from in public before, and Syrian intelligence chiefs take great care to stay out of the limelight. But another thing stood out, too: Hassan’s implicit criticism of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for having shown too much restraint in the early days of the Syrian uprising in 2011.
This rare public intervention from one of the most powerful men in Syria set off some interesting reactions.
THE HAMA EXAMPLE
Hassan expressed a view that seems widely shared among supporters of the Syrian government. Had Assad not dithered and tried to appease his domestic and foreign detractors in 2011, an early all-out crackdown could have nipped the uprising in the bud. It would have drawn international condemnation and left Syria a pariah state for a long time to come. However, they argue, it would still have been better than what actually followed.
In his interview with reporter Mohammed Maarouf, which was published on November 1 by the state-run Russian site Sputnik, Hassan publicly endorsed this argument. He gave two examples of what would, in his view, have been a better strategy against the opposition:
In the time of President Hafez al-Assad in the 1980s, these people were given a painful blow. It was almost lethal, particularly in Hama. I was a young first lieutenant. The decision at that time was a wise one. This time, we did not settle the matter from the beginning, which is why we have ended up where we are. But it was the decision of the leadership. As for me, my view was different. Take, for example, the students at the [Tiananmen] square in China, which changed China. If the Chinese state had not settled the student chaos, China would have been lost and the West would have destroyed it.
So speaks a hardliner. The army offensive on Islamist-held neighborhoods in Hama in spring 1982 is estimated to have claimed many thousands of civilian lives, including subsequent mass executions (Sputnik cited a figure of 30,000). Reporters who arrived in the city weeks after the battle found entire neighborhoods reduced to rubble. Before 2011, Hama was a byword for brutality in Syria, a whispered memento of the ruthless nature of the Assad regime and a symbol of absolute evil for the opposition. Yet government supporters tended to see the Hama bloodshed as a necessary evil—or even a heroic victory—and predictably enough, they have felt vindicated by events since 2011.
“In those days,” Hassan told Sputnik, “journalists exaggerated the number of victims who fell during the Hama events, but I say that if we had acted in this way from the start of the current crisis, in the same way, then we would have stopped the bloodshed and never arrived at today’s infighting.”
Many government loyalists seem to agree with that sentiment, but lesser figures than Hassan would hardly dare to place explicit blame on “the leadership,” which is government-speak for Bashar al-Assad. However, Hassan did not push his criticism any further. To the contrary, he insisted that the president enjoyed between 70–80 percent popular support in Syria and, when asked how he thought the late Hafez al-Assad might have handled the rebellion of 2011 had he been alive, Hassan gently defused the question: “I cannot guess at what he would have done, but every person is in his own particular situation. President Bashar al-Assad has endured major troubles, worse than those endured by the late president Hafez al-Assad.”
Even so, Hassan’s interview elicited some reactions from inside the pro-Assad camp. One came from Lieutenant General Bahjat Suleiman, a former General Intelligence strongman who in the 1990s played an important role in guiding Bashar al-Assad’s rise to power, but who later ended up as ambassador to Jordan. In a comment published on Facebook, Suleiman respectfully registered his disagreement with Hassan.
Suleiman did not feel that comparisons with Hama 1982 or Tiananmen Square 1989 were particularly instructive, or that the government could have snuffed out the uprising by using more force early on. Assad was not confronted by an internal revolt, Suleiman argued, but by a vast international conspiracy that required different methods.
While errors have surely been made, wrote Suleiman, it could have been much worse. In his telling, Assad did not have the “luxury of experimentation” and had to make tough decisions for which he was unprepared. He, accordingly, acted with “a cold mind and a warm heart” to prevent Syria and the surrounding region from turning into “hundreds of terrorist emirates waging war on each other, fighting each other, and butchering each other for a hundred years.”
A SPECIAL PLACE FOR AIR FORCE INTELLIGENCE
The inner workings of Assad’s security state are obscure to outsiders (and most insiders), but Jamil al-Hassan is without doubt one of the most influential men in Syria. A 63-year-old career officer, he has commanded Air Force Intelligence since 2009, when he succeeded Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah Qudsiyeh, a former private secretary of the president’s brother Maher al-Assad.
Air Force Intelligence always occupied a special place in the pantheon of Syrian security organs, having been set up in its current form by Hafez al-Assad when he headed the Syrian Arab Air Force in the 1960s. Under his right-hand man Mohammed al-Khouli—who helped orchestrate Assad’s ascent to the presidency in November 1970 and ran the agency until 1987—Air Force Intelligence gained a fearsome reputation in Syria as well as internationally. Its agents were implicated in assassinations, kidnappings, and bomb plots.
The role of Air Force Intelligence seemingly diminished during Bashar al-Assad’s first decade in power, but the service again claimed center stage in 2011 when demonstrators poured into the streets of Syrian cities. Air Force Intelligence immediately threw itself into the fight by assembling pro-Assad militias and launching a manhunt for dissidents. Since then, Hassan’s men have engaged in arbitrary detentions, torture, and extralegal executions, according to testimony from human rights groups and former prisoners, some of whom view Air Force Intelligence as the most violent and ruthless of all of the major security organs.
Jamil al-Hassan’s influence seems to have grown in parallel with the government’s dependence on his organization, which gradually moved into a more conventional battlefield role. The Air Force Intelligence director’s only known public appearance prior to the recent interview was in March 2015, when pictures emerged of him visiting Hama and greeting Colonel Suheil al-Hassan, a well-known officer backed by Air Force Intelligence. (Contrary to rumors, the two Hassans do not appear to be related.)
Another reason for Jamil al-Hassan’s growing stature is that many in the highest tier of pre-2011 security chiefs have now died or retired, while he remains in office. Unlike other leading figures, such as National Security Director Ali Mamlouk or the head of the General Intelligence Directorate, Mohammed Dib Zeitoun, Hassan has not even changed his job title during the conflict. He has run his Air Force Intelligence fiefdom without interruption since 2009, which is a very long time by the standards of Bashar al-Assad’s Syria.
STAYING ON OR LETTING GO?
Possibly, that time is coming to an end. For nearly a year there has been talk about Jamil al-Hassan retiring. Normally, a lieutenant general in the Syrian armed forces is supposed to leave service at age 58, though Assad often grants exemptions for elite security jobs. In September, the Air Force Intelligence branch chief in Aleppo, Lieutenant General Adib Salameh, was appointed deputy director at the headquarters in Damascus, which prompted some speculation that he may be in line to take over Hassan’s job. On the other hand, Salameh is no younger than Hassan, and other sources argue that it may have amounted to a simple bureaucratic shift in preparation for Salameh’s own retirement.
Hassan’s decision to grant an interview is interesting, and some will undoubtedly interpret it as a political move of some sort. Might it be a pitch to pro-government hardliners to secure his continued stewardship of Air Force Intelligence, in the face of opposition from rivals? Is this the Syrian security establishment pushing for hawkish policies against a president looking for diplomatic exits, or a Syrian-Russian information operation to portray that same president as a relative moderate with whom the West can deal? Or maybe Hassan really is leaving the job, and this is simply a retiree-to-be preparing for his exit with parting words.
But speculation only gets us so far and might be a dead end in itself. Sometimes an interview is just an interview, even in a place like Syria. “You shouldn’t read too much into it, the media always does,” I was recently told by a person close to powerful policymakers in Syria.
That is true enough. But with so little information seeping out about how and by whom Syria is actually governed, what can one do but sift through the rumor mill and guess?
In an earlier version of this blog post the age of retirement for a Syrian lieutenant general was mistakenly put at 60. However, the retirement age in the Syrian army is determined by rank, and lieutenant generals retire at 58. Diwan regrets the error.