Since Russia’s first involvement in the Syrian conflict in 2015, Moscow has been participating in the reform of the Syrian armed forces (SAF). Russian activities are aimed both at improving the combat capability of individual units in the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), and at forming their own proxy forces. However, Russia must decide how it will help reform Syrian special services. Should Russian policymakers advocate minimal changes or a complete restructuring of these forces?

Kirill Semenov
Kirill Semenov is an independent analyst of political and military issues in the Middle East, and a non-resident expert of the Russian International Affairs Council.

Moscow should be interested in reforming the Syrian special services as it would help secure its own position in the country and counter Iran’s influence. In particular, the security of Russia’s military and economic facilities, as well as Russian citizens in Syria, directly depend on the quality of the Syrian intelligence community.

Still, it is not yet clear what levers Russia has to launch security sector reform in Syria. The Syrian intelligence community is particularly close to the Syrian leadership. Appointments to senior positions are carried out within the close circle of the Assad family, and while the trusting relationship between Damascus and Tehran allows the participation of Iran in the process, Bashar al-Assad’s regime is more wary of Russian engagement in such an intimate and closed sphere.

Damascus is naturally interested in increasing the efficiency of its own security and intelligence services. Against the background of a gradual transition from internal conflict toward a cold stage, the role of the armed forces will decrease and the importance of special services will grow. The Syrian regime should be ready to accept a certain level of assistance from Russia in reforming the Syrian security sector.

Looking at internal and external factors, this article presents three scenarios for possible reform of the Syrian special services. This article then examines the prospects for the development of the military counterintelligence sector, internal troops, and border troops directly related to the security sector.

During the post-Cold War period, Russia was faced with the need to reform its own special services. Each scenario presented is based on a specific stage of the Russian/Soviet experience. While these scenarios are somewhat speculative, given the lack of publicly available information, the analysis will focus on the degree of Russian influence on the Syrian intelligence community and on the willingness of individual structures to accept Russian involvement.

Internal and External Factors

The Syrian Intelligence Community

In Syria four independent security structures exist. These are divided between “military”—the Military Intelligence Directorate and the Syrian Air Force—which fall under the remit of the Ministry of Defense, and “political”—the General Intelligence Directorate and the Political Security Directorate—formally under the structure of the Ministry of Interior (MOI). Each of the two political security services has two separate departments each, for internal and external security. The military special services also emulate this domestic-foreign model, and instead of exclusively solving military intelligence tasks, are involved in the sphere of political investigation.

This varied division of effort in Syrian special services has a long history. Air Force Intelligence was conceived as the fortifying structure of the regime of Hafez al-Assad, a military combat pilot himself. Tasked with controlling the activities of all other special services, it became an independent body of state security, with its own foreign intelligence, counterintelligence, and structures for combating antigovernment activities. The other branches of Syrian special services also tried to prevent excessive strengthening of competing partners and created their own field formations.

Because of this division of effort, the excessive strengthening of a specific branch of the Syrian intelligence community is impossible. This counteracts the possible aspirations of individual security agencies to carry out a coup d’état, but also leads to a lack of productivity. This inefficiency is highlighted by the duplication of functions within each department, which impedes their core functions. Thus, the main task of reform does not necessarily have to include a reduction of security agencies as much as the separation of their powers and the optimization of their activities.

The Iran Factor

Since the start of the civil war, the military’s security agencies, namely Military Intelligence and Air Force Intelligence, have become more oriented toward Iran. This was clear in their opposition to Russian initiatives in Daraa. The General Intelligence Directorate and the Political Security Directorate, on the other hand, have closer ties with Russia. As Russian-Iranian rivalry continues to grow in Syria, competition between pro-Iran and pro-Russia special services will also rise.

As of June 8, 2019, the Syrian government has completely restructured the highest levels of the country’s security intelligence apparatus. Many high-ranking officials were moved or retired, most notably Ali Mamlouk, head of the National Security Office, who was promoted to Vice President for Security Affairs. There is speculation that Russia was involved in the reshuffle, but other sources claim that Russia’s role is exaggerated. Through these appointments, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is trying to reduce Russian-Iranian tension. This is his personal initiative, and he does this with an eye on Tehran, while taking into account the interests of Moscow.

It is clear that Iranian influence will continue for a long period in Syria, despite the possible formation of new transitional bodies or a new constitution. Therefore, tracking the activities of pro-Iranian elements in the armed forces and preventing the strengthening of their influence should be one of the priorities of the Syrian special services and military counterintelligence. The emphasis on reforming the Syrian special services associated with the Ministry of Interior, where Russia’s influence lies, can operate as a counterbalance to Iranian influence in the armed forces.

Using the Russian Experience

First Scenario: Consolidation Under MOI

Russia could take one of three approaches to helping Syria reform its special services. The first scenario largely follows the blueprint of the creation of Russia’s Ministry of Security and Internal Affairs in 1991–92. In this scenario, Syria’s General Security Directorate and Political Security Directorate would be converted from de facto independent departments into formally subordinate units of the MOI. This would significantly strengthen the MOI and give it real powers when conducting foreign intelligence and counterintelligence.

In addition, many pro-Russian factions from the ranks of the Syrian Arab Army, such as the Tiger Forces or the 5th Assault Corps, as well as field troops and various pro-Russian groups whose militiamen are not military personnel, such as the “Daesh Hunters,” which conduct operations against the self-proclaimed Islamic State, could be included within the remit and the structure of the MOI. Russia has already made efforts to this end, creating the Syrian Special Mission Forces.

As part of the MOI, border troops would control the northwest Syrian border and the Iraqi and Jordanian borderlands. Control over these regions is important, since it is where the so-called Shia corridor connects Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. Russia would have its own military resources at the Syrian border, not associated with Iran. By transforming and strengthening the MOI, it can become a structure capable of offsetting the armed forces and military intelligence.

Second Scenario: Optimizing Activities

A second scenario would eliminate the duplication of functions between security agencies, not through significantly strengthening any of them or reducing their number, but through broader structural adjustments.

For example, the reconnaissance wing of the Air Force, as the structure closest to the Syrian leadership, would be transformed into an analogue of the Russian Federal Protective Service (FSO). This new department would be responsible for the protection of senior officials and the security of important government facilities. It could also be removed from the armed forces and turned into a separate public service.

The General Security and Political Security Directorates would also each become independent security agencies, dividing the functions of internal security and foreign intelligence, similar to the Russian Foreign Intelligence (SVR) and Federal Security Services (FSB). The relevant units from Air Force Intelligence and Military Intelligence responsible for political intelligence and internal security would be transferred into these two departments.

The role of the Military Intelligence unit would then remain purely military. This would include access to information about reforms to the armed forces, relations with foreign agencies, and intelligence provision on potential enemies and location of enemy military facilities. In this scenario, the Military Intelligence unit itself would be completely transferred to the control of the General Staff.

Third Scenario: A New Ministry of State Security

Some analysts have argued that the simplest solution to restructuring the Syrian special services is to create a single body of political security and intelligence, for example, the Ministry of State Security. This service could be put under the control of the legislative assembly, which would approve various cabinet ministers in charge, thus preventing possible abuse of power. The General Security and Political Security Directorates, as well as departments responsible for internal security and external political intelligence from the Military Intelligence and Air Force Intelligence units, would all be part of this body.

This scenario combines aspects of the first two. It suggests merging the intelligence functions of the Air Force and Military Intelligence units into a single intelligence agency and removing their political intelligence gathering capability. It also allows for the creation of a security agency directly responsible for the personal protection of the president, senior officials, and government facilities.

Optimizing the Security Sector

Military Counterintelligence

Crucial to reforming the Syrian secret services is the creation of effective military counterintelligence, whose responsibilities should include preventing reconnaissance penetration into the ranks of the SAF by enemy agents. Such a security agency should also fight corruption in the ranks of the armed forces. Corruption can undermine the combat capability of the SAF in the postconflict period, if the main focus of senior and midlevel commanders becomes personal enrichment. In fact, Russia has already proposed that the SAA create an inspection committee to curb corruption.

There are two ways to reform military counterintelligence: create a special structure within the framework of the armed forces themselves, accountable to the Ministry of Defense and General Staff; or create a special body within the political security service. This would ensure the independence of the work of this body from the command of the SAA.

Internal Troops and National Guard

The problem of creating military formations that are not subordinate to the Ministry of Defense, but still capable of performing a wide range of military tasks, was partially addressed in the first scenario.

There are many armed groups with uncertain status, such as the National Defense Forces, the preservation of which would involve fewer costs than attempts to dissolve them. It is these formations that could, under one of the above scenarios, form the basis for Internal Troops and the National Guard. They can include, among others, opposition forces and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Their status and activities would be regulated by a separate law, their employees receiving special status or being treated as military personnel.

Internal Troops would operate as part of the Ministry of Interior, as internal security forces that might, for example, deploy alongside the National Defense Forces or rapid response units aimed at quelling internal unrest. The National Guard would consist primarily of tribal forces and separate formations of minorities, such as Christians, Druze, and opposition groups. They would act as an alternative army, perhaps a separate department.

The integration of the opposition and Kurdish formations into the National Guard and Internal Troops can follow the Russian model of disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration, where after the Chechen conflict separate subunits were created from amnestied Chechen fighters. The majority of these Chechen formations have now entered the National Guard of Russia, formed in 2016.

Border Guard

It seems expedient to form fully fledged frontier troops with intelligence powers in postconflict Syria. The Border Guard, unlike the Internal Troops and National Guard, should not be created from local formations as this would increase the risk of smuggling and the abuse of power. Its members should not have any local links to border communities, thus ensuring independent monitoring of border traffic.

The Border Guard should tackle the tasks of fighting the self-proclaimed Islamic State and other terrorist groups maneuvering in the desert areas between Syria and Iraq, deterring further Iranian expansion in Syria through the Shia corridor, and preventing the activities of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) across the Syrian-Turkish border.

They can either be included within an agency responsible for internal security, such as the Ministry of Interior in the first scenario or the Ministry of State Security in the third, or be part of an independent institution created to oversee their activities.

The Need for Special Services Reform

The lack of reform in the Syrian special services could lead to increased competition between them in the postwar era, especially given the presence of many armed groups operating under their auspices. This could be fraught by the emergence of internal conflicts between the various branches of the intelligence community, which control a number of revenue streams in the Syrian economy.

The possible revival of the Islamic State as an exclusively underground structure operating with the help of secret cells will require additional efforts from the Syrian special services to prevent terrorist acts. Currently, the Syrian intelligence community does not have the resources to accomplish this mission. In addition, the exchange of information between the special services of various states plays an important role in counterterrorism efforts.

Russia remains Syria’s main partner capable of consolidating the authority of the special services. Russia should continue to assist Syrian special services through the training of employees of the Syrian intelligence community in Russia as well as the training of counterterrorist rapid response teams. For a deeper consolidation of Syria’s sovereignty and to protect the Syrian state, policymakers need to consider the above scenarios as possible frameworks toward concrete change.