Subhi Hadidi is a Syrian literary critic and commentator. He is also a coauthor of a recent book, along with Farouk Mardam Bey and Ziad Majed, titled Dans la Tête de Bachar al-Assad (In the Mind of Bashar al-Assad), published by Solin/Actes Sud in France. Hadidi has lived in France for decades, after being forced to escape from Syria during the 1980s, when he was a member of the Syrian Communist Party-Political Bureau, headed by Riad al-Turk. It is to discuss In the Mind of Bashar al-Assad that Diwan interviewed Hadidi in late December to get his perspective on the structures of the Syrian regime and describe what allowed it to survive the uprising that began in 2011.  

Michael Young: While the book is titled In the Mind of Bashar al-Assad, what you and your two coauthors offer is really a deconstruction of the Assad regime’s methods of retaining power, starting at the time of Hafez al-Assad. How did the three of you approach the book at first, and what did you aim to get across?

Subhi Hadidi: The idea came in one of our regular meetings over lunch, when we were appreciating the latest in the excellent series of books published by Solin/Actes Sud, titled “In the Head of …” The series had already covered leaders such as Vladimir Putin, Marine Le Pen, Pope Francis, Xi Jinping, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and so we thought that a book adopting a similar approach to Bashar al-Assad was necessary. It would be of great help to French readers and Western readers in general, allowing them to have an insight into the personality of the man at the heart of the brutal, hereditary, despotic, corrupt, sectarian, but also quite complex Syrian regime. Given that we had very similar, if not identical, views of both Bashar and Assad rule, as well as the structure of the Syrian system and its power networks, we outlined the subject matter and distributed the work among us. We would then discuss each completed chapter, fine tuning the text to meet our aims. This process of synchronization was the least exhausting step.

As to why we went back to the time of Hafez al-Assad, the reasons were quite obvious. Early on after he was crowned as the heir to his father, Bashar is known to have declared in a meeting of the Regional Command of the Ba‘th Party, but also in the presence of the chiefs of the major intelligence services, that “president Hafez is ruling Syria from his grave.” Hafez al-Assad was always a compelling reference, but Bashar was, paradoxically, also inhabited by a desire to “kill” this father. Not, of course, to erase his memory, but so that he could mark his heritage with his own name.

MY: What allowed the regime of Bashar al-Assad to survive the uprising that began in 2011, and how will this affect his own authority in the future?

SH: Bashar’s survival was due to a mixture of internal and external factors. However, the main reason was foreign military intervention, which began with Hezbollah in 2013, then Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, before the Russian deployment in 2015. On several occasions high-ranking Iranian and Russian officials admitted this fact.

Apart from this direct military intervention to save the Syrian regime, on the political level the regime followed valuable advice from the Russian intelligence services. This was to release from prison, early in May 2011, more than 1,500 Islamist and jihadi militants, including the “three stars” of Saydnaya prison—Zahran Alloush, Hassan Abboud, and Ahmad al-Sheikh—who, respectively, established the Jaysh al-Islam, Ahrar al-Sham, and Jabhat al-Nusra armed groups. The result was an Islamist upsurge that not only almost confiscated the democratic and secular nature of the protests during the first months of the popular uprising, but also imposed its militarization. This paved the way for outside financing from certain Gulf states, and consequently also led to the dependence of the opposition bodies based in Istanbul—the Syrian National Council, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, and the High Negotiations Committee—on outside actors.

A third reason was the sectarian structure of the army and the security forces. Alawite officers remained completely loyal to the regime, even if out of fear for the sect in the face of rising Islamist groups and later on the Islamic State group. At the same time, the opposition failed to reassure the Alawite community at large about the future of Syria if the regime were to fall. A byproduct of this, and not a marginal one, was that the vast majority of Sunni officers within the army or the security forces who dissented with the regime did so on an individual basis as their influence within their units was inferior to that of Alawite officers.

MY: Could you outline what were the main structures of power put in place by Hafez al-Assad to ensure the survival of the regime after he took power in 1970. How did they fare following the 2011 uprising?

SH: A few weeks after his military coup in November 1970, Hafez al-Assad reconfigured the thirteen divisions of the Syrian Army (at the time it had around 325,000 soldiers), bringing together military professionals, conscripts, and reservists. Nine of the thirteen divisions were reorganized into three army corps attached to the general staff. The remaining four were reorganized as follows:

The Defense Brigades: Placed under the command of Rif‘at al-Assad, Hafez’s brother, they consisted of eight infantry and parachute brigades, and possessed heavy artillery as well as tanks and helicopters. Its members also enjoyed special privileges in terms of salary, housing, and career enhancement. They became famous for the many horrors they committed, including the massacre at the Palmyra desert prison in June 1980, when between 800 and 1,000 prisoners were killed. After Rif‘at’s attempted putsch in 1984, Hafez decided to dissolve the brigades and reallocate their members to the Republican Guard, the 4th Armored Division, and the Special Forces.

The Special Forces: Originally conceived as a division of professional parachutists, they were also responsible for ensuring the security of the regime, as was the case during the siege and assault on the city of Hama in 1982. General Ali Haydar, who headed the Special Forces for a long time, ensured that Alawites remained in the majority, with other members being recruited from the Bedouin minorities of Deir Ezzor Governorate—the Shawaya, according to the common expression. When Haydar showed signs of opposing Bashar’s succession, Hafez was quick to push him into retirement.

The 4th Armored Division: This consists of three armored brigades and one mechanized brigade. Its equipment is incomparably superior to that of other divisions, since the 4th Armored Division was designed to substitute for the Defense Brigades and constitutes the first bulwark of the regime. For this reason, more than 80 percent of its members (nearly 70,000 soldiers) belong to the Alawite community, with the remaining 20 percent divided between Druze and a handful of Sunnis. Although officially commanded by Ali Mohammed Dargham, its real commander is Bashar’s brother, Maher al-Assad, who on paper commands the 42nd Armored Regiment of the 4th Armored Division.

And finally the Republican Guard: It was founded in 1976 to protect the premises of the presidency and presidential convoys. Hafez had entrusted its command to Adnan Makhlouf, his wife’s cousin. If the overwhelming majority of its members are Alawites, they are more precisely selected from the Kalbiyya clan to which the Assad family belongs. When the uprising began in 2011, the Guards had three mechanized brigades and two regiments dedicated to homeland security.

In terms of the security services, Bashar inherited a gigantic web of nearly 80,000 security personnel, in addition to the hundreds of thousands of informants working in the shadows, not to mention the tens of thousands of members of the Ba‘th Party and the so-called mobilization organizations, whose members acted as voluntary informants. Given that Syria is administratively divided into fourteen governorates, 206 subdistricts, and 48 cities, one can imagine the magnitude of this canvas when one knows that each of the four security services—the directorates of General Security, Political Security, Military Intelligence, and Air Force Intelligence—has a branch in each city, subdivisions in each district, and multiple subdivisions within each branch in the capital and major cities such as Aleppo, Homs, and Latakia.

MY: After 2011 many people said that Bashar al-Assad had committed too many crimes for him to remain in office once the conflict ended. Would you agree that such a statement has been proven incorrect?

SH: I agree, although I myself thought that Bashar has committed too many crimes and atrocities to be reintegrated into the international community, even by Russian President Vladimir Putin. However, all this needs to be understood within a larger context, which is that no major global or regional power was sincere in helping the Syrian people overthrow the regime. One of the biggest lies was the so-called Group of Friends of the Syrian People, and on a personal level I have never trusted any foreign power claiming to support the Syrian uprising. Amazingly, it was Rami Makhlouf, Bashar’s maternal cousin and the banker of the Assad-Makhlouf clique, who first predicted in May 2011 that there would be no stability in Israel if Syria was not stable. He understood that such a fear would make countries wary of backing Assad’s adversaries. 

MY: What led you to seek exile in France? How did your experiences feed into the book?

SH: Exile was imposed on me. I was chased out of the country by all four of the security services during the 1980s, as I was member of the Syrian Communist Party-Political Bureau, which opposed the regime. Its leadership and hundreds of its members were jailed. Leaving Syria was the only solution to reduce the hardship and pressures exerted by the regime on my parents and friends, in addition to the major logistical difficulties of remaining underground at that time. I left Syria secretly for France, where I live today, which was not my choice but simply the first country for which my comrades managed to get me a visa. It goes without saying that my life in Syria, especially those extremely hard and rich years of underground activity, fed very well into my sections of the book.