President Assad has reportedly sacked two of the most senior members of his regime: Rustom Ghazaleh, previously the head of the Political Security Branch, and Rafik Shehadeh, who led the Military Intelligence Branch. The two men had come into disagreement with one another, allegedly over Ghazaleh’s concern about the growing role of Iran and Hizballah in the Syrian civil war. Shehadeh had reportedly instructed his bodyguards to beat Ghazaleh earlier this year, resulting in him being hospitalised, and there have been unverified claims that he is now on life support.
The existence of rivalries within the regime
It remains the case that all figures who are closely associated with the regime understand that their survival – and that of their families – is now entwined with Assad’s fate. If the regime were to collapse they know they would face a painful and public death at the hands of the rebels and so it is not in their interests to undermine the President. Moreover, the importance of officials like Ghazaleh is gradually diminishing as Hizballah and Tehran take an increasingly central role in directing the campaign, particularly the ongoing offensive in the South. The dispute between Ghazaleh and Shehadeh is consequently unlikely to have any negative implications for the stability of the regime.
Meanwhile, Muhammad al-Assad, a son of one of the President’s cousins and a key figure in the “shabiha” smuggling networks, was reportedly killed on 13 March by a fellow Alawite (the same Shia sect as the President) in Qardaha, the home town of the Assad family. The regime has implausibly claimed that he died while fighting on the frontlines against rebels elsewhere in Lattakia Province, even though there would be little reason for such a senior figure to do so. Suggestions he was targeted as part of a personal and/or business dispute are far more plausible but, either way, his killing does not affect our assessment that Alawite support for the regime remains secure.
Meanwhile, US Secretary of State affirmed that Washington supports engagement with representatives of the regime – although he rejected media reports that suggested he had endorsed dialogue with Assad himself. Meanwhile, CIA Director John Brennan has said that the US does not want to see the chaotic collapse of the Syrian regime. This reflects a general trend of reduced international pressure on Assad which makes it even less likely that members of his regime or his key Alawite support base will turn against him. We consequently believe that Assad’s position, and that of his regime, is increasingly secure. Moreover, a major shift in the military balance of power remains unlikely. Pro-Government forces continue their gradual advance to the south of the capital but an alliance of jihadist and Islamist rebels has now launched a major assault on the northern city of Idleb, which may force Assad to redeploy some of his forces away from the South.