Paramilitary: Syria Is No Egypt


February 13, 2011:  An attempt by Syrians to emulate and replicate the massive popular uprising in Egypt has failed. Not only that, it is has failed miserably. While the long-reigning Egyptian government was toppled, the attempts to duplicate the revolt in Syria had little chance of success. There are many reasons for this and they explain some of the fundamental differences between the governments and issues facing the two countries.  

In Egypt, the civilian security police and domestic civilian intelligence services have, for the last 30 years, almost exclusively provided the backbone of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's dictatorship. During Mubarak's presidency, almost any and all forms of political dissent were and have been ruthlessly crushed. The entire country had been ruled under emergency rule since 1981. Journalists, human rights workers, members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and any major political opponents of the government faced arrest, imprisonment, torture, and conviction by state security and military courts. To make matters worse, the Mubarak government has long been criticized for extensive corruption from top to bottom, with high-level ministers being exposed for such crimes as looting antiquities. Graft and bribery in the country have been rampant, even by the standards of the Middle East, for decades. All of these, in addition to economic and other concerns, have precipitated Egypt's political explosion in the last two weeks. 

During Mubarak's presidency, repression and arrest of political opponents was the responsibility of several different state security services. The first of these, Al-Mukhabarat al-'Ammah (General Intelligence Directorate [GID]), is Egypt's primary frontline intelligence service. The GID is responsible directly to the Egyptian president and has responsibility for both domestic and international intelligence collection. In other words, it spies on both Egyptians and engages in espionage abroad, recruiting agents and informants, with a major emphasis these days on countering Islamic terrorism. Like all secret services in the Middle East, the GID tortures detainees delivered into its custody.   Aside from that (predictable) fact, the Directorate actually has a history of scoring some successes that benefit Egypt, and is considered somewhat reliable and effective. However, the agency is still tainted with its role in suppressing political dissent during the Mubarak era. 

Egypt maintains an Office of Military Intelligence Services and Reconnaissance that is also considered quite good, divorced as it is from the secret police machinery. The General Directorate for State Security Investigations (GDSSI) and the Central Security Forces have long been the primary instruments of repression in the country. The exact number of officers and official personnel employed by the GDSSI has never been revealed and probably won't be until Mubarak and his henchmen are gone, but it engages in extensive surveillance and arrest of opposition politicians, journalists, diplomats, and human rights activists. Furthermore, the agency is believed to have established a massively pervasive network of informants and intelligence nets throughout the country. The Central Security Forces, numbering in the thousands, are paramilitary security police whose primary function is to arrest dissidents, perform crowd control, and disperse political gatherings and riots. 

With such a pervasive security operation, the actual Egyptian Armed Forces have rarely participated in any policing or violent actions against civilians or demonstrations. In fact, the Egyptian Army is easily the most respected and revered public institution in Egypt, thanks to a combination of the country's success during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the intense patriotism of the average Egyptian, and a high degree of professionalism (at least by Arab standards). The Egyptian Army, needless to say, had no desire to destroy its public image or credibility, not to mention the billions in American aid received every year for equipment. 

As sinister as the Egyptian security services are, they have not been enough to control the country's uprising. In Syria, on the other hand, a different arrangement keeps the Baath Party in power. Foremost among these is the sheer ruthlessness of the Syrian military and security apparatus. 

Syria, like Egypt, maintains multiple intelligence services, two of which are the primary agents of surveillance and suppression of dissent. These agencies are the Political Security Directorate and the General Security Directorate, both of whose responsibilities and duties severely overlap with one another, lest the Baath regime become overly dependent on one single service.    The Political Security Directorate does just what its name implies: it exists to conduct surveillance of dissident political activity, monitor the activities of foreign nationals residing in or visiting Syria, and conducting electronic monitoring of all audiovisual communications and spying on newspaper publishers. The second agency, the General Security Directorate, is Syria's primary overall intelligence service. Whereas the Political Security Directorate is solely responsible for domestic intelligence duties, the GSD is divided into three different branches: internal security, external intelligence, and the Palestinian branch. The first two undertake domestic surveillance roles and external espionage, while the third is tasked with spying on armed paramilitary groups operating in both Lebanon and the areas of Israel under the control of the Palestinian Authority (PA). Like Egypt, Syria also possesses a separate Military Intelligence (MI) branch, the Shubat al-Mukhabarat al Askariyya. Attached to the Ministry of Defense, the MI branch conducts the usual activities of MI units the world over such as analyzing enemy maps and documents, and interrogating Enemy Prisoners of War (EPWs). But the Military Intelligence branch is also the agency tasked with providing cash, weapons, and training to the armed militant groups that Syria has supported for decades in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. 

Therefore, like Egypt, Syria has multiple intelligence and security agencies dedicated to spying on the public and crushing dissent. But this alone is not enough to account for the Syrian regime's continued survival. Most dictatorships in the region rely on such agencies, but in Syria, unlike in Egypt, the regular armed forces have shown little hesitation in helping to put down internal uprisings in the country when the security services are not enough to do the job. In Egypt, the military has rarely intervened in uprisings, and even then only to suppress disturbances that are truly seen as a threat to the country's security, such as the massive revolt of Central Security Force personnel in 1986. In 1982, the Syrian Army was deployed to the city of Hama to put down an insurrection led by the Muslim Brotherhood. In an act that was seen as evidence of the sheer ruthlessness of the Assad government, the army is estimated to have massacred at least 17,000-40,000 people and to have devastated large parts of the city. When the Muslim Brotherhood undertook a campaign of guerrilla warfare in the late '70s against the Syrian government, mass arrests, torture, and imprisonment were deemed to be insufficient to deal with the unrest. In attacking Hama, the Syrian government deployed a mixture of regular army, elite army special forces and GSD agents (approximately 12,000 troops in all) to lay siege to the city. After the assault on the city, the army and internal security agents hunted down and massacred the remaining insurgent survivors. 

This is an important difference between the two countries and one of the primary reasons why the revolution that toppled the government in Egypt could hardly be replicated in Syria. Whereas in Egypt the army feared turning its guns on unarmed demonstrators, the Syrian military has left no doubts about its willingness to aid the regime in stamping out any acts of rebellion. Had the military in Egypt been willing to use force to suppress its own citizens, the outcome of the demonstrations would have been much different. 

In addition to its formidable security apparatus, Syria's government maintains power the same way that all durable dictatorships do: it maintains a significant measure of popular support from the average Syrian citizen. The country's president, Bashar Al Assad, is a relatively young man by the standards of the region and is actually quite popular in the country. This is in stark contrast to Hosni Mubarak, who was almost unanimously considered little more than a corrupt, aging thug by the Egyptian people. Syria, of course, suffers from the same problems as Egypt such as massive corruption, repression, and unemployment, but the Baath regime still has a trump card up its sleeve. It is the last of the frontline Arab states (the others being Egypt and Jordan) that technically remains in a state of war with Israel. Lebanon, fractured and internally unstable as it is, doesn't count. Furthermore, it does more than just talk. Despite its tiny defense budget and aging equipment, Syria persists in attempting to rearm and prepare for another war to take back the Golan Heights. It also continues to provide safe haven, arms, money, and other logistical support to terrorist and insurgent groups like the Al Aqsa Martyr's Brigades, Hamas, Hezbollah, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The Military Intelligence branch which carries out this support, is seen as a highly admired and patriotic organization, despite being shrouded in almost total secrecy. 

All of this is highly attractive to the average citizen of the Arab world, which, despite the peace treaties between Israel, Egypt, and Jordan, still regards the Jewish state as an intruder in the neighborhood. Being the last holdout against Israel gives the Syrians major credibility on the street in the Middle East. All of this has a hand in keeping the Syrian regime in power. Thus, while the country barely has enough cash to operate itself, the money and weapons it freely doles out to extremist groups are one of the primary keys to its long-term hold on power and stability in the nation. 

While Mubarak may be gone, Bashar Al Assad's government seems assured to be around for quite awhile longer. 




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