Syria’s Leaders

Syria’s Leaders

As international attention focuses on the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad, profiles some of the nation’s top leaders.

Last updated July 2, 2012 8:00 am (EST)

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Bashar al-Assad, 46, President

Trained as a doctor, Bashar never expected to become president. His father, former president Hafez al-Assad--who ruled Syria with an iron fist for thirty years beginning in 1970--groomed his elder son Basil as his successor. But when Basil died in a car crash in 1994, Bashar was summoned back from ophthalmology studies in London to take over the position of heir apparent. After Hafez al-Assad’s death in 2000, the country’s Majlis (Parliament) lowered the minimum required age for candidates from forty to thirty-four to allow Bashar to become president.

The Assad family is part of the minority Alawite sect, a Shiite Muslim faction that, despite making up only 12 percent of the population, has dominated political life in Syria since the Ba’ath Party seized power in 1963, and forms the core of the country’s armed services and intelligence bureaucracy.

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On May 27, 2007, Bashar al-Assad was approved as president for a second seven-year term, with the official result of 97.6 percent of the votes in a referendum in which he was the sole candidate. Assad’s policies have often put him at odds with the United States and the international community. These include opposing the U.S. war in Iraq--which earned Syria severe U.S. animosity--and pushing through a term extension in 2004 for Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, widely seen as a Syrian puppet. The move forced Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri to quit the government and join the opposition. Hariri and his opposition movement gained tremendous popular support until he was killed in a Beirut car bomb attack on February 14, 2005. The assassination, which also killed more than twenty others, was blamed on Syria and sparked mass demonstrations in Beirut that forced Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon after twenty-nine years of occupation. A United Nations investigation headed by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis implicated many high-ranking Syrian officials in Hariri’s death. Assad denies any Syrian involvement. The investigation continues under the leadership of Belgian prosecutor Serge Brammertz.

Along with demonstrations across the Arab world that began in late 2010, protests in Syria started on January 26, 2011. Protesters demanded Assad’s resignation, the overthrow of his government, and an end to nearly five decades of Ba’ath Party rule. Syrian authorities responded with violence. By the end of June 2012, approximately 14,475 to 20,205 people reportedly had been killed, about half of whom were civilians. The violence prompted a global outcry, with the United States, members of the Arab League, and European countries invoking sanctions against Syria and Syrian officials in an effort to pressure Assad’s government to end the violence and begin transitioning to a democratic system. The latest attempts to resolve the crisis have been made through the appointment of former secretary-general of the United Nations Kofi Annan as a special envoy.

Assad’s Inner Circle

  • Maher Assad, 44, head of the Presidential Guard. The youngest of Hafez al-Assad’s four sons, he is said to be Syria’s second most powerful man. Maher studied business at Damascus University and then followed his older brother, Basil, into the military. In October 1999, Maher reportedly shot his brother-in-law, Assef Shawqat, after an argument. Shawqat recovered, and Maher has since earned praise as the commander of the Presidential Guard. He is also a member of the Ba’ath Party Central Committee. Maher is mentioned in the Mehlis report as one of the people who planned Hariri’s murder. Maher’s troops have played a key role in violently suppressing the Syrian uprising. The United States, the European Union, and the Arab League placed sanctions on Maher for human rights violations in Syria.
  • Dawoud Rajiha, 65, minister of defense. Rajiha, born in Damascus, is a Greek Orthodox Christian, a rarity in the upper echelons of the largely Alawite Syrian leadership. He was an artillery specialist in the military academy, from which he graduated in 1967. He attained the rank of lieutenant general in 1998 and became a full general in 2005, a year after being appointed the army chief of staff. He has been Syria’s minister of defense since August 2011.
  • Assef Shawqat, 62, deputy minister of defense. Husband of Bashar’s sister Bushra, he was promoted to his current position in September 2011. Shawqat has a law degree and a doctorate in history from Damascus University. He joined the Syrian army in the late 1970s and rose through the ranks; he was head of military intelligence from 2005 to 2009, and deputy chief of staff from 2009 to 2011. He is considered to be one of Assad’s loyalists and strongmen. Shawqat is also implicated by the Mehlis report in the planning of Hariri’s assassination.
  • Abdul Fatah Qudsiya, 59, head of Military Intelligence. In 2009, Qudsiya replaced the president’s brother-in-law, Assef Shawqat, as head of Military Intelligence, which has a reputation for violence and brutal efficiency. The agency’s duties concern strategic and tactical intelligence, and ensuring the leadership’s physical security and the loyalty of the army. In May 2011, Qudsiya was included in a list of Syrian officials subject to EU sanctions for their roles in violence against protesters. Military Intelligence is said to have played a prominent role in the crackdown, firing on crowds of protesters, and killing a large number of civilians.
  • Ali Mamlouk, 66, head of the General Security Directorate. Mamlouk’s main duties include quelling internal dissent and advising the president on security issues. He has served in the post since 2005; previously, he was deputy head of Air Force Intelligence. In April 2011, the United States and the European Union imposed sanctions Mamlouk, saying he had been responsible for human rights abuses, including the use of violence against civilians.
  • Rami Makhlouf, 42, pro-government businessman. Makhlouf is Bashar’s maternal cousin and the most powerful economic figure in Syria. He took over the businesses built by his father, Mohammed, the brother of Hafez al-Assad’s wife, Anisa Makhlouf. After Bashar became president, Mahklouf’s financial empire expanded significantly. He is publicly accused of manipulating the Syrian judicial system and using the country’s intelligence officials to intimidate business rivals, for instance, through acquiring exclusive licenses to represent foreign companies in Syria and obtaining contract awards. Makhlouf is subject to U.S. sanctions for such practices. During the 2011 uprisings, opposition activists accused Makhlouf of financing pro-government demonstrations across Syria and abroad by providing flags, meals, and money to the participants. In May 2011, the European Union imposed sanctions against Makhlouf.

The Old Guard

  • Rustom Ghazali, 59, former head of intelligence in Lebanon. Ghazali was in office from 2002 until the forced pullout of Syrian forces from Lebanon on April 26, 2005. Ghazali also acted like a colonial administrator in Lebanon. On orders from Damascus, Ghazali decided who filled the Lebanese government’s top positions, supervised its foreign policy, and manipulated its elections. Experts say Syria also used Lebanese banks to launder money earned from smuggling and drug running. Ghazali himself is a major shareholder in one of Lebanon’s major cell phone providers. He is implicated in Hariri’s murder by the Mehlis report. After the withdrawal from Lebanon, little has been heard of him. However, at the beginning of the protests in the city of Deraa, Ghazali was sent by Bashar al-Assad to assure locals of the president’s good intentions.
  • Walid al-Moualem, 71, minister of foreign affairs and expatriates. Moualem, a career diplomat, represented Syria at the Wye Plantation negotiations with Israel and the United States in 1998. He also served as Syrian ambassador to Washington. Experts say he has pushed hard for a peace deal with the Israelis in the past and could do so again. He took over responsibility for Lebanese affairs after Hariri’s death and was promoted to foreign minister in February 2006. In April 2011, he was appointed minister of foreign affairs and expatriates. That same year, the United States sanctioned Moualem and other Syrian officials in response to Syria’s violence against anti-government protesters.
  • Abdel Halim Khaddam, 79, former vice president. Khaddam is a Sunni, although his wife is Alawite. He served as foreign minister of Syria from 1970 to 1984, then as vice president from 1984 to 2005. When Hafez al-Assad died in June 2000, Khaddam became acting president of the republic until Bashar al-Assad was elected. He was instrumental in working to exert Syrian control over Lebanon, and had a close relationship with both Hafez al-Assad and Hariri. When Khaddam quit his post in 2005, he went into exile to Paris. He has publicly accused Bashar al-Assad of threatening Hariri a few months before his death and has met with exiles and U.S. and European officials in Paris. Some mention him as a potential head of a new Syrian government. Assad’s government considers him a traitor. In an interview with an Israeli television station, Khaddam acknowledged that he received money and aid from the United States and the European Union to help overthrow the Syrian regime.
  • Muhammad Naji al-Otari, 68, former prime minister. Otari, the former longtime governor of Homs province, became prime minister in September 2003. He is a Sunni member of the Ba’ath party and is considered a strong administrator but not a skilled politician. Because of the Syrian uprisings, he resigned along with the entire cabinet on 29 March 2011. However, President Bashar al-Assad named him caretaker prime minister until the new government was appointed.
  • Farouk al-Shara, 73, vice president. Shara served as foreign minister from 1984 until February 2006, when Assad appointed him vice president to replace Khaddam. Shara is a Sunni Muslim who rose through the Ba’ath Party and handled secret negotiations with Israel in the early 1990s. Before becoming foreign minister, he served as Syrian ambassador to Rome and acting information minister. Experts say while Shara is not too involved in domestic policy, he is still an influential figure. He is accused of lying to UN investigators in the Mehlis report. During the Syrian uprising, he called for a transition to democracy, crediting mass protests with forcing the regime to consider reforms while also warning against further demonstrations.
  • Ali Haydar, former head of the Special Forces. Haydar was pushed aside in 1995 after expressing his reservations about hereditary succession. He lost his post for "insubordination." He currently is leader of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, the largest political group in Syria after the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party. As of 2012, the party is part of the Popular Front for Change and Liberation.

Outside Government

Ali al-Bayanoni, 73, general guide of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. The leader of Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood, which is banned, is in exile in London, but wields considerable influence through the network of social services his supporters provide throughout the country. Although Hafez al-Assad ruthlessly suppressed the Brotherhood’s political activities, experts say the Muslim Brotherhood is still Syria’s most viable opposition party. Both Hafez al-Assad and his brother Rifaat courted Bayanouni’s support at various times. In 2011, during the Syrian protests, he advocated for the ouster of Assad’s regime and for a conference of all the nationalist forces in Syria that would enable Syrians to develop a collective national political alternative.

Outside Syria

Rifaat al-Assad, 74, former vice president. Rifaat, a younger brother of Hafez al-Assad, has long sought to rule Syria. He graduated from Damascus University and joined the army in 1963. He advanced rapidly and supported Hafez’s seizure of power in 1971. During the 1970s, Rifaat’s unit, the Defense Companies, became an elite force of some fifty-five thousand soldiers equipped with tanks, artillery, and helicopters. This unit was instrumental in the 1982 military action in Hama, earning Rifaat the nickname "the butcher of Hama." In November 1983, after Hafez suffered a heart attack and was hospitalized, Rifaat staged a coup attempt. It was put down by Syrian troops, and after Hafez recovered in March he stripped Rifaat of his military command and appointed him one of three vice presidents to dilute his power. In May, however, Hafez suffered a relapse, and Rifaat once again tried and failed to seize power. Rifaat has spent the last dozen years in exile in France and Spain. Rifaat announced himself as a Syrian presidential candidate after Hafez’s death in 2000; Syrian officials threatened him with death if he returned to the country.

Sumer al-Assad, Rifaat’s son and head of the Arab News Network. Bashar’s cousin runs a London-based satellite television network partly financed by his father. The network ran reports critical of the Syrian regime in the 1990s as part of Rifaat and Sumer’s campaign against Hafez, which culminated in a gun battle between their opposing camps in the Alawite Latakia region in 1999. The Syrian army restored order, imprisoned many of Sumer’s supporters, and closed down an illegal port run by Rifaat. While Sumer and Rifaat are not seen as direct threats to Bashar, they are potentially disruptive influences.

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