Assad’s ‘Crisis Cell’ reveals Syrian regime in crisis

Leaked documents obtained by Al Arabiya reveal the mechanisms of a secret cell set up by President Bashar al-Assad in a bid to contain the uprising. (Al Arabiya)

The man who leaked the documents of a covert Crisis Cell set up by President Bashar al-Assad and provided an insight into the mechanism of how the regime addresses the uprising, Abdel-Majeed Barakat, is young. Some might even argue that he is too young to fill a position in one of the most secretive military cells in Syria, and too much of a civilian as well.

There are many questions as to how this civilian was able to secure a job at such a sensitive post.

Barakat knows someone. And in a lot of countries in the Arab world that should be enough to get the job.

“They are more naïve than you think” Barakat said in an exclusive interview to Al Arabiya English, explaining the regime’s decision to hire him as a secretarial employee for the Crisis Cell. “They thought it was every Syrian young man’s dream to work for a governmental faction. They are in denial.”

Barakat was working in the secretary unit of the cell, before he was forced to flee the country, fearful of being caught.

The Crisis Cell documents provide many insights into Assad’s strategy to suppress anti-government protests by force. What they also put forward is a regime facing a serious crisis when it comes to its power and control.

A cell run by the president

The documents show that Assad is in charge and not a victim or unaware of any procedures taken by his military men. Assad, according to Barakat, is the head of the Crisis Cell, followed by his brother Maher, and nine of the regime’s top security generals.

The president is constantly informed of both the situation on the ground and the strategies in place to contain it, through a clear timeline of meetings and reports. More than that, the final commands and decisions are in his hands.

Because of the fragile situation in Syria, Assad could not freely move and attend the meetings at the cell unit. According to Barakat, the generals visited him twice or three times a week, when the cell members met at the Presidential Palace.

The who’s who of the crisis cell

Bashar al-Assad

He is the president of Syria and the Regional Secretary of the Syrian-led branch of the Arab Socialist Baath Party. He succeeded his authoritarian father in 2000, after the latter passed away having ruled Syria for 29 years. He is married to Asma al-Assad and they have three children. Since the start of the Syrian uprising in March 2011, people have asked for the fall of the regime and president Assad to step down.

Maher al-Assad

Maher al-Assad is the commander of the Presidential Guard, and the army's elite Fourth Armored Division. He is also a member of the Baath Party’s central leadership and is said to have an aggressive and uncontainable personality. Maher is the president's youngest brother.

Mohammed Saeed Bkhitan

As the Party's Assistant Regional Secretary, Mohammed Saeed Bkhitan led the executive work of the Crisis Cell during the first months of its establishment.

Hassan Turkmani

Former Syrian minister of defense, Hassan Turkmani replaced Bkhitan only four months after the creation of the Syrian Crisis Cell as its secretary general. He joined the Syrian Army in 1954 and served in it until 2009 when he became Minster of Defense.

Assef Shawkat

Married to Bashar al-Assad’s sister, Bushra, Assef Shawkat was the army deputy chief from 2009 till 2011. He then became deputy Minister of Defense, the position that he currently holds. Shawkat is considered one of the president's top security chiefs but he was replaced in 2010 as head of Military Intelligence and made deputy chief-of-staff of the armed forces

General Dawoud Rajiha

Dawould Rajiha is the Syrian Minister of Defense. After serving as the army chief of staff, he was appointed to replace Ali Mahmud as defense minister in August 2011 during the uprising.

Mohamed al-Sha’ar

Mohamed al-Sha’ar is the actual Syrian Minister of Interior. He joined the armed forces in 1971 and held a number of security positions, including chief of the military police in Aleppo and was the Director of Sednaya prison. He was commander of the military police prior to being appointed Minister of the Interior.

Hisham al-Ekhtiyar

The Major-General is currently the head of national security. A Syrian military official, and a national security adviser to President Assad, he was the director of the Syrian intelligence agency between 2001 to 2005, and has been the director of the Ba'ath Party Regional Command National Security Bureau.

Jamil Hassan

Major-General Jamil Hassan is the head of the Syrian Air Force Intelligence a position that was previously occupied by Abdul Fatah Qudsiya till 2009.

Abdul Fatah Qudsaya

The head of military intelligence, the paramount security agency in Syria, which has a reputation of ruthless efficiency and considerable influence over the president, Abdul Fatah Qudsaya was head of air force intelligence. He replaced the president’s brother-in-law Assef Shawkat as head of military intelligence.

Deeb Zaitoon

Deeb Zaitoon is head of political security directorate, a civilian agency responsible for monitoring political activity, including surveillance of parties and political publications. Before taking up his current post in 2009, General Zaitoon was deputy head of the General Security Directorate.

Ali Mamlouk

Head of the Syrian General Intelligence Directorate, Ali Mamlouk has held this post since 2005, during which he was involved in some of the most contentious issues in Syria. Before that, he was deputy head of Air Force Intelligence.

The Crisis Cell appointed a secretary division, mainly to handle the tasks of data research and collection of minutes. The chief secretary was Salah al-Deen al-Noaimi, a former advisor to the defense minister. Syrian Navy officer, Mustapha al-Shara was also part of the secretarial unit, and down the pyramid was Abdel Majeed Barakat, a Political Sciences graduate who was specialized in crisis management.

These major security figures are, for the most of them, on the EU and U.S. list of sanctioned Syrian decision makers involved in the crackdown on demonstrators.

Hazy communication

Even within the small circle that forms the Crisis Cell, terms and expressions used in the leaked documents remain ambiguous. “Necessary measures”, “unidentified side”, “dead person”, are words that figure in the minutes of the cell meetings. According to Barakat, the blurry communication had several functionalities.

For instance, to deny all responsibility for the killings.

According to Barakat, “in Damascus for example, as shown in one of the documents, the regime forces are the ones controlling the area, with no presence of any other armed groups. It is therefore evident that they are the ones shooting and killing civilians.

“They use terms such as ‘anonymous’ in a bid to escape any future legal proceedings or to show a good image of themselves to the president.”

Barakat adds that “members of the cell use words they all understand and agree upon, for instance, they say ‘martyr’ when one of their soldiers or agents dies, but ‘killed’ when a civilian is murdered.”

The intelligence “rotten” soul

Since the rule of Hafez el-Assad, the Baath regime in Syria was known to hold its strength from an iron intelligence fist. The documents of the Crisis Cell reveal the spirit of an intelligence regime, and the behavior of the people operating within that circle.

For instance, in one of the files from October 2011, one member of the Baath Party, Akram Abu Assi, was accused of making offensive comments about the President during a party gathering. The officer who wrote the report said he had heard Abu Assi “whisper” something about someone, and he accused him of insulting the President. Moreover, the officer suggested deploying a whole unit to spy on Abu Assi and taking “necessary measures” – all without conclusive evidence to show that Assi had insulted Assad. This attention to “individuals” and the “sneaking and snitching” behavior are quite symbolic of a government run by the intelligence.

The documents also reveal the rift between the generals. Most of these top officers have been rotating in the same circle but in different security and military positions throughout the rule of the Baath Party in Syria. A person previously heading the Air Force Intelligence was now running the General Intelligence, or the Military Intelligence and vice versa. Their work association thus spanned many, many years and they were familiar with each other too. However, according to Barakat, most of these generals were not in good terms. Barakat explains the “cosmetic” nature of the information in the documents: for example, lowering the number of protesters or saying that the situation is under control in a bid to make himself look good. Each general also wanted to either impress Assad or to compete with the other security leaders in running the cell.

“Even their bodyguards fight amongst themselves”, said Barakat. “We can feel the tension between the generals at all times, some don’t even greet the others. But the strong will to stay in power and the crisis actually brought them together in suppressing their people.”

Abdel-Majeed Barakat, who fled Syria last February after working nearly 10 months in the Crisis Cell sounded confident and mostly proud to have “done his duty” as he describes his support of the opposition in Syria. He wasn’t ready to say goodbye yet as he wanted to acquire – and expose -- more secret documents.

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