Last week, the daily Al-Joumhouria published the transcripts of the surveillance tapes in the case of former minister Michel Samaha, who was recently arrested and charged for plotting a campaign of terrorist bombings in northern Lebanon. Samaha was caught red-handed, and his conversations with the head of the cell that was to execute these bombings were taped, as this operative himself had been recruited by the Internal Security Forces.
These transcripts offer a unique window into the Syrian regime’s decision-making process and chain of command when commissioning terror operations in Lebanon. But more importantly, they provide us with an interesting insight into the current structure of the regime. What they reveal is that, over the course of the uprising, Bashar al-Assad has further consolidated the security services. In effect, the regime is little more than Bashar himself.
Misunderstanding the nature and structure of the Assad regime has been a chronic problem that has long affected Western analysis and policymaking. Misinterpretation became even more acute after Bashar inherited power after his father died in 2000. The most infamous example was the “old guard” thesis: that is, the notion that a “reform-minded” Bashar was constrained by entrenched remnants from his father’s time. Similarly, several analysts posited the existence of a “hardline” faction within the regime, and spoke of autonomous security chiefs who were able to pursue certain policies without Bashar’s knowledge, and, presumably, against his wishes. Bashar, in other words, was presented as merely a “figurehead”—the president who, in the words of Paul Salem, “does not command.”
Thus, it was hardly surprising when, following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, many Arab and Western pundits often claimed that it probably wasn’t Bashar personally who gave that order. Even though Bashar reportedly threatened to “break Lebanon over [Hariri’s] head,” these pundits nevertheless maintained that such a decision was either made without his knowledge, or, at best, was forced on him by the powerful elements of the regime who “really” make major security decisions, if not general policy.