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Assad relies on ‘autistic’ inner circle

Vice leader's criticism, defection of top general highlight growing divide

AFP-JIJI, AP

The Syrian vice president’s criticism of leader Bashar Assad has highlighted the cracks in the regime’s highest ranks, pitting supporters of compromise against the president’s hardline inner circle.

Assad’s closest aides believe the regime should keep fighting and that they can still win a war against rebels that has left more than 45,000 dead in almost two years.

“Power has become increasingly concentrated in the hands of just a few people in Assad’s clan, which has grown autistic and seems to have chosen to just keep going,” said Karim Bitar, a senior fellow at the Paris think tank Institute for International and Strategic Relations.

Assad’s circle includes his brother, Maher, 44, who heads the army’s elite 4th Division and his wife, Asma, an analyst said on condition of anonymity.

The group also includes Assad’s notorious business-savvy relatives — uncle Mohammed Makhluf, 80, and cousin Rami Makhluf, 43, — as well as Damascus security chief, Hazem Makhluf, 41.

Like Assad, all are members of the minority Alawite community, except his wife, who is a Sunni Muslim.

Presidential affairs minister since 2009, Mansur Azzam, 52, and former Al-Jazeera journalist Luna al-Shibl are also close to Assad. Both are members of the Druze community.

Alawite Hussam Sukkar, a security advisor to the president, is also key, as are two Sunni veterans: national security chief Ali Mamluk and political security chief Rostom Ghazali.

“This is the group that takes the decisions,” the analyst said. “Bashar, who runs the show, only listens to people who owe him, for the most part, for their rise.”

But several high-level officials, members of the state apparatus and part of the army command, understand — like Vice President Faruq al-Sharaa — “that neither the rebels nor the army can secure an all-out victory,” Bitar said.

“As such, they are hoping for a negotiated solution, which would prevent them all being swept away should Assad fall,” Bitar said.

Underscoring divisions within the regime, a pan-Arab TV station reported Tuesday that the general who heads Syria’s military police has defected and joined the rebellion, one of the highest walkouts by a serving security chief during the 21-month uprising.

Maj. Gen. Abdul-Aziz Jassem al-Shallal appeared in a video aired on Al Arabiya TV late Tuesday saying he is joining “the people’s revolution.”

He said that the “army has derailed from its basic mission of protecting the people and it has become a gang for killing and destruction.” He accused the military of “destroying cities and villages and committing massacres against our innocent people who came out to demand freedom.”

In an interview published a day earlier in a pro-Damascus Lebanese daily, Vice President al-Sharaa, who for 22 years served as foreign minister, said he favors a negotiated solution to the conflict, rather than the president’s strategy of crushing the revolt militarily.

Assad “does not hide his desire to press on militarily until the final victory (and he believes that) after this, political dialogue will actually still be possible,” al-Sharaa told Beirut-based newspaper Al-Akhbar.

Experts say that out of those who share Sharaa’s views, two women stand out.

One of them is Buthaina Shaaban, a 59-year-old Alawite who was close to Assad’s father, Hafez, and worked as his translator before becoming minister of expatriate affairs. In 2008, Shaaban became the younger Assad’s adviser.

The other is Najah al-Attar, a 79-year-old Sunni, who was minister of culture from 1976 to 2000, and was then appointed vice president along with al-Sharaa in 2006.

“It seems this group has been totally excluded from decision-making, because they think the war should end with no winner or loser,” said a former minister who took a distance from the regime when the revolt broke out in March 2011.

Assad’s clique, the minister added on condition of anonymity, “treats them like cowards.”