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Tuesday, August 2, 2011     INTELLIGENCE BRIEFING

Iran seen working through Assad's brother
in Syria crackdown

LONDON — President Bashar Assad is believed to have lost much of his authority in Syria.


Western diplomatic sources said Assad was no longer in control of the military and security forces. The sources said Assad was forced to cede authority over the Iranian-dominated security forces to his younger brother, Maher, as well as his brother-in-law Assaf Chawkat.

"Assad is talking about reform and reconciliation while Maher is killing more and more people on a daily basis," a Western diplomat based in Damascus said.

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The sources said Bashar began to lose his power in April as demonstrations spread throughout Syria. They said Iran worked directly with Maher and other senior regime members to widen and intensify the crackdown on the pro-democracy opposition.

On Aug. 1, the president issued one of his first statements that praised the bloody crackdown on the opposition movement, Middle East Newsline reported. Assad said the Syrian Army assault on Hama — in which more than 120 people were killed — marked an achievement for national unity.

"It [military] proved its loyalty to its people, country and creed," Assad said. "The army was a model of commitment to the nation's causes and a defender of its rights, proving to be an impregnable fortress foiling the dreams and suspect plans of enemies."

Western diplomats maintained that Bashar has been isolated from the regime's power bases. In his rare public appearances, they said, the president appeared listless, adding that his statement in support of the military sounded as if it had been dictated by others.

"The government is not exactly a cohesive, coherent unit but rather a group of disparate groups within the government itself," U.S. embassy spokesman J.J. Harder said.

In an interview with the BBC World Service, Harder said the Assad regime contains what appears to be reform wing that has been offering such concessions to the opposition as free and multi-party elections. At the same time, the U.S. diplomat said, the regime has declared total war on its people.

"This full-on warfare in which the government is engaged in today, I think, amounts to nothing less than a last act of utter desperation," Harder said.

Over the last two months, the diplomats said, Chawkat, a leading Syrian military commander, returned to the regime's inner circle. Like Maher, Chawkat has expanded military operations against the opposition. The sources said Maher and Chawkat were deploying about 50,000 soldiers from the military, intelligence and security forces to quell the revolt.

"Bashar is the chairman of a Mafia family council, but now he listens more," a leading Western intelligence analyst, who disagreed with the diplomats, said. "He still makes the main decisions but Maher decides how to implement them."

The diplomats said Bashar was probably never allowed genuine control over the military in his more than decade-long rule. They said even before the revolt in 2011 the Western diplomatic community had assessed that Bashar was part of a regime leadership that actually made decisions in his name.

"Even the closest Arab allies of Bashar long ago came to the conclusion that Bashar has people telling him what to do," the Western diplomat in Damascus said. "These days, I don't even think he's given much chance to even think about what he has to approve."

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