Saturday 17 March 2018

Assad foils Syrian coup bid as huge losses spark revolt

A rebel fighter of 'Al-Sultan Murad' brigade fires an anti-tank missile towards forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad near Aleppo's international airport yesterday.
A rebel fighter of 'Al-Sultan Murad' brigade fires an anti-tank missile towards forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad near Aleppo's international airport yesterday.

Ruth Sherlock

The Assad regime in Syria has placed its intelligence chief under house arrest after suspecting he was plotting a coup, in a sign that battlefield losses are setting off increasing paranoia in Damascus.

Ali Mamlouk, the head of the country's National Security Bureau, and one of the few officials still to have access to President Bashar al-Assad, was accused of holding secret talks with countries backing rebel groups and exiled members of the Syrian regime.

Mr Assad is struggling to keep together the "inner circle" of the regime, who are increasingly turning on each other, sources inside the presidential palace have claimed.

Even before Mamlouk's arrest, the web of intelligence agencies with which the regime has enforced its authority for four decades was in turmoil, with two other leaders killed or removed.


Last month, Rustum Ghazaleh, the head of the Political Security Directorate, died in hospital after he was physically attacked by men loyal to General Rafiq Shehadeh, his opposite number in military intelligence, who was in turn sacked.

The role being played in the war by Iran, Syria's regional ally, is said to be at the heart of the arguments, with some of the "inner circle" afraid that Iranian officials now have more power than they do.

Iran's influence has been crucial in bolstering Syria's defences against the rebels, but even that has been crumbling in the face of recent rebel advances in the north.

It was as Syrian troops lost control of Idlib city and Jisr al-Shughour to an alliance of Islamist rebels including Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qa'ida's local branch, that Mamlouk reportedly began to make contact with hostile governments and former regime officials.

"Mamlouk had been communicating with Turkish intelligence through an intermediary," said a senior regime source with direct knowledge of the plan.

Mamlouk had also used a businessman from Aleppo as an intermediary to contact Rifaat al-Assad, Bashar's uncle, who has lived abroad in exile since he was accused of seeking to mount a coup in Syria in the 1980s.

Rifaat al-Assad declined to comment on the reports, but one informed source, who asked not to be named, said that "there is a big interest among the Syrian officers and military for Rifaat Assad to come back to Syria".

Iranian operatives in Syria are believed to have taken command of large areas of government, from the central bank to the battle strategy.


"Most of the advisers at the presidential palace are now Iranian," said a source close to the palace.

"Mamlouk hated that Syria was giving her sovereignty up to Iran. He thought there needed to be a change."

Ghazaleh is believed to have shared this view of the Iranian influence.

Like Mamlouk, Ghazaleh was born to a Sunni Muslim family, and was opposed to the power being acquired in the country by Shia Iran's Revolutionary Guard and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah.

Issam al-Reis, a spokesman for the Southern Front rebel groups, who are fighting close to Ghazaleh's home village in Deraa, said intelligence picked up from captives and others suggested Ghazaleh was fiercely hostile to Iran.

"He was complaining that he and his men were being treated like scum, whilst the Iranians and their militias were lords," he said.

The regime in Syria is of critical importance to Iran, who uses Syria as the primary route through which to arm Hezbollah.

With the fortunes of the two regimes so inextricably linked, Iran has bankrolled and provided the expertise and the weapons for Mr Assad's war. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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