Syria Intelligence & Security Agencies
The role of the security services extends far beyond strictly security matters under a continuing state of emergency originally declared by the government in 1963. The Emergency Law was justified on the basis of the conflict with Israel and threats from terrorist groups. Since independence, Syria's police and internal security apparatus have undergone repeated reorganization and personnel changes, reflecting the security demands of each succeeding regime.
In the 1950s Syria’s 5,000 non-military internal security forces included a National Gendarmérie of 2800, a Desert Patrol of 400 and 1800 police. The gendarmérie and police were disposed in strategically located posts throughout the country. One desert patrol company was located in Central Syria and the other in Eastern Syria. Equipment was primarily small arms with very few crew-served weapons and no artillery or armored vehicles. The standard of training was very low and the police and gendarmérie were generally inefficient.
In addition to the uniformed police described above, the police services include the Sûreté – a plain-clothes service of 300 men having certain intelligence functions, such as collection of political intelligence, counter-espionage, and control of foreigners within Syria. The Sûreté, partly because of internal organizational difficulties and partly because of the mass use of untrained informers, does not produce high-quality, domestic intelligence.
To some extent its counter-subversive activities clash with those of the Deuxieme Bureau (Intelligence Branch) of the Army General Staff. The Deuxieme Bureau also operated agent and informer nets which conducted espionage and counter-espionage operations, gathered political information and conducted surveillance on foreigners. Both the positive and the counter-espionage activities of the Deuxieme Bureau suffered from lack of trained personnel and from frequent changes in leadership.
Duplication, misplacement of effort and indiscriminate compiling of information of dubious value were the result. Both the Sûreté and the Deuxieme Bureau were believed to possess fairly comprehensive files on Communists, but the majority of these were out of date. Local security officers continued to utilize their agents and activities against the CPS and were believed to keep generally informed of the Communist Party membership, organization and activities.
During the 1960s, the civil police forces were believed to have been used extensively to combat internal security threats to the government, but during the 1970s and 1980s these forces assumed a more conventional civil police role; this change in role coincided with increased professionalization and the parallel development of an effective and pervasive internal security apparatus. Nevertheless, the police continued to receive training in such functions as crowd and riot control. During the relative political stability of the 1970s and 1980s, police and security services were credited with having grown and become professional, but in 1987 only the bare outlines of their institutional makeup were known.
In the 1980s the largest intelligence-gathering and internal security organization was the National Security Directorate, employing about 25,000 personnel. Other security organizations were under the supervision of the Ministry of Interior. These organizations included a national police force, responsible for routine police duties. It incorporated the 8,000-man Gendarmerie, which had originally been organized by the French Mandate authorities to police rural areas.
In the 1980s the internal security apparatus consisted of myriad organizations with overlapping missions to gather intelligence concerning internal security and to engage in activities (largely covert) to apprehend and neutralize opponents of the regime. According to Amnesty International, there were several security force networks in Syria. Each had its own branches, detention cells, and interrogation centers, located throughout the country, and each also had its own intelligence service. Each organization was directly responsible to the president and his closest advisers. The organizations operated independently with no clear boundaries to their areas of jurisdiction and no coordination among them. For example, although the civilian security police dealt with internal security matters, the responsibilities of Military Intelligence headed by General Ali Duba were not limited to matters affecting the armed forces, but also included internal security. In the mid-1980s, Western sources reported that the power and pervasiveness of Syria's internal security apparatus inspired fear among the Syrian population.
Asad established several security agencies focussed on the senior officers' echelon in the army. These included the Air Force Security Administration headed by Ibrahim Khuwayji, as well as the Military Security Department headed since February 2000 by Hasan Khalil, who replaced `Ali Duba who had served as head of this department since 1974.
The regime also established strike forces whose task was to ensure its existence and defend it from any threat coming from within the army's own ranks or from opponents in Syria. These units were provided the best military equipment and personnel, and were composed almost exclusively of members of the `Alawite community. They were subordinated directly to President Asad and not to the army command. One of these had been Rif`at al-Asad's "Defense Companies" unit, though after Rif`at had tried to use this unit to promote his own standing against his brother's will, it was converted into a regular army division and subordinated to the army general command. The "Defense Companies" unit was replaced by the Republican Guard Division, which was established in the mid-1980s under the command of `Adnan Makhluf, a relative of Asad's wife's, Anisa. Both of Asad's sons, Basil and Bashar served in this division, as now does Bashar's younger brother, Mahir. In the course of his path to becoming Syrian president, Bashar dismissed Makhluf as the division's commander replacing him with `Ali Hasan, an `Alawite officer close to Bashar.
By 2010 there were four major branches of security forces, including Military Intelligence and Air Force Intelligence; the Political Security Directorate (PSD), under the Ministry of Interior (MOI); and the General Intelligence Directorate (GID), which is a stand-alone institution. The four branches operate independently and generally outside the control of the legal system, and all four repress internal dissent and monitor individual citizens. The MOI controls the four separate divisions of police forces: emergency police, traffic police, neighborhood police, and riot police.
Syrian Military Intelligence (SMI) is one of the four major branches of Syria's security forces. During the 2011-2012 civil unrest in Syria the SMI has used force against and arrested demonstrators participating in the unrest. In late April 2011, security forces including personnel from Syrian Air Force Intelligence (SAFI) fired tear gas and live ammunition to disperse crowds of demonstrators who took to the streets in Damascus and other cities after noon prayers, killing at least 43 people. Syrian National Security Bureau (NSB) is an element of the Syrian Ba'ath Party. The Syrian National Security Bureau (NSB) directed Syrian security forces to use extreme force against demonstrators.
A range of techniques are used by the security services to co-opt or intimidate Syrians. These techniques, at the most accommodating end of the spectrum, include offers of remunerative, prestigious positions and other rewards. At the opposite end they routinely involve coercive measures such as travel bans, surveillance and harassment of both individuals and family members, the threat of detention (without charge), interrogation, and imprisonment after lengthy trials. It is often in the middle range, between enticements and threats, that the Syrian security services are at their most effective, curbing dissent, obliging people to report on their friends and colleagues, and convincing them sometimes to present regime arguments justifying policies or decisions.
Civil society and the opposition in Syria obviously receive special attention from the security services, but groups and individuals across the board have to find ways of dealing with their pressures. The security services use several different pressure points to ensnare people in the gray areas between opposition and the regime. There is a weird interplay between security officers and their targets, sometimes involving threatening, cajoling, or offering rewards, occasionally blending in officers' sympathy, targets' understanding, and both parties' wary appreciation for family, class, or ethnic considerations that might influence the encounters. These tactics and compromises are replicated in the cases of politicians, journalists, academics and a range of other Syrians.
Impunity was a serious problem. In 2008 President Asad issued a law that mandates that only the General Command of the Army and Armed Forces may issue an arrest warrant in the case of a crime committed by a military officer, member of the internal security forces, or customs police officer in the pursuit of his normal duties, and that such cases must be tried in military courts. During the year there were no known prosecutions or convictions of police and security force personnel for human rights abuses. No mechanisms for investigations of security force abuse existed.
Upon arrest, the individual is brought to a police station for processing and detained until a trial date is set. At the initial court hearing, which can be months or years after the arrest, the accused may retain an attorney at personal expense or be assigned a court-appointed attorney, although lawyers are not ensured access to their clients before trial. The individual is then tried in court, where a judge renders a verdict. Although the prison code provides for prompt access to family members, human rights organizations and families reported inconsistent application of the code, with some families waiting as long as a year to see relatives. Civil and criminal defendants had the right to bail hearings and possible release from detention on their own recognizance. This right was not applied consistently throughout the legal system and was rarely available to detainees under the 1963 Emergency Law.
The Emergency Law authorizes the government to conduct preventive arrests and overrides constitutional and penal code provisions against arbitrary arrest and detention, including the need to obtain warrants. In cases involving political or national security offenses, arrests were often carried out in secret with cases assigned in seemingly arbitrary manner to military, security, or criminal courts. Suspects were detained incommunicado for prolonged periods without charge or trial and denied the right to a judicial determination regarding pretrial detention. Unlike defendants in regular criminal and civil cases, security detainees did not have access to lawyers before or during questioning, or throughout the preparation and presentation of their defense. In most cases detainees were not informed of charges against them until their arraignment, which was often months after their arrest. Those suspected of political or national security offenses were arrested and prosecuted under ambiguous and broad articles of the penal code and were subsequently tried in either criminal or security courts.
Arbitrary and false arrests were problems, and detainees had no legal redress. The authorities used the Emergency Law to detain persons critical of the government and charge them with a wide range of political crimes, including treason. Incommunicado detention was a severe problem. Many persons who disappeared were believed to be either in long-term detention without charge or possibly to have died while detained. Many detainees brought to trial were held incommunicado for years, and their trials were often marked by irregularities and lack of due process. A shortage of available courts and lack of legal provisions for a speedy trial or plea bargaining led to lengthy pretrial detentions.
The law prohibits such practices as torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, and the penal code provides punishment of a maximum imprisonment of three years for abusers. Under article 28 of the constitution, "no one may be tortured physically or mentally or treated in a humiliating manner." Nevertheless, security forces reportedly continued to use torture frequently. Local human rights organizations continued to cite numerous credible cases of security forces allegedly abusing and torturing prisoners and detainees and claimed that many instances of abuse went unreported. Individuals who suffered torture or beatings while detained refused to allow their names or details of their cases to be reported for fear of government reprisal.
Former prisoners, detainees, and reputable local human rights groups report that methods of torture and abuse included electrical shocks; pulling out fingernails; burning genitalia; forcing objects into the rectum; beatings while the victim is suspended from the ceiling and on the soles of the feet; alternately dousing victims with freezing water and beating them in extremely cold rooms; hyperextending the spine; bending the body into the frame of a wheel and whipping exposed body parts; using a backward-bending chair to asphyxiate the victim or fracture the spine; and stripping prisoners naked for public view. In previous years AI documented 38 types of torture and mistreatment used against detainees in the country. AI reported that torture was most likely to occur while detainees were held at one of the many detention centers operated by the various security services in the country, particularly while authorities attempted to extract a confession or information. Courts systematically used "confessions" extracted under duress as evidence, and defendants' claims of torture were almost never investigated.
Prison conditions were generally poor and did not meet international standards for health and sanitation. Facilities lacked proper ventilation, lighting, access to potable water, and sufficient sleeping quarters. It was also common for released prisoners to complain about sickness and injury due to the inadequate conditions. The government did not permit visits by independent human rights observers.
The government did not give statistics on number of inmates or people detained in the country. Human rights observers estimate between 2,500 – 3,000 political prisoners are currently detained, of whom approximately 1,400 are in Sednaya Prison. According to the 2010 Annual Prison Assessment, co-authored by the Syrian Association for Human Rights and the Arab Organization for Penal Reform, prisons suffered from severe overcrowding. The report states that cells made for 20 inmates held 80 persons, and prisoners were forced to sleep on the floor and in corridors. The analysis also claimed that Adra Prison held 9,000 inmates, although it was made to jail 2,000. According to the report, bribes were sometimes necessary to get access to visits, food, and other basic needs of prisoners.
The Syrian government stressed its success in achieving security and stability within its borders, and terrorist attacks on Syrian soil remained rare. However, a string of incidents over the past several years have increased concerns that militant groups can strike Syrian targets and have caused the authorities to strengthen their efforts to prevent attacks. Especially following a September 27, 2009 bombing near a Syrian security installation that killed 17, the regime has attempted to portray Syria as a victim of terrorism rather than a purveyor of it. In July 2010, the Syrian security services conducted a series of raids that netted operatives of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), accused of plotting and implementing terrorist attacks in neighboring Turkey.
Syria has laws on the books pertaining to counterterrorism and terrorism financing/money laundering, but largely used these legal instruments against only those groups perceived as a threat to the regime or country. Opponents of the regime, including Islamist activists and Kurdish separatists, were frequently charged with violating counterterrorism statutes. Furthermore, these laws were not enforced against Hamas, Hizballah, or the various Palestinian rejectionist groups based in Damascus.