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Minister of Defense

President Assad was commander in chief of the armed forces, retaining the rank of lieutenant general. Directly responsible to Assad was the Defense Minister. The chief of staff of the armed forces functioned through the general staff, an administrative body that is divided into the usual branches, such as personnel, intelligence, training, and logistics. The general staff does not possess decision-making powers; these are largely confined to the commanders and chiefs of staff acting on behalf of the president. Chief of the General Staff and Chief of the Armed Forces Lieutenant General was third in command. Commander of the ground forces was a Major General, the air force retained its own commander, also a Major General, while the navy commander was either a Major General or a Rear Admiral.

General Mustafa Tlas was the defense minister of Syria for 30 years, and head of the Military Committee of the Baath Party. Hafiz Al-Asad and former Defense Minister Mustafa Tlas had a lifelong relationship and together rose through the ranks of the divisive politics of Syria’s military establishment. Directly responsible to Assad was the flamboyant Deputy Premier and Defense Minister General Mustafa Tlas, who also held the title of deputy commander in chief of the armed forces and army. Although a Sunni Muslim, Tlas has been a close friend of Assad since they were deputed as officers to the Egyptian Army (1959-61). Tlas was jailed for his part in an abortive officers' coup in 1962-63 in cooperation with Assad and later helped bring Assad to power. A tank commander, he was appointed lieutenant general and, in March 1972, minister of defense. He received general staff training in Moscow at the Voroshilov Academy and advocates close ties with the Soviet Union and a hard line on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Not only did Tlas written books about Syria’s military and political history, he has also written books of poetry, general Arab history, and a history of the military tactics of the Prophet Muhammad. His writings reflect a rabid anti-Semitism and belief in conspiracy theories. Tlas believed the old Arab nationalist theory that the United States, France, Britain, and the Soviet Union conspired to create Israel. When Tlas describes the first Arab-Israeli War, he fails to consider Israel’s infant defense force’s resourcefulness or its tactical ability on the field.

Mustafa Tlass was born in Arrastan, province of Homs, on 11 May 1932. Tlass finished his elementary and preparatory studies in Arrastan, in the Province of Homs, where he finished his secondary studies and obtained his Secondary School Certificate in 1951. He joined the Ba'ath Arab Socialist Party at its foundation in 1947 and became an active member of the party from that date. He was appointed as the Secretary of the Arrastan Party Section in 1951.

French General Charles DeGaulle visited Tlas’s village in 1943, where DeGaulle spoke to Syria as an ally, not as a protectorate, greatly influencing Tlas. Tlas added DeGaulle’s books to his required reading list and studied DeGaulle’s military campaigns and political rise to the presidency. Tlas and Al-Asad were assigned to the newly established air force academy in Aleppo. Because the only subject Tlas excelled in was aerial navigation, his instructors suggested he enroll in the tank corps. The dismissal did not embitter Tlas; rather, he left with an appreciation for air dominance in planning ground attacks. On 1 November 1952 he joined the Military College, from where he graduated on 1 November 1954 as a Second Lieutenant in the armored branch. He served in a number of armored units and also at the Academy of Armor.

Tlass participated in the Free Officers Movement in Homs on 31 March 1962 and at Aleppo on 1 April 1962 where he was arrested together with some of his comrades and he was detained in the Al-Mezzeh Prison until the 8 March 1963 revolution. He was then immediately appointed as an Armored Battalion Commander in the Fifth Armored Brigade and Chief of the National Security Court in the Central Region where he was responsible for the party organization. Tlas presided over the ad hoc tribunals after the Hama (Homs) rebellion of 1964 and played a pivotal role in forcing Ba’athist founder Aflaq out of Syria, which increased Al-Asad’s power.

In August 1965 he was elected as a member of the regional leadership of the Ba'ath Arab Socialist Party and was appointed as a member of the National Council of the Revolution in September of the same year. He participated in the 23 February movement, and was appointed as Commander of the Central Region and the Fifth Armored Brigade. In November 1966 he was additionally appointed as the President of the Emergency Military Court in Damascus.

He was exceptionally promoted to the rank of Major General on 14 February 1968 and appointed as Deputy Minister of Defense and Chief of Staff of the Army and Armed Forces. He was elected as a member of the Regional Leadership in the Fourth Regional Conference at the end of September 1968 and was re-elected in the Fourth Extraordinary Conference in March 1969. Lieut Gen Tlass was elected as a member of the Party Politburo on 13 May 1969 during the joint meeting of the National and Regional Leaderships and he participated in the Rectification Movement led by Gen Hafez Assad on 16 November 1970.

After 1997, many of the illicit goods imported by Iraq came through Syria using false end-user certificates provided by high-ranking Syrian officials. The Syrian Minister of Defense, Mustafa Tlas, routinely signed false end-user certificates for weapons dealers, generally for a fee of 12 to 15 percent of the total contract amount. Syrian front companies had links to high-ranking government Syrian officials because Syria became the primary route for Iraq’s illicit imports over the last two years before Operation Iraqi Freedom. The Al-Mas Group, one of the Syrian companies that worked with Iraq, was owned by Firas Mustafa Tlas, son of the Syrian Defense Minister Mustafa Tlas. The Al-Mas Group was composed of six companies that officially handled civilian goods but also dealt in weapons and military technology. In middle to late 2002, Firas Tlas represented his father in a deal to sell weapons to Iraq, possibly including missiles with a range of 270 km.

IRS agents reported they were informed by former Iraqi officials that Tlas received "tribute payments" from Iraq "for allowing the shipment of goods between Syria and Iraq." The IRS documents also named Tlas' son, Firas, and Thualhina Shaleesh, another cousin of Bashar Assad, as intermediaries in many Iraq-Syrian transactions that earned them 10 to 15 percent commissions on each deal they handled.

A cabinet reshuffle in December 2001 saw several old Ba'ath loyalists replaced by a new generation of technocrats. It was announced in December that Mustafa Tlas, the long-serving defense minister and 'old guard' stalwart, would retire in July 2002. In April 2002 a regime shake-up in Syria was intended to consolidate the rule of President Bashar al-Assad's 'new guard', led by the new strongman Assef Shawkat. High-level officers in the security apparatus, including army and intelligence chiefs, were replaced. A more extensive purge of the military took place later in 2002.

Assef Shawkat, Bashar's brother-in- law and widely considered the second most powerful official in the [Syrian] regime, was believed to be the driving force behind the restructuring. Although Shawkat, chief of military intelligence, is a member of the politically dominant Alawite sect, he is not from a powerful family; only his marriage to Bashar's sister Bushra secured him rapid promotion. Indeed, the late Hafez al-Assad saw that Shawkat, charming and ruthless but with no political base beyond the Assad family, would make an ideal right-hand man for the inexperienced Bashar. Shawkat had loyalists placed in key positions at the expense of his enemies.

In mid-2004 Mustafa Tlas resigned as defence minister, and in 2005 also quit the regional command. He was replaced as Defense Minister by Hassan Turkmani, a former chief of staff.

The Syrian presidency had become a symbiotic relationship between Shawkat and Bashar, with Bashar's lineage providing political legitimacy while Shawkat manages regime security. By 2006 he was Syrian Military Intelligence Chief. By 2008 Shawkat, who turned 60 that year, was facing retirement and Bashar did not want to extend his mandate, as Assad was said to be sick and tired of interference in Iraqi internal affairs. Indeed, in June 2008 there were rumors that Syrian Military Intelligence Chief General Assef Shawkat had been placed under house arrest, amid speculation that Asad probably was trying to send a sign that he was opening up to the international community. But as of late 2011 Assef Shawkat, who is married to the president’s sister, was still Bashar al-Assad’s strongman. He was said to be at odds with the president’s younger brother Maher, viewed as the regime’s enforcer throughout the protests that starated in early 2011.

On 03 June 2009 President Bashar al-Assad issued on decree number 244 for 2009, naming Lt. Gen. Hassan Ali Turkmani as assistant vice president with the rank of minister. President Assad also issued decree number 245 for 2009, naming Lt. Gen. Ali Mohammed Habib Mahmoud as minister of defense. Habib was formerly the chief of the army general staff. Turkmani, at age 74, was believed to be the oldest member of the Cabinet.

On August 09, 2011 as part of the consecutive steps announced by President Bashar al-Assad, His Excellency issued Decree no. 307 naming General Dawood Rajiha Minister of Defense. General Dawood Rajiha was born in Damascus in 1947 and graduated from the Military Academy in 1967 where he specialized in artillery. He took several military training courses, including Leadership and Staff courses and Higher Staff course. He was promoted to Lieutenant General in 1998 and General in 2005. Gen. Rajiha occupied various military posts including battalion and brigade commander and director of a number of directorates and departments in the Armed Forces before being appointed Deputy Chief of General Staff in 2004 and Chief of General Staff in 2009. Gen. Rajiha received several military medals during the course of his career. He is married and has four sons.

Gen. Rajiha replaced Gen. Ali Habib Mahmoud was born in Tartous in 1939. He joined the Syrian Arab Army in 1959 and graduated from the Military Academy in 1962. He was appointed Chief of General Staff in 2004 and Deputy General Commander of the Army and the Armed Forces and Minister of Defense in 2009. Gen. Habib was awarded a number of military medals and received excellent rank promotions over his honorable participation in October Liberation War. Gen. Habib had been ill for some time, and his health condition deteriorated recently.

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Page last modified: 24-03-2012 19:07:11 ZULU