What the case of Suleiman al Assad tells us about the Syrian conflict
Suleiman’s case is a microcosm: a glaring reminder that Syria under the Assads is a police state run by an assortment of gangsters and warlords who operate outside of the law.
Over the past few days, several news sources have reported the release of Suleiman al-Assad from Syrian prison. While the assertion that Suleiman, the distant cousin of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, served even a day of his so-called ‘20-year sentence’ is questionable, understanding the context surrounding this particular incident is important for those wishing to make sense of the often-intractable terrain of Syrian politics.
In August 2015, Suleiman shot and killed a decorated Syrian Air Force colonel, Hassan al-Shaikh, in central Latakia in a bout of road rage. At a time in which up to one third of military-aged Alawite men – the sect to which the president belongs – had died fighting on the frontlines for the government, Suleiman, according to al-Shaikh’s brother, had obscenely denigrated the Syrian military before firing off a barrage of bullets that killed the officer, also an Alawite, at a traffic light. The debasing of the army – viewed by the community as the only buffer between them and an increasingly vengeful and sectarian armed opposition – by a member of the ruling class, elicited a sharp response.
Protests calling for Suleiman’s execution erupted the next day in the city’s predominantly working class Alawite neighbourhood of Al-Zira’a. Other demands made by the demonstrators included an end to the impunity of the shabiha – a patchwork of predominantly Alawite armed gangs and smugglers linked to the regime that have terrorised Syrian society for decades – and to a security apparatus that applies equally to its citizenry. Sensing growing anger and restlessness among his main constituency, the president issued an arrest warrant in an apparent attempt to mollify them. However, weeks after state news reported that Suleiman had been detained, he managed to gun down two of his critics, including the host of Sham Radio, the pro-regime station that broadcast the interview with al-Sheikh’s brother and the governor of Latakia. Ironically, the governor was quoted as saying “no one is above the law.”
Yet this wasn’t the first time that Bashar had allegedly ordered his cousin’s arrest. In 2014, after Suleiman received news of the death of his father, Hilal – a commander of a local branch of the country’s chief pro-regime militia, the National Defense Forces, or NDF – he reportedly went on a killing spree. Seeking retaliation for his father’s death at the hands of Sunni rebels, Suleiman assembled a convoy of shabiha and stormed Sunni neighbourhoods in downtown Latakia, shooting indiscriminately into the air and hurling grenades at residential balconies. In spite of killing dozens and running the risk of igniting a sectarian powder keg in the city’s most volatile areas, he was released a few days later.
Suleiman had apparently inherited a legacy of gangsterism from his father, the hallmarks of which are a combination of rape, ransom, and arbitrary repression.
However, this tashbeeh, as it is referred to colloquially by Syrians, has been a feature of the Assad regime since its inception. Bashar’s father, Hafez, in an attempt to crystalise his rule, generated a broad support base built around co-opting a range of actors, including criminal syndicates. In exchange for their loyalty, the shabiha were given access to lucrative smuggling routes that allowed them to penetrate the illicit economy – and do so with near total impunity.
This exploded in the 1980s, when the Syrian occupation of Lebanon consolidated the securement of these lines across their porous borders and fostered a booming market for smuggling. Hafez’s ancestral village, al-Qardaha, effectively transformed into a regional hub for black market activities. As clientelist networks flourished, this gave rise to a new class of shabiha directly commanded by the president’s relatives.
During this period, Fawwaz al-Assad, Hafez’s nephew, became the first notorious shabih of his kind. His unrestricted access to the port of Latakia proved especially fruitful and he and his entourage quickly developed a reputation for treating the city as their own personal fiefdom, setting a precedent for recruitment among disenfranchised Alawite youth seeking to amass fortunes at any cost.
Under their reign, the coastal public sphere, particularly within urban Latakia, devolved into a semi-anarchic state in which they could arbitrarily beat up restaurant owners, shoot at bus drivers, and kidnap, rape, and kill young women with ease. The two tiers of shabiha, those connected to high-ranking officers, and those affiliated directly with the Assad family, operated above the law.
For Syrians residing on the coast, home to most of Syria’s Alawite community, the fear of the dreaded and omnipresent security apparatus, or mukhabarat, was compounded by the thought that these thugs could execute them in cold blood, as Suleiman did, without hesitation – and without so much as even a pretext. Their contempt for life is such that practically every Syrian on the coast, regardless of their confessional background, can recite a story that recounts their barbarism. Prior to the conflict, the Alawites, contrary to what is commonly believed, were the main recipients of their criminality.
When the uprising began in 2011, the shabiha were covertly mobilised by the regime to repress protests, particularly in cities with mixed populations. The subcontracting of repression to these armed clusters, dressed in civilian clothing, enabled the government to exercise plausible deniability while executing a host of atrocities and attributing them to “gangs and terrorists.” Deployed first to the coast, these regime-aligned thugs targeted businesses, sprayed sectarian threats on churches, and chanted genocidal slogans against religious minorities while posing as protesters. In conjunction with the regime’s release from prison of radical Islamists, the objective was to fracture and derail the uprising by persuading Syrians that Assad is their only hope of survival amidst growing instability and intercommunal antagonism.
It depicted itself as the guarantor of minority security while engineering the facts on the ground critical to validating the false binary at the heart of its propaganda: either accept us and our henchmen – i.e. “the state” – or test the dispositions of the ‘jihadist’ revolt.
The shabiha quickly metastasised into death squads that specialised in targeting Sunni Muslims in rebellious areas where the regime’s narrative was often contradicted by the violence committed – in broad daylight – by its security forces. Their atrocities accelerated as many were organised into local security committees and ultimately absorbed into the NDF in 2012. Since then, they have grown exponentially due to the militiafication of the Syrian army, resulting in an emboldened class of warlords who operate with increasing autonomy. They have exploited the conflict to loot, pillage, and engage in sectarian score-settling in Sunni areas and, to a lesser extent, have capitalised on the tenuous authority of the regime to target impoverished Alawite districts in Latakia. This has led to an unprecedented sense of lawlessness in ‘loyalist’ territories.
Though accounts surrounding Suleiman’s detention vary, one particularly striking story circulated in 2016. According to the article, Suleiman was incarcerated in a prison compound in Tartous, where he and his entourage were labelled “the torturers” because of their role in abusing political prisoners. Another version of the same story even alleges that he is thought to have angrily held prison guards hostage while in jail. Though these anecdotes may sound far fetched, nine years of conflict have taught us that no detail, however seemingly absurd, can be intuitively ruled out when it comes to the Syrian theater.
This is especially true of the dysfunctional substructure of the regime, the dynamics of which are defined by exceptionally surreal levels of brutality, corruption, and inequality. A mere juxtaposition between the pictures depicting Suleiman’s massive weight gain during his ‘incarceration’, and the images of the emaciated and mutilated corpses of political detainees at the hands of the mukhabarat, is the unequivocal evidence of this.
Above all, Suleiman’s case is a microcosm: a glaring reminder that Syria under the Assads is a police state run by an assortment of gangsters and warlords who operate outside of the law. Its people are held hostage by an authoritarian mafia underpinned by the criminality of one extended family and its various networks and surrogates. Underneath the layers of dichotomies that inform popular opinion surrounding the country and the conflict – Sunni vs Alawite, oppositionists vs loyalists, the army vs the rebels – there are in essence two main Syrias: one for the Assad clan and its proxies, and one for everyone else.