Tensions within Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle of command appear to be mounting under the pressure of recent losses. The latest story to emerge is of the arrest of Syrian security chief, Ali Mamlouk. Mamlouk is one of few Syrian officials still in close communication with Bashar, yet he is now reportedly under house arrest for holding secret talks with rebels and planning a coup. An air of mystery surrounds the story and experts have been unable to confirm it, with some just suggesting that he is either in hospital or carrying on his job as usual. A senior regime source, though, claimed Mamlouk had been contacting Turkish intelligence and had also been attempting to talk to Bashar’s uncle, Rifaat al-Assad. The inclusion of Rifaat, who is still popular with parts of the Syrian army and has lived in Europe since also being accused of launching a coup in the 1980’s, suggests that paranoia is perhaps beginning to creep into the government set-up.
It comes off the back of several other similar incidents in the last month that can be treated with more certainty. One example being that of Rustum Ghazaleh, Bashar’s head of Political Security, who was killed last month by men loyal to General Rafiq Shehadeh. The General was in turn sacked thus adding to the turbulent political conditions in Damascus. The overbearing influence of Iran on the Syrian government has been suggested as a key reason for the unrest. It is believed that Iranian personnel have been given increasingly important roles in the Syrian government, from military planning to general administration. Mamlouk and Ghazaleh were both born Sunni Muslims and may therefore resent the Shia influence of Iran. Whilst the important role of Iranians is always likely to cause problems and risk disillusionment, the issues would certainly be less prominent if government forces were experiencing success on the battlefield. Under the strain of advancing and more united rebel forces, preventing divisions becomes ever more challenging. Whether Mamlouk has contacted opposition officials or not, the circulation of the story only adds the idea that Bashar is struggling to keep his inner circle together and along with other examples, such as the death of Ghazaleh, it does seem that the cracks are starting to appear.