For years, Bashar al-Assad’s regime subjected Syrians to a routine of good cop, bad cop. Maher al-Assad, President Bashar al-Assad’s brother and the head of the brutal Republican Guard, has played the bad cop. Although Maher was not seen much in public, he established a reputation for brutal repression. The good cop, ironically, was Bashar al-Assad himself. Educated in the West and an ophthalmologist by trade, he projected an image of benevolence, wearing blue jeans in public and, in a Vogue profile of his wife this past February, boasted of driving through Damascus without any security.

That same Vogue article referenced the well-manicured fingernails of Assad’s wife, “lacquered a dark blue-green.” In mid-March, the focus shifted to the hands of 15 children in the southern Syrian city of Deraa whose nails were removed by torture. Their crime was scribbling the famous words of the Arab Spring -- “The people want to bring down the regime” -- on their school’s wall, an act that began the ongoing Syrian revolt against Assad.

Now that Assad’s regime has killed hundreds of protesters since the students drew their graffiti, few Syrians harbor any illusions about the true nature of their president. Yet in standing against Assad’s security forces, the demonstrators face a secretive, complex, and ruthless apparatus.

Syria has four security directorates: Military Intelligence, Air Force Intelligence, State Security, and Political Security. The heads of Military Intelligence and Air Force Intelligence -- Abdulfatah Qudsiah and Jamil Hasan, respectively -- are both Alawites. Meanwhile, Ali Mamlouk, the head of State Security, and Deeb Zaitoun, head of Political Security, are both Sunni, likely appointed over Alawites to help the regime diffuse tensions with the general populace, who interact most often with the security chiefs. These four directorates operate under the umbrella of the National Security Council headed by General Hisham Ikhtiyar, who reports directly to Assad.

However structured they are in theory, the security agencies are dominated by the Assad family in practice. A lower-ranking officer with ties to the Assad family, for example, might possess greater authority and privileges than his superiors, simply due to family connections. According to a former assistant of Assad who now lives abroad and prefers to remain anonymous, the Assad family ignores the formal structures of the state and controls the country itself. In an example of this clan rule, the president’s first cousin, Hafez Makhlouf, works under Mamlouk, the head of State Security, yet enjoys far greater influence than Mamlouk himself. Makhlouf, along with Maher al-Assad; Assef Shawkat, Assad’s brother-in-law and the army’s deputy chief of staff; and Zu al Hima Chalich, another Assad cousin and the head of presidential security, comprise the inner circle of leadership. They are responsible for the current political turmoil in Syria.

Many Syrians have, unfortunately, experienced first-hand the nepotism, corruption, and ruthlessness of the fear factories run by this inner circle. There is no coordination or communication among these divisions; many Syrian activists are released from one of the security agencies just to be arrested by another for the same alleged crime.

Air Force Intelligence is known as one of the most brutal security directorates. In 2006, members of the unit arrested and tortured eight of my friends for forming a secular democratic group at Damascus University. They were later sentenced to serve time, some for five years and some for seven, at the military jail in Saydnaya. I myself spent 40 harrowing days in a Syrian prison, subjected to ill-treatment and torture, solely for posting comments on the Internet expressing support for my friends and criticizing Assad’s regime. Plainclothes Syrian security agents arrested me at an Internet café in Damascus, pushing me and a friend into a car trunk at gunpoint. I asked which security branch they belonged to, and they answered me by punching me in the face and accusing me of espionage. Once we were in prison, we could not call our families -- who, we learned later, were searching for us in city morgues. After ten days in solitary confinement in a windowless room, I was taken, blindfolded and handcuffed, to an interrogation. I refused to speak, demanding to know who my captors were. When they took the cover off my eyes, I glimpsed a large poster of Bashar al-Assad. I said, “I now know where I am.” The interrogator responded by brutally beating me and telling me, “You are Christian. Why are you opposing us? Go to your Vatican and do whatever you want!” I was released after signing a paper that promised I would not to be involved in antiregime activities.

Air Force Intelligence is hardly alone in its fearsomeness. A division of the military intelligence called the Palestine Branch is known as a harsh enforcer against political dissidents, using the banner of the Arab-Israeli conflict to justify its actions. During the current round of protests, however, Military Security has played the most prominent role, firing on crowds of protesters and killing the largest number of civilians. The Republican Guard and the Fourth Division, both run by Maher al-Assad, have also taken a lead in quashing the demonstrations. In the coastal cities, a militia called Shabiha, headed by Assad’s first cousins, Fawaz al-Assad and Munzer al-Assad, are armed with heavy weapons and partaking in the violence. Known for weapons and drugs smuggling, robbery, and prostitution, Shabiba joined the Fourth Division and attacked civilians in the cities of Banias, Jableh, and Latakia. According to Razan Zaitouneh, a lawyer and human rights activist based in Syria, the civilian death toll is currently close to 600; videos of soldiers declaring their refusal to fire on peaceful protesters have appeared on YouTube, claiming that fellow dissident soldiers have been shot and killed. Thousands have been injured and arrested.

Yet despite the violence perpetrated by the regime, the number of protesters in Syria is increasing by the day. This mass uprising presents an unprecedented challenge for Syria’s security apparatus. Over the last 30 years, it has grappled with various minority groups of dissidents that posed far smaller and more localized challenges than the current demonstrations. In a country where, only months ago, people were afraid even to joke about the president, protesters are now tearing down public likenesses of Assad and his father, Hafez, chanting slogans against the Assad family. Social media has played a crucial role in transferring footage of the protests and crackdown to television and the Internet, helping enormously to break the invisible barrier of fear in Syria.

Syrian officials have echoed other Arab regimes under duress in claiming that Syria’s protesters are overwhelmingly Islamist. Although the majority of the protests did start in mosques, this is solely because mosques are the only places where people can gather without arousing suspicion. In the city of Deraa, both Christians and Muslims have participated in demonstrations. On March 23, the main church there was opened to receive the injured after security forces stormed the main mosque and surrounded the hospital.

Minority groups have also joined in the protests en masse. The city of Salmiya, populated by a large percentage of people who follow the Ismaili faith, has witnessed broad-based demonstrations. Many Druze in the city of As-Suwayda have staged mass protests, and even secular Alawite figures are aligning themselves with the protesters, including Aref Dalila, a professor and former dean of the economics faculty at Damascus University.

The diversity of the protesters should be a source of encouragement for many elements in the regime -- especially those in the army -- to side with the people. The Syrian military is largely composed of citizens fulfilling their obligatory service requirement. Several incidents have occurred in which soldiers have refused orders to open fire on unarmed protesters in Banias, Deraa, and Harasta, a city near Damascus. In fact, contrary to the popular belief that the Syrian army is staunchly loyal to Assad -- unlike the Egyptian or Tunisian armies during their countries’ respective crises -- it may be the regime element most likely to join the uprising. Although many high-ranking military officers are Alawite, the majority of their divisions are not. Should the soldiers in those divisions begin to mutiny, they could compel their commanders to rebel against Assad. The Alawite army leaders may also fear a backlash and revenge attacks against Alawite sects due to Assad’s policies.

In other words, the fact that the Alawites occupy many top positions in the army could actually undermine the regime. And the people respect the army in Syria; the Syrian national anthem, for instance, which has been sung at the protests, highly praises the military. The army was not involved in Assad’s daily oppression (except for the aforementioned Republican Guard and the Fourth Division).

Yet although the opportunity exists for the protesters to co-opt the army, it will not be easy to bring it into direct conflict with Assad. To convince the army to switch sides, the dissidents require international assistance. This should include imposing severe sanctions on targeted elements of Assad’s regime and attempts to communicate with positive elements in Assad’s leadership, such as Defense Minister Ali Habib, the officer who participated in the Gulf War as part of the international coalition to liberate Kuwait from Saddam Hussein. By helping to widen the cleavages between the army and Maher al-Assad’s Fourth Division and Republican Guard, the international community can greatly assist the dissidents’ cause.

Three scenarios remain for Syria. Assad may choose genuine reform, abolishing oppressive measures and amending the constitution. But it may be too late for any reform effort to win over Syrians, who are now risking death to call for Assad’s downfall. As a result, Assad may continue his current policy of repression, arresting and killing civilians to crack down on the opposition. Should this situation persist, the country might descend into civil war. Yet should the greater part of the army defect, the Fourth Division and the Republican Guard will be unable to defend the regime alone. The Assad family may then surrender, giving way to the wishes of the Syrian people.

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  • AHED AL HENDI is the Arabic Program Coordinator of the U.S.-based human rights organization
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