Newly-appointed Defense Minister is “al-Assad’s favored proxy”

Ali Mahmoud Abbas, the new Defense Minister (SANA)

Ali Mahmoud Abbas, the new Defense Minister (SANA)


By legislative decree No. “115” of 2022, the President of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, on 28 April, named Ali Mahmoud Abbas Minister of Defense.

The appointment of Abbas, 58, in a cabinet reshuffle in the government of Hussein Arnous, removed Abdullah Ayoub from the position of Minister of Defense after four years during which he took the helm of the ministry.

The timing of the appointment also raises some questions about Abbas’ eligibility according to the military hierarchy since the new minister holds the rank of Maj. General, and not Lieutenant-General or a General as usual.

Regarding the identity of the new minister, there was confusion, especially with the presence of a senior officer with the same name but with a different governorate. The father of four is from the village of Ifra in the Wadi Barada area of Damascus countryside.

According to the All-4-Syria news site, the new minister joined the Military College in 1983, where he specialized in Armors, graduated with the rank of lieutenant in 1985, and continued his promotion in the military ranks until he reached the rank of Maj. General in 2018. He also held the position of Deputy Chief of the General Staff.

As for the other officer, who bears the same name, he was born in the village of Tal Sarim in the city of Jableh in the coastal governorate of Latakia, and he was seriously injured in 2016 while leading the battles near the Tal al-Sawwan district in the Damascus countryside.

Fifth minister, lowest rank

Five senior officers have held the position of Defense Minister in the Syrian regime government since the outbreak of the Syrian revolution in 2011. Al-Assad overthrew three of them through cabinet reshuffles, while one of them was assassinated.

These names came to the fore in the military scene in Syria in succession and were entrusted with the responsibility of managing the battles and the military operations in various cities and towns of Syria, which resulted in widespread destruction of infrastructure, in addition to the internal displacement of millions of Syrians, while millions of them also took refuge in neighboring countries and different countries of the world.

Maj. Gen Ali Mahmoud Abbas is considered the fifth minister of defense and the lowest in military rank when he reached the minister’s position. In June 2009, al-Assad appointed General Ali Habib as Minister of Defense, succeeding General Hassan Turkmani.

Habib held several military positions, including the Chief of Staff in 2004, but after the outbreak of the Syrian revolution, and surprisingly, al-Assad issued a decree discharging Habib from the Ministry of Defense in August 2011.

After his dismissal, al-Assad appointed General Daoud Abdullah Rajha as Minister of Defense, to be the first Christian to reach the rank of Minister of Defense since the Baath Party came to power in Syria.

Rajha was killed in an explosion targeting the National Security Building in the capital, Damascus, in July 2012, along with his deputy, Assef Shawkat, al-Assad’s brother-in-law, Hassan Turkmani, head of the “crisis cell,” and head of the National Security Office, Hisham Bakhtiar.

Fahd Jassim al-Freij took over the position of Chief of Staff after Rajha and then also succeeded him in the ministry after his death, to continue to lead the ministry until 2018, when al-Assad appointed Ali Ayoub as defense minister.

Ayoub left his post, and all he did was a single announced visit of a Syrian defense minister to Jordan during the revolution in September 2021.

Why Ali Mahmoud Abbas?

The Syrian regime attaches special importance to the Ministry of Defense, as it is one of the most prominent sovereign ministerial portfolios in its government of 29 ministers.

The strong role of the ministry has also escalated since 2011, following the army’s involvement in suppressing the pro-democracy protests against the Syrian regime, which doubled the importance and sensitivity of selecting the “winning horse” to take over the ministry.

The difference in military rank between Abbas and his predecessors during the revolution opened the door to questioning the hierarchy of ranks to reach the ministry, given that the minister did not reach the peak of the military hierarchy in terms of ranks.

Charles Lister, the senior fellow at Middle East Institute, said on his official Twitter account that Abbas was “the nominal head of Syria’s 4th Division. which can only be read in one way: a major consolidation of the Assad family’s control over the Syrian army, using Maher al-Assad’s favored proxy.”

Lister added that “Under Maher al-Assad’s command and Maj. Gen. Mahmoud’s nominal leadership, the 4th Division, has emerged as a power expert in and of itself in Syria — it’s the prime power behind Syria’s newfound status as a narco-state, with a narcotics industry worth $10 billion.”

What is the message?

The regime frequently changes the ranks of the leaders of its military institutions through appointments, dismissals, and transfers of officers between branches and military institutions.

This policy, which was evident during the revolution, does not resemble the state of harmony during the reign of al-Assad, the father with the position of Minister of Defense, as Mustafa Tlass held it for more than 30 years at the time.

Mohsen al-Mustafa, a researcher at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, linked Tlass’ staying in power at the time to the Baath Party coup and Tlass assuming the ministry before completing his fourth decade of life, while the regime’s positions are held today by people aged 60 and over, as a result of the military hierarchy.

In an interview with Enab Baladi, al-Mustafa stressed that military hierarchy is required and respected according to the Military Service Law, but the current situation in Syria allows the regime to bypass it.

The Military Service Law also provides for non-compliance with the rules of promotion in time of war, and the promotion to the rank of General is done by selecting from among the officers at the rank of a major general who has spent at least four years in service at this rank.

According to the researcher, it is expected that Abbas will be promoted to the rank of General soon.

It is unlikely that any military changes or developments will be made on the ground, as a result of the appointment of the new minister, with the possibility of making administrative and legal amendments and changes related to the military institution, according to the researcher.

Abbas’s appointment comes at a time when the battles that faced his predecessors, such as Rajha and al-Freij, are absent.

Today’s military operations, after the regime imposed its control over large areas of Syria, are nothing more than skirmishes, sporadic clashes, and frequent air raids targeting opposition-controlled areas, resulting in deaths and injuries.


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