Arab demands, allies pressure or internal motives

What lies behind the changes of the Syrian regime

Bashar al-Assad meets with the members of the Higher Committee for Party Elections - December 27, 2024 (Ba'ath Party - Facebook)

Arab demands, allies pressure or internal motives

What lies behind the changes of the Syrian regime

Bashar al-Assad meets with the members of the Higher Committee for Party Elections - December 27, 2024 (Ba'ath Party - Facebook)

Bashar al-Assad meets with the members of the Higher Committee for Party Elections - December 27, 2024 (Ba'ath Party - Facebook)


Hussam al-Mahmoud | Khaled al-Jeratli | Yamen Moghrabi

After Syria’s reintegration into the Arab League and its participation in two summits during 2023, Saudi Arabia appointed its first diplomat to Damascus since 2012, as a chargé d’affaires at the embassy in Damascus.

The announcement of this step was preceded by one day the appointment of the first ambassador by the UAE to Damascus, after about 11 years, on January 30.

Riyadh and Abu Dhabi had cut their political relations with the Syrian regime and withdrew their ambassadors from Damascus in 2012, due to the regime’s repressive handling of the Syrian protests demanding the fall of the regime. Both resumed their relations with Damascus under different circumstances in terms of time and politics, at the Syrian and regional levels.

These diplomatic steps coincided with measures and changes enacted by the regime over the past few weeks, at the level of decisions and decrees, involving certain changes within the military institution, which were portrayed as attempts to reform within some of the institutions it controls.

The changes that defy the regime’s traditions were preceded by the dead end of negotiations between the regime and various parties, particularly with the developments in Gaza since October 7, 2023, and the readjustment of interests and priorities in light of these events. There is no longer any talk of the “Jordanian Initiative” for a solution in Syria, nor are any political doors about to open for the regime; the rapprochement with Ankara has collapsed, and the current situation and border tensions signal a potential crisis rather than openness.

Enab Baladi discusses with researchers and specialists the array of changes made by the regime, what is expected of the Syrian regime at this stage, who is behind it, as well as the impact and feasibility of these actions on the Syrian file, and its relationship to the Arab Initiative proposed some months ago as a solution, which the regime met with non-compliance, responding to the “step-by-step” principle with talk of “hundreds of steps” that Syria has taken, without receiving anything in return from other countries.

The Syrian regime issued several military circulars aimed at limiting the movements of Russia and Iran within the army units - December 2023 (Syrian Ministry of Defense)

The Syrian regime issued several military circulars aimed at limiting the movements of Russia and Iran within the army units – December 2023 (Syrian Ministry of Defense)

Decrees and resolutions

In late January, the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, held a meeting with the leaders of the security agencies in the army, attended by the head of the National Security Bureau and the security affairs advisor in the general secretariat of the presidency.

The Syrian Presidency, through Telegram, and reported by official and unofficial media, stated that the meeting focused on the anticipated impact of the restructuring in the security field and the development of coordination among the agencies, to enhance the performance of the security forces in the coming period.

The restructuring mentioned in the statement has been increasingly discussed recently, as most of the changes or announcements of changes had a security and military character.

On the same day, the Defense Ministry of the regime announced a conscription program with five and ten-year contracts, featuring the same incentives as recent conscription contracts offered by the regime, diverging from the past practice.

The “combatant contract” offers two periods of service with a salary of 1.3 million Syrian pounds with additional allowances, as well as bonuses, including a service commencement bonus, an annual bonus, and a non-refundable marriage grant of two million pounds.

Additionally, the ministry’s statement included an exemption for those enlisted under these contracts from mandatory service, provided they complete five years of the contract.

Alongside these measures, the head of the regime’s government, Hussein Arnous, received a spotlight after taking al-Assad’s place at the Global Climate Action Summit in November 2023.

At the time, the official Syrian news agency (SANA) reported that Arnous heads the Syrian delegation to participate in the Global Climate Action Summit, within the framework of the 28th session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Al-Assad’s absence from the summit, despite receiving an invitation from the UAE on May 15, 2023, was attributed by the Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya to al-Assad’s fear of traveling to the Emirates.

The newspaper, in a report from November 28, 2023, considered that al-Assad’s absence is linked to the fact that the French authorities issued a mandate against him, and there is an effective agreement between Paris and Abu Dhabi to extradite criminals, therefore, al-Assad’s participation would pose a challenge to Abu Dhabi’s adherence to such arrangements.

General Secretariat of the Presidency

On December 13, 2023, al-Assad issued a legislative decree to establish the General Secretariat of the Presidency, reporting directly to the president, replacing the Ministry of Presidential Affairs, aimed at assisting the president in his duties and overseeing the administrative, financial, and legal matters in the presidency, and led by a secretary-general overseeing its operations.

Journalist Nidal Malouf said earlier that the presidency in Syria is a black hole, with no one knowing how it is managed or the decision-making process within the presidency that runs the entire country. However, the decree exposes the institution and removes the previously existing ambiguity, preparing for life after al-Assad’s rule where influence would be distributed across several locations, and each location could fall under the control of a different state or have its influence.

Malouf noted the emergence of a new official title in Syria, “Secretary-General of the Presidency”, which assumes many presidential duties according to the decree. The first item in Article 5 states, “The General Secretariat is headed by a Secretary-General, who is the highest administrative official and supervises its operations; he is the expenditure signer, the settlement order, and the disbursement authorizer at the presidency.” This is significant should a political change occur in Syria.

The decree also states that all employees of the Ministry of Presidential Affairs, the presidential offices, and consultants are automatically transferred with their positions to the General Secretariat, meaning they are no longer tied directly to the president but to an intermediary that even organizes financial affairs, according to Malouf.

Al-Assad visits Saudi Arabia to participate in the Arab-Islamic Summit on Gaza - November 10, 2023 (Syrian Presidency)

Al-Assad visits Saudi Arabia to participate in the Arab-Islamic Summit on Gaza – November 10, 2023 (Syrian Presidency)

The Baath party and the judiciary

The Syrian regime is clearly interested in the 2024 Baath party elections, as evidenced by three meetings held by al-Assad with party officials within less than two months to follow up on the election matter.

On January 27, al-Assad met members of the Higher Committee for Election Supervision and was briefed on the meetings and visits conducted by the committee in branches and provinces during the past days.

He emphasized that the success of the election supervision experience would build up future entitlements at various party levels that will follow the expanded conference, making this experience part of a “democratic path whose requirements of transparency and success must be built,” he stated.

Furthermore, on December 24, 2023, he met with the committee members, emphasizing their independence in supervising the elections and their absolute neutrality in performing their tasks throughout the electoral process from preparation to results.

This meeting was preceded by less than a week by a discussion with the Baath Party’s Central Committee, where al-Assad spoke about addressing negatives in the state and civil society, considering the party elections as “diagnosis and treatment.”

The Secretary of the Party’s Central Committee, Haitham Sataihi, told Al-Watan local newspaper in December 2023 that the expanded Central High Committee would elect new members to the Central Committee, followed by a new party leadership.

Al-Watan also alluded to sources not named indicating that an independent higher committee would oversee the elections in addition to the branch committees in provinces, stipulating specific conditions for those eligible to run for party leadership, organizations, or unions.

On the judicial and human rights level, al-Assad enacted Law No. “2” for the year 2023, which amended Article “50” of the Penal Code and the Military Judicial Procedure, transferring the trial of civilians covered by Article “50” from military to regular criminal courts, unless the crime is “arising from duty,” as reported by the official Syrian news agency (SANA).

These changes did not address critical and sensitive issues for the Syrian people, such as the file of detainees and the forcibly disappeared, whom the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) numbers at 135,253 individuals in the regime’s prisons.

Are Arabs satisfied with Bashar al-Assad?

As the Syrian regime implements changes, international attention shifts to the situation in Gaza, amidst escalating conflicts on multiple fronts related to the events of October 7, 2023.

Despite the cooling of focus on the Syrian file and the decline in momentum toward Damascus since the February 6, 2023, earthquake, preceding the Gaza events, these occurrences have partially pushed the Syrian file out of at least the regional discussions spotlight. This happens despite a clear halt in the Arab rapprochement with the regime after it reclaimed its seat in the Arab League during the Jeddah Summit on May 19, 2023.

On October 8, 2023, Lebanese Foreign Minister Abdullah Bou Habib stated that the Arab Liaison Committee had started enthusiastically. However, there was intense Western pressure on the committee to not grant anything to the Syrian regime, based on the principle “It is enough that you have brought the Syrian government back to the Arab League,” as reported by the Saudi newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat.

This committee held a solitary meeting in the Egyptian capital, Cairo, on August 15, 2023, and its concluding statement did not go beyond agreeing on a future meeting in Baghdad, without a set date.

After the meeting, which aimed to follow up on what had been agreed with the Syrian regime in previous ministerial meetings, such as the Amman Consultative Meeting and the Jeddah Meeting, there were indications reflecting a lack of agreement between the nations of the Arab Liaison Committee and the Syrian regime. These were further reinforced by events on the ground that literally contravene the Jordanian Initiative and any Arab concept of a political solution in Syria.

In addition to the regime’s failure to apply any of the initiative’s articles regarding Damascus, the situation has taken an extreme course in contradicting the Arab proposals. The drug issue remains a major concern and threat at the Jordanian borders, the escalation towards the north is unceasing, and arrests continue according to reports from human rights organizations, which makes these actions fail to touch upon what the Arabs aspire to if the purpose is indeed to seek their favor.

Dr. Ahmed Qorby, a researcher at the Syrian Dialogue Center, explained to Enab Baladi that the Jordanian Initiative strayed away from political propositions, except for the return of refugees, which the regime exploited for its benefit by demanding the provision of infrastructure to facilitate their return, considering that political reconciliation is “the solution.”

The researcher believes that all the formal measures taken by the regime do not fundamentally change it, as the core issue is Bashar al-Assad himself. For Syrians, the problem was never about changing a security official or amending the constitution because such changes do not touch the regime’s core structure. The regime’s actions cannot be considered concessions or responsiveness towards an Arab political agenda, especially amidst its continuous disruption of the Constitutional Committee’s work and its obstinacy in the detainee and forcibly-disappeared files.

Regarding these changes meeting Arab demands from Damascus, the researcher pointed out that the Arab countries did not demand political changes or a change of behavior from the regime. The goal and strategic orientation were to end the concept of “Arab Spring,” and al-Assad’s return confirms this as it contradicts resolution “2254.”

Researcher Ahmed Qorby ruled out that the regime would offer more than its current actions. Russian talk about a security reform does not go beyond entrenching al-Assad’s rule, independent of Syria and the Syrians’ interests. The regime is incapable of reform and unable to present structural reform steps because such actions would signify its end.

As for the tension between the Arabs and the Syrian regime, and whether these changes might ease it, Qorby sees that the sources of tension between the Arabs and al-Assad are not related to internal changes, and the primary source of tension is drug smuggling. Despite the regime not fulfilling its commitments to reduce drug smuggling and the media exchanges between Amman and Damascus, normalization continues. There is talk of the imminent reopening of the Saudi embassy in Damascus.


The regime is required to address the refugee and drug issues, and both matters have not seen any significant concessions or steps, suggesting that normalization with the regime is a strategic decision. Even if drug smuggling increases or the regime backtracks on these steps or takes opposing actions, normalization with al-Assad will not stop.

Ahmed Qorby, Researcher at the Syrian Dialogue Center


The Jordanian Initiative does not conflict with the “step-for-step” approach proposed by the UN envoy to Syria, Geir Pedersen, in 2022, to which Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad responded in June 2023, stating that “Syria has taken hundreds of steps” without receiving anything in return from other countries. Mekdad did not specify the steps taken by the regime or those required from it, nor the expected steps from other countries, except for his call to stop support for “terrorism.”

In an interview with the local website Athr Press on January 31, Iranian Ambassador to Damascus, Hussein Akbari, confirmed that the “step-for-step” principle was a topic of discussion between him and Pedersen, and that the latter had not presented any clear program to work on this principle.

Akbari added that this proposal “began by Pedersen, before Syria’s return to the Arab League, and was proposed in Jordan,” and nobody clarified its steps or who ought to take the first step. Even the Arab countries have not declared this matter to this day.”

The regime’s changes include the military and security sectors directly linked to Russian and Iranian influence in Syria - December 2023 (Syrian Ministry of Defense)

The regime’s changes include the military and security sectors directly linked to Russian and Iranian influence in Syria – December 2023 (Syrian Ministry of Defense)

Changes or steps

While researchers previously agreed in their discussions with Enab Baladi that the Syrian regime is designed in a way that does not allow it to change, the question arises about the possibility of these changes being demanded or imposed as per a certain political approach.

Since the beginning of 2023, some Arab countries’ political approaches to the regime have included demands related to judicial reform, the release of detainees, and the movements of the Syrian army within Syria, as seen in the Jordanian Initiative.

Regarding UN Resolution “2254,” which is neither denied nor opposed by any of the political solution initiatives and provides a broader framework for them, Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said in May 2023 that “Syria will implement what it needs from it.”

Today, after more than six months since the demands and comments about them, partial changes have been manifested in some aspects of the regime’s administration on the military, economic, and administrative levels, but it is unknown how these relate to Arab demands or others.

Nader Khalil, a fellow researcher at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, told Enab Baladi that regarding security changes in particular, exemplified by replacing the head of National Security, Ali Mamlouk, it is more realistic to perceive it as a replacement due to his advanced age.

Alongside the above, Mamlouk’s replacement falls within the scope of regular promotions and transfers that periodically occur across the security apparatus leadership, promoting the younger and dismissing the older, according to the researcher.

In Mamlouk’s case, Khalil sees that he will maintain his position as “an advisor for security affairs,” meaning he will continue to have influence in the security structural system of the regime, but without a direct executive post that typically requires daily efforts.

Regarding the possibility of transforming the military institution into a more professional army, the researcher believes that such moves could be deemed an attempt to convince Arab countries willing to normalize with the regime that Bashar al-Assad is on the verge of change and is transforming the military into a more professional and less militia-like institution.

The most recent changes also suggest the regime’s intentions to reduce Iranian influence and recover the pre-2011 Syrian army. Al-Assad may genuinely want this, but it requires significant funding that he is unlikely to receive, according to Khalil, who added that even if the regime intended to limit Iran’s influence in Syria to please Arab countries, it lacks the capacity to do so.

Ongoing changes

Bassel Haffar, the director of the Edrak Center for Studies and Consultation, told Enab Baladi that the changes began to take shape in 2015, although they were progressing slowly. He believes that the most significant changes came later to include the military, administrative, party political, and security structures.

The researcher expects the changes to continue at their current pace during this year across all levels.

Haffar pointed out that the political developments that Syria has witnessed imposed on the regime to rethink its approach to managing the situation in Syria, particularly since it was recently on the verge of “disintegration, and losing control of new areas, one way or another.”

The most notable example, according to the researcher, is what happened in As-Suwayda since mid-last year when anti-regime protests erupted and are still ongoing.

Since August 2023, the anti-regime protests in As-Suwayda, southern Syria, have not stopped, during which the locals closed the Ba’ath party branches and removed the pictures of Bashar al-Assad and his father from service institutions in the province, protests that are ignored by the official media and that close to the regime.

Who manages these transformations?

The internal issues of Syrian affairs have always been on the table of negotiations between the regime and other influential entities in the Syrian file, the latest of which was in the Jordanian Initiative that pitched clauses related to the removal of military and security barriers from Syrian cities, which constitute an obstacle to the return of Syrian life to normal.

Looking at the initiative, whose clauses were published by the Saudi magazine Al-Majalla, the second phase of the initiative relates to the security and military dimensions and includes conditions such as:

  • A comprehensive ceasefire in all Syrian territories.
  • Stopping all military operations related to armed conflict, except for combat training operations.
  • Declaring a freeze on military recruitment for at least one year.
  • Reducing the number of security checkpoints in agreed-upon civilian areas.

Haffar sees that the regime’s main allies (Iran and Russia) are the biggest influencing factor in managing these changes.

As much as these changes are important on both the domestic and external levels for the regime, the biggest impact on the course of making changes lies in the hands of the regime’s allies, who directly influence the type of people who will occupy certain positions, or the creation of new structures and positions.

Internal motives

The changes in the regime’s institutions are not limited to its political maneuvers with its allies and the Arab states regarding Syria, as there are main internal causes that force it to make changes, according to what Bassel Haffar, director of the Edrak Center for Studies and Consultations, sees.

Haffar views that the rapid transformations that Syria has witnessed over the past decade push the regime to develop its administrative systems in a more flexible way, reduce economic expenses, and help it tighten its grip on its governance mechanisms more firmly.

The economic factor in these adjustments is important, according to Haffar, as the regime constantly needs to maintain greater control over the new economic pathways created by the war stage, and the post-war period.

The researcher at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, Nader al-Khalil, said regarding the changes taking place in the regime’s institutions, especially the military, that the required financing is “large” to achieve changes in the military structure, for instance, which means that it needs massive financing implying that Arab states have to be convinced of al-Assad’s intention to reform the army and his ability to do so.

Al-Khalil sees that financing poses a dilemma for the regime, as it cannot cover it without resorting to the Gulf states, at a time when it does not have the capacity to curb the influence of his brother Maher al-Assad, who leans towards his Iranian ally, who funds himself through smuggling activities and others.

The researcher downplayed the importance of the decision to create the General Secretariat of the Presidency, considering it “a change of limited value,” due to administrative and financial reasons. Instead of remaining as a ministry, it became a general secretariat, and thus the number of employees and costs were reduced, but the role and tasks assigned to it will remain the same.

Al-Assad meets with the members of the Higher Committee for Party Elections - January 27, 2024 (Ba'ath Party - Facebook)

Al-Assad meets with the members of the Higher Committee for Party Elections – January 27, 2024 (Ba’ath Party – Facebook)

Regime changes, Exploiting a phase to reap benefits

The changes in some of the administrative institution structures affiliated with the regime, including the affairs of the presidency, come amid two variables that have passed and are passing through the Middle East and are directly related to the Syrian regime. The first is the consecutive meetings of Arab officials with their counterparts in the regime, followed by the latter’s return to occupy Syria’s seat at the Arab League.

The second variable is tied to the Israeli war on the Gaza Strip, which brings about changes in the region as a whole, and the conspicuous silence of the regime.

Easing pressure and restructuring

The regime has been keen to exploit regional or international circumstances to achieve the maximum possible benefit within its political and strategic positioning in the region, which in turn reflects on the nature of the alliances it has established since the so-called “Islamic Revolution” in Iran in 1979, and its support of the latter in its war against Iraq (1980-1988), then its participation in the second Gulf War symbolically.

The return of the regime to the Arab League provided a diplomatic and political relief for it, as this return means, in one way or another, a different view of the regime and the Syrian file alike by Arab and perhaps European countries, and it also grants it different handling, even slightly, with its allies, Russia and Iran.

The first effects of the changes lie in this space specifically, as most of the changes announced by the regime, or those leaked through the media, in the security and military sectors, are linked to both Russia and Iran and their influence in these institutions, in what seems to be an attempt by the regime to return to the pre-2011 state.

Former diplomat Danny Baaj sees that al-Assad, with his accession to power, took organizational steps in terms of hierarchy, discharge, and promotion according to rank and legal age, which was evident in the appointment of Ali Habib to replace Hassan Turkmani as defense minister (the former was the Chief of Staff and took over the ministry according to the approved military arrangement).

These organizational steps differed, of course, with the launch of military operations on Syrian territory, then the Russian intervention in Syria in 2015, and the acquisition of wide influence within the security and military institution by Moscow and Tehran.

Baaj told Enab Baladi that one of the most significant expected effects is reducing, albeit slightly, the Iranian influence, especially with the regime exploiting the current internal and regional circumstances, with the decline in the pace of military and security operations, so the regime is trying to accelerate the current security and military restructuring steps, and to align with Russian plans in this field, and here the internal effects of these changes appear, according to Baaj.

The researcher specializing in military-civil relations at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, Mohsen al-Mustafa, told Enab Baladi earlier, that since the Russian military intervention in Syria for the regime, “serious steps” to restructure began, but the regime’s political desires resisted some changes.

He noted that the changes that Russia made to the structure of the Syrian army did not always prove to be effective, prompting it to regress from some of them, as happened with the restructuring of the First Division, turning it into a mechanized division and then bringing it back as a tank division.

For years, the features of dependence of brigades and divisions in the Syrian army on Iran have emerged, most notably the Fourth Division led by Maher al-Assad, brother of Bashar al-Assad.

Iran has also controlled security branches across the Syrian geography, especially the branches of the Military Security and State Security agencies in Deir Ezzor province in particular.

And in an article published by the Middle East Institute about the Fourth Division in 2021, it stated that it has become “the number one” militarily, because of the unlimited Iranian support and the open mandates it has over the entire Syrian territory.

Iran has a large influence in Syria economically, politically, and militarily (Syrian Presidency)

Iran has a large influence in Syria economically, politically, and militarily (Syrian Presidency)

Change and the regional war

The Iranian influence in the military and security institutions causes general Arab concern and specific Gulf concern. This concern is at least evident in the Arab Initiative, which called for the withdrawal of Iranian forces from Syria, the reduction of Tehran’s military presence, in terms of weapons and geography, the recovery of properties acquired by Iran in Syria, the withdrawal of Shiite militias and the Lebanese Hezbollah, and addressing the concerns of neighboring countries regarding the smuggling of drugs from Syria.

It cannot be confirmed, in the absence of leaked documents or official statements by leaders or political officials, to what extent the Arab Initiative is linked to the current process of changes, amid the official “inaction” concerning the war in Gaza.

According to al-Baaj, the absence of the regime at a sensitive time that the region is going through, and the war that could change the shape of states and their positioning in the coming period, along with the changes al-Assad is making, are among the effects of change, especially since it aligns with what the “moderation axis” is heading toward. Therefore, the changes and their effects are in harmony with what the regime ultimately wants.

Additionally, the regime seeks to reorganize its cards, catch its breath, balance the pressures imposed on it by Iran and the Arabs, and achieve gains in anticipation of the results of the Gaza war, taking into account the significant material need, the disruption of negotiation paths, and the political transition, according to al-Baaj.


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