Speculation rife as Assad moves security chief

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PRESIDENT Hafez al-Assad of Syria has replaced the powerful head of military intelligence, General Ali Douba, in one of a number of key changes to the top posts in his intelligence services.

The move is seen in some circles as helping to groom the President's son, Basil, for the succession, in preference to Rifaat, the President's disgraced brother. As yet no successor to Ali Douba has been named.

Last month's shake-up in the intelligence service does not change the basic political structure of the regime, which is propped up by a vigorous security apparatus. The economic boom the country has been enjoying, as oil has come on stream and exports risen, has given President Assad greater freedom of manoeuvre both domestically and abroad. However, the state has made few steps towards loosening its firm grip on political activity to match its strides in liberalising the economy. In the absence of any attempt to rule by consensus, the security apparatus continues to retain its key role in clamping down on dissent.

Ali Douba was one of a triumvirate of security and intelligence chiefs, with often overlapping responsibilities, who were trusted implicitly by the President. When Mr Assad fell ill at the end of 1983, and Rifaat made a bid for power, the President called on these three intelligence chiefs to rein in his brother. There was a military stand-off in the streets of Damascus between forces loyal to the President, led by these officers, and Rifaat's 20,000-strong Defence Brigades.

At the time, Rifaat had titular responsibility for security. His enforced eight-year exile in Switzerland and France was lifted last summer, when Rifaat was permitted to attend the funeral of his mother. After his return, rumours had circulated that Ali Douba had been displaced to make way for Rifaat Assad, who had sought to resume some of his former security functions.

Those rumours proved baseless at the time. Of late, however, they have been in part realised. In the constellation of security chiefs, Ali Douba's star had shone among the brightest. Now it appears that President Assad has decided to replace him. Perhaps he feared the moon might eclipse the sun. In a regime as notoriously opaque as Syria's, the motive is unclear. He has been promoted and been appointed deputy to the chief-of-staff, Hikmat al-Shihabi. However, this move is thought unlikely to benefit Rifaat.