Will Restructuring Syria’s Presidency Further Empower Asma Al-Assad?
Dec 29, 2023 1551

Will Restructuring Syria’s Presidency Further Empower Asma Al-Assad?

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On December 13, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad issued a decree establishing a General Secretariat of the Presidency of the Republic and abolishing the Ministry of Presidential Affairs.

Legislative Decree No. 38 brings several departments, offices and secretariats under the same roof, part of a process underway since 2003. The move offers advantages in terms of administrative control, smoothing the process of decision-making and implementation, clarifying mandates and areas of responsibility, and generally making the bureaucracy more efficient.

The move is reminiscent of similar steps including the transformation of the Prime Minister’s Office and its secretariat into the General Secretariat of the Presidency of the Council of Ministers in 2003. The Presidency of Communities and Governorates was also transformed into the General Administrative Secretariat. A similar approach has been followed by most Arab countries since the turn of the millennium.

Since 2009, several draft decrees have been issued with the aim of transforming the Office of the Presidency of the Republic into a secretariat. However, unlike with similar decisions over other departments, these attempts have been derailed due to opposition from the former Director of the Presidential Office, Mohamed Deeb Daaboul, as well as from Presidential Palace officers, whose powers would have been curtailed by such a decision.

The difference this time around appears to be related to major shifts at the president’s office and the presidential palace. Over the past tumultuous decade, the influence of many veteran officers in the Republican Guard has waned in comparison with that of their peers from the Presidential Security force, especially those close to Russia. As for Mohamed Deeb Daaboul, he died in 2022.

Moreover, first lady Asma al-Assad has expanded her role in recent years, becoming the most important decision-maker at the presidential palace, especially on the economic front. She secretly manages most aspects of the state’s financial affairs, investment and aid revenues, as well as supervising networks aimed at evading sanctions.

Indeed, Asma al-Assad is likely to be the biggest beneficiary of the new arrangement, which will give her more influence in the corridors of the Republican Palace. Her role will not be limited to economic decision-making but will extend to drawing up policy in other areas. The new secretariat will allow her to assume the functions and powers of the abolished Ministry of Presidential Affairs as well as the powers of the president’s office, placing her in charge of a team of advisors. She will also carry out tasks assigned to her by the president, helping him execute his role and manage administrative, legal, and financial matters.

The Baath party leadership, by contrast, will turn into a facade that exists only to implement policies and plans drawn up by Asma al-Assad through the General Secretariat of the Presidency, which will address everyone directly in the name of the president.

In practice however, the first lady’s influence via the Presidential Secretariat will be determined by the steps yet to be taken to implement the decree. The tasks and powers of the General Secretariat have yet to be set out in detail, as is the case with its organizational structure, staffing and budget. Most importantly, its Secretary-General and deputy, the body’s departmental directors, advisors or contractors have yet to be appointed. All these factors will be important in determining the extent of Asma Al-Assad’s clout within the new system.