Assad on the Rocks

Oct. 9 2005, Nir Boms

Facing additional pressures at home and abroad, the schedule of Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president, is particularly busy these days. There is much to do and time is of the essence. His timing, however, does not seem to work.

For example, President Assad had planned to head his country’s delegation to the United Nations summit last month. While restlessness was growing in Damascus, Assad could have benefited from a visit designed to ease Syria’s international isolation and show the 40-year-old president as a young reformist Arab ruler.

But following unwelcoming signals from Washington and increasing turmoil at home, Assad was forced to stay behind.

The accusing fingers in the wake of the February assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri appeared to have come closer to Assad’s own door. Detlev Mehlis, the chief UN investigator appointed to investigate the murder, had already named four pro-Syrian Lebanese security officials as suspects. Now with the help of the French and other secret services he is shining the spotlight directly on Damascus and possibly to the presidential palace itself.

Meanwhile, on the domestic front, the Syrian Central Bureau of Statistics and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has just published a study categorizing 30 percent of Syria’s 18.3 million people as poor, including 2.2 million who are unable to provide for their own basic needs. This study was joined by an International Monetary Fund (IMF) report released last week warning that, baring significant reforms, Syria may become “locked in a cycle of financial volatility, fiscal deterioration, low growth and rising unemployment.”

Since coming to power in June 2000, Assad has little to show to his credit. The removal of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein not only deprived Assad of his sole remaining Ba’athist ally, but also of a significant source of income that came partly through the UN’s massive Oil for Food scheme.

Assad’s perceived lack of ability to curb international pressures has caused Syria to unilaterally withdraw from Lebanon, creating a severe financial and prestige crisis in the ranks of the Syrian army. But that withdrawal, unlike the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, has brought little international credit to Assad.

On the contrary, Syria’s lack of ability (or will) to control its border with Iraq have not only showed its weakness but also further heightened the level of the American frustration with Syria. Even before President George Bush singled Syria out (along with Iran) as a terrorist-supporting regime in his get-tough speech last week, US Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad said that American “patience is running out” and that other options will be considered should Syria fail to take matters into its own hands.

This, of course, is making some old Ba’athist stagers desperately unhappy with their eye-doctor-turned-president. Some have already decided to abandon ship.

Asif Shawkat, the head of the Syrian military intelligence and a brother-in-law of the Syrian president flew to Paris accompanied by his wife and children. Shawkat, reportedly, is one of the people wanted by the UN team for questioning over the Hariri murder, and joins another Syrian intelligence colonel, who defected to France with information about the explosives that killed Hariri and about tape recordings recently transferred to the UN investigation team.

Shawkat’s testimony has the potential to seal the fate of Assad’s regime. Not only is he closely related to Bashar al-Assad, but he has been heavily involved in the intimate planning and implementing of each spoiling action undertaken by the regime.

Shawkat ran a front company during the Oil-for-Food scam and took over from General Hassan Khalil as head of Syrian Intelligence following the Hariri assassination. He is perhaps the most pivotal member of the Syrian government, with the most intimate knowledge of Syrian secrets.

‘In Damascus, fear is now in the camp of power, the camp of Bashar,” a senior official told The Washington Post. Following decades of tight Ba’athist control, the fear factor appears to have moved closer to the Ba’athist camp itself. And the Syrian opposition can sense that.
The Syrian opposition, a term that was an oxymoron just two years ago, has now over 20 visible outlets, with an increasing number of political activists who meet regularly inside and outside Syria. The Syrian Democratic Coalition, a group of 10 Syrian opposition groups led by Farid Ghadry, have just announced the convening of the largest such opposition conference in Europe. In a location yet to be announced, these organizations will unveil a new draft constitution, a registry for Syrians to vote, and the establishment of a parliament in exile.

These developments already indicate that the Assad regime is losing steam and may approach a tipping point that could potentially change the balance of power in Syria. The US should sit tight as Assad, caught in a trap of its own making, will struggle to give answers to the UN prosecutor on the one hand, and to his growing circle of critics on the other. Again, Assad may be forced to stay behind. In the meantime, the US and Europe should open their ears to hear the new Syrian voices. They may be more important than many now think.

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