Bashar Assad Under Seige

By Nir Boms
Published October 13, 2005

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

For example, Mr. Assad had planned to head his country’s delegation to the United Nations summit last month. While restlessness was growing in Damascus, Mr. Assad could have benefited from a visit that was designed to ease Syria’s international isolation and show the 40-year-old president as a young reformist Arab ruler. But timing did not work. Following unwelcoming signals from Washington and increasing turmoil at home, Mr. Assad was forced to stay behind. 

The February assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri appeared to have come closer to Mr. Assad’s own door. Detlev Mehlis, the chief U.N. investigator who was appointed to investigate the murder, had already pointed fingers at four pro-Syrian Lebanese security officials as suspects. Now, with the help of the French and other secret services, he is pointing another finger straight to Damascus and possibly to the presidential palace itself. 

Meanwhile, on the domestic front, Syria saw the publication of a poverty study conducted by the Syrian Central Bureau of Statistics and the United Nations Development Program. The study categorized 30 percent of Syria’s 18.3 million people as poor and said that 2.2 million were unable to ensure their own basic needs. It was joined by an International Monetary Fund report released last week. The IMF warned that unless significant reform is introduced, Syria may get “locked in a cycle of financial volatility, fiscal deterioration, low growth, and rising unemployment.” 

Since the beginning of his tenure in June 2000, Mr. Assad has little to show to his credit. Following the collapse of Iraq, Syria lost not only its remaining Ba’athist ally, but also a significant source of income that came, partly, due to its involvement with the oil-for-food scheme. Mr. Assad’s perceived lack of ability to curb international pressures has caused Syria to unilaterally withdraw and lose much of his grip over Lebanon, creating a severe financial and prestige crisis in the ranks of the Syrian army. But that withdrawal, unlike the Israeli withdrawal of Ariel Sharon from Gaza, has brought little international credit to Mr. Assad. On the contrary, Syria’s lack of ability (or will) to control its border with Iraq has not only showed its weakness but also further heightened the level of American frustration with Syria. Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, said recently that the United States’s “patience [with Syria] 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. Mr. Shawkat reportedly is one of the people wanted by the U.N. team for questioning over the Hariri murder. Mr. Shawkat can join another Syrian intelligence colonel who allegedly defected to France with information about the explosives that killed Hariri and about tape recordings that were recently transferred to hands of the U.N. investigation team. 

Mr. Shawkat’s testimony has the potential to seal the fate of the Assad regime. Not only is he related to Mr. Assad, but he has been heavily involved in the intimate planning and implementing of each spoiling action undertaken by the regime. Mr. Shawkat ran a front company during oil-for-food scandal (Mr. Shawkat was the CFO of the Bhaha Import Export Company) and he took the reins of Syrian intelligence from General HassanKhalilfollowingthe assassination of Hariri. 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,” said a senior official to The WashingtonPost.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 a misnomer 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 ten Syrian opposition organization led by Farid Ghadry, has just announced the convening of the largest opposition conference in Europe. In a location yet to be announced, 20 Syrian groups will convene to unveil a draft of a new constitution, a registry for Syrians who are interested 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 United States should sit tight as Mr. Assad, caught in a trap of his own making, will struggle to give answers to the U.N. prosecutor on the one hand and to his growing circle of critics on the other. Again, Mr. Assad may be forced to stay behind. In the mean-time, the United States and Europe should open their ears to hear the new Syrian voices. They may be more important than you may think. 

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