The Lebanese Flag





Lonely leader amid swirling rumors
Bashar Assad is in a pickle, and has no easy way out

Sep 29th 2005 | DAMASCUS

Source: The Economist | Story Background

THE capital looks stubbornly normal. Shoppers crowd its markets in the run-up to the fasting month of Ramadan, which starts on October 4th. The biggest downtown building to go up in years, a posh hotel, is set to open soon. Opera-goers rave over a new musical, called “The Last Tale”, about a sad misanthrope who kidnaps a singer in the hope that her song will cheer him out of his gloom. But Syrians, who often complain that they are hostages to the ruling regime, know they need to do more than sing to solve the troubles of their president, Bashar Assad.

Bashar AssadFor Mr Assad, and his clan and Baath party, face a crisis as grave as any since his father, Hafez Assad, consolidated Syria's dictatorship 35 years ago. The regime has survived big dangers before, from losing wars with Israel (which still occupies Syria's Golan Heights), to a bloody insurgency by the Muslim Brotherhood that was crushed in the 1980s.

Soviet backing and pan-Arab sentiment helped then. But Syria now has no friends at all, except distant, non-Arab Iran. America, the sole superpower, has grown overtly hostile, and sits right next door in Iraq; the Bush administration accuses Syria of abetting jihadist infiltration of the Iraqi maelstrom, backing groups that America deems terrorists, meddling in Lebanon and oppressing its own people. America's ambassador in Iraq recently declared that “all options are open” regarding how Syria might be punished. Influential Arab countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which used to condemn such aggressive talk, have tired of Syria's countering bluster and now shrug indifferently.

If it were just American chest-thumping, Mr Assad might feel secure. But a new threat has rapidly emerged in Lebanon, the small neighbor that Syria is more used to seeing as a playground, strategic buffer and, some would say, colony. Last spring, the groundswell of anger after the assassination of a long-serving Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri, made Syria end its decades-long troop presence, then obliged it to stand by as the Lebanese voted in a staunchly anti-Syrian government.

The humiliation did not end there. The UN sent a special prosecutor, Detlev Mehlis, to investigate the Hariri killing. The tight-lipped German recently had four Lebanese security chiefs known for their closeness to the Syrian regime arrested. Now, after much delay, Syria has submitted to his demand to question their Syrian counterparts. That means not just those responsible for intelligence in Lebanon, but also their bosses in Damascus, including, some say, Mr Assad's brother, Maher, who commands the Republican Guard, and their brother-in-law, Asef Shawkat, Syria's overall intelligence chief.

Mr Mehlis is not due to issue his findings until October 25th, and has said that he has no Syrian suspects. Yet his presence at a heavily secured resort near Damascus has caused much trepidation. Many Syrians assume he will finger top regime figures; the main question is how high in the hierarchy, and how close to the Assad family, the accusations will reach. Whatever it does turn up, Mr Mehlis's investigation, backed by the clout of the UN Security Council, will deeply embarrass Syria's government. Should there be proof of complicity or worse, and should Syria fail to hand over suspects for trial, Mr Assad's government is sure to be punished by further isolation, and an internationalization of sanctions that are now unilaterally imposed by America.

Strains, not surprisingly, are showing at home. Internal opposition groups are small, fractious and closely watched. But general resentment runs high, against such ills as corruption, unemployment, sky-high house prices and the privileged place of Mr Assad's Alawite sect, which makes up 15% of Syria's mostly Sunni Muslim population. Sporadic unrest in the provinces has pitted restless Kurds, Ismailis and Druze against police or against other sects.

Sunni extremists, who once refrained from attacks in Syria in recognition of its support for Iraq's “resistance”, may have changed tactics. Gun battles between such groups and police now break out regularly. Businessmen, many of them Sunnis, complain they are tired of uncertainty. Cash is said to be flowing rapidly abroad. At least one senior ousted member of the regime, a Sunni, is said to be living in a plush hotel in Paris owned by the Hariris: that cannot bring much comfort to former colleagues.

When Syria withdrew from Lebanon, Mr Assad tempered his embarrassment by promising to speed reforms. Little has changed. The Baath party said it would revise laws that hinder the emergence of rival political parties, but has taken no measures to do so. The appointment of Abdullah Dardari, a respected non-Baathist, as deputy prime minister with a mandate to open up Syria's stymied socialist economy, was heralded as a breakthrough. But Mr Dardari's good intentions have mostly been thwarted. Despite considerable public sympathy for Mr Assad, more and more Syrians now reckon that his regime may not be capable of reform.

Intellectuals in Damascus contemplate three scenarios. One would see the regime reaching a deal with America and the UN investigators, whereby some figureheads, such as Syria's main intelligence chiefs in Lebanon, including their commander, General Rostom Ghazale, would be sacrificed for trial, and Syria would comply fully with America's other demands.

There are some signs of this. One observer detects the start of a “dance of the seven veils”, with Syria grudgingly relinquishing positions long declared sacrosanct. It has tightened controls along the Iraqi frontier, and told Damascus-based armed Palestinian groups to lie low and back Mahmoud Abbas's peace-inclined Palestinian leadership. In this scenario, Hizbullah, Lebanon's Iran-backed Shia militia, may be the next offering. Syria's support has so far insulated it from pressure to disarm, as required by the UN Security Council. Should Mr Assad decide to appease the Americans, his regime might, in the words of another Damascus observer, “lose some limbs but still be ambulatory.”

Scratches and bites, both lethal

But the other two scenarios offer Mr Assad a less rosy outlook. One is what a dissident describes as “the cornered cat”: the regime chooses to lash out at its tormentors. This could well lead to its rapid demise. Who might the inheritors be? It is hard to tell whether various Islamist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which was persecuted by Assad senior, are growing in strength. Some close watchers think its potential exaggerated; others reckon it more likely that military types may already be gaining ground inside Syria's institutions and may make a lunge for power.

The last scenario, perhaps more likely, is “the cornered scorpion”. Surrounded by fire, it stings itself. In other words, the regime would fall to an internal coup. Who might the beneficiaries be? Infighting among the Assad family and in-laws has been rumored. The president might have another go at chucking out the powerful remainder of his father's old guard. Or the regime could turn against the Assad family. Or, perhaps most bloodily, young Sunni officers could turn against the minority Alawites who have held commanding posts in the army and regime. If Mr Mehlis's report does, in effect, mean that Mr Assad is told to sack some of his closest and most powerful advisers, or even put them on trial, this last scenario would become more plausible. For the time being, the only certainty is more uncertainty.

Copyright © 2005 by Center for Democracy in Lebanon™.
The content throughout this Web site that originates with CDL
can be freely copied and used as long as you make no substantive
changes and clearly give us credit. Details.
Legal Statement
For problems or questions regarding this Web site contact Webmaster.
Last updated: 05/19/11.