What kind of changes … in Syria?

What kind of change from within does Washington want in Syria? By Sobhi Hadid, April 2005 on Alternative Online Edition.

Any person who has been following the history of the relations between the White House and the governing regime in Damascus during the past three decades since the late Syrian president Hafez Assad launched the reformist movement at end-1970 will not be surprised by the statement released by Adam Ereli, deputy spokesman of the US State Department.

Ereli was commenting on the meeting that gathered top US state officials (Elizabeth Cheney and John Hanna) with American civil society activists of Syrian origin. He made clear that the aim of the meeting was not to study alternatives to the Bashar Assad regime but to support the Syrian people’s desire for reform, freedom, and opportunity…from within the currently prevailing system!

Thus it is change ‘from within’ the system and not from outside of it. As such, the deputy spokesman expressed the actual position of the US administration with no suggestion of a shift of stance towards a different scenario that would replicate the experience of the Iraqi resistance, a regime which worked directly with and for the Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon. This, however, does not eliminate Washington’s instinctive tendency toward playing amateur games with men who, as the administration knows well, do not have significant weight in Syria. It is rather amusing to imagine that any of these men will be promoted to the stature of Ahmed Chalabi or Iyad Allawi or Meshaan Al-Joubouri. This also would not prevent some champions of the right in the European parliament from blindly following the American tide and inviting Farid El-Ghadiri (rather than Riad Turk or any other prominent representative of the Syrian opposition ‘from within’!) to attend the session dedicated to reach a bargain rather than a political deal with Damascus.

And in order to complete the picture, it has been recently reported that some European leaders have been beseeching Georges Bush to reduce pressure on the Bashar Assad regime so that it does not collapse suddenly or become fragmented. Some statements from the US have been assuring these allies that they don’t need to worry. Just as when Condoleeza Rice thinks out loud in the Washington Post about different scenarios regarding what’s happening and what’s going to happen in Syria: “what we’re trying to do is evaluate the situation in order to avoid surprising anyone since events are quickly unfolding in unexpected directions, therefore, caution entails knowing what is happening at these times.”

I recall examples of these fundamental principles that shaped the nature of the relations between the White House and the reformist movement. Washington has been doing a lot of business with Assad the father (first in Lebanon then in Desert Storm then in Lebanon again and after that in Iraq). And whenever Assad agreed to a deal with the US, he would always keep his word. Washington was aiming to continue the same kind of undeclared dealings with Assad the son after he inherited his dad’s rule had it not been for the decision makers’ absolute conviction that this son is not that father.

Washington was no longer able to risk reaching agreements with him on a matter that’s as crucial and strategic as Iraq and risk playing with fire and loosen its grip on Iraq’s interior and the borders issue where there is no room for error since it represents Washington’s most crucial challenge in the region.

But, then, how to achieve change from within the system as Washington wants? And given that the president isn’t the best bet for change since he doesn’t rule exactly like Washington wants, who then is/are the substitute(s)?

Will the potential scenarios (since it is hard to imagine that there is only one) involve tangible reform without dismantling the foundation of the prevailing system and the formulas that keep it standing? And if this is done (and it’s currently the most probable scenario), and if the system was changed from within, will one person be openly ruling or another ruling from behind the scenes, or would it be a group of rulers, or what?

A few weeks ago, Joe Klein said in the Times weekly that ahead of his dialogue with Bashar Assad, he talked with some Syrian opposition members to get a general picture about the issue. Among these, he met with Kamal Labwani, one of ten prominent people sentenced to prison for participating in political activities during what was called the ‘Damascus Spring’. Labwani, the doctor, demanded that Klein ask Assad, the doctor as well, about why he had arrested the former. “I am not the one who took him to jail. I do not do everything in this country,” was Assad’s reply!

During the same period, the Associated Press reported that some Saudi officials who asked to remain anonymous, that Assad told the Saudi crown prince Abdallah Bin Abdel Aziz: I do not decide everything by myself. This came when the latter asked him to withdraw Syrian troops from Lebanon as soon as possible. A week later, Syrian official sources, including the Syrian Minister of Communication, denied statements made earlier by Assad in his meeting with the Arab League’s Secretary General Amr Moussa and in his interviews with the Italian Republica and Times weekly.

Who then put Labwani in prison? Who is assisting Assad in making decisions? Who is correcting the president’s statements and has supervised more than half of his famous interviews with the New York Times two years ago? These questions can be summarized in one classical question that has been recurring ever since Bashar Assad succeeded his father Hafez in June 2000: Is he really ruling in Syria? If not, or if, as he said, he doesn’t decide everything by himself, who then is ruling with him or maybe in spite of him? Who is the actual Syrian leadership? How are policies being formulated? What are the power dynamics?

It is wise to look at a critical and recent example. If the Syrian authority is indeed behind the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, who took the decision? Rumors have it (and they should remain so unless proven otherwise) that it is the party of six that discussed and concluded this issue. The six refer to the highest circle of authority that is handling Syrian matters which in addition to the president includes the following:

- Colonel Maher Assad (37) is the true leader of the republican guard with its quality training and arming. The republican guard does more than protect the president, it practically enclaves the capital and watches every security and military step within its surroundings. It has been said that he is short-tempered (with rumors that he shot his brother-in-law Asef Shawkat in October 2000 after the latter spoke ill of his uncle Refaat Assad). However, more serious reports pointed that he manages very sensitive missions such as the secret meeting that took place in Amman a few weeks before the Iraq invasion between Maher Assad and the Israeli delegate Etian Bentsor, according to the Israeli daily Maariv.

- General Ghazi Kenaan (63), the head of the military intelligence in Lebanon for 19 consecutive years and the current Syrian Minister of Interior and the man enjoying the most privileges and authority in the security domain. Kenaan is believed to have won Hafez Assad’s trust and worked closely with him so as to acquire unique political expertise not shared by any other Syrian security chief. This explains why Bashar Assad sought him for advice regarding the centralization of security decision-making and improving coordination. In 2001, after he was transferred from Lebanon, Kenaan consolidated his privileges and was finally appointed Minister of Interior last year. Although Kenaan seemed the most powerful security chief in the previous period, this is not likely to continue now that Asef Shawkat, a man with a strong personality and close to the ruling family, has been appointed head of military intelligence. Shawkat is not likely to comply to Kenaan’s demands.

- General Asef Shawkat (55), married to Bushra Assad (54) (Bashar’s sister and the eldest and only daughter of the Asad family). At first, it looked as if Shawkat has landed like a love bird with Bushra falling for him and agreed to secretly become his second wife without the consent of the family and lived with him away from the presidential palace until Assad the father intervened to resolve the issue and took him into the family. It was said however, that he was isolated at first since, for five years, Bashar denied Bushra’s request to have her husband appointed head of military intelligence. The highest position he was offered was head of air force intelligence which Asef refused and Bushra considered an insult to her!

- General Bahjat Suleiman (61), head of branch 251 of the intelligence and the strongest person in this apparatus. He enjoys significant authority and privileges that exceed those of the head of the same apparatus, General Hisham Bekhtyar. Suleiman’s position has more than one aspect that makes him different from all the other figures in this small circle of authority. He is, from one side, the godfather of the inheritance of office vision as he was the first to call for Bashar to succeed his father just a few hours after Hafez’ death. He is also the authority’s right hand when it comes to controlling intellectuals, writers, and artists, penetrating their associations, and threatening them, thus making sure that their projects that call for democratic change fail. He would resort sometimes to convey the authority’s opinion in important issues indirectly via political commentaries that he either signs or uses pen names. The article published in the Lebanese Assafir newspaper in mid-2003 is one example where he was the first to warn of a demographic earthquake in Lebanon should Syria withdraw its forces.

- Abdel-Halim Khaddam (73), vice president and one of the most prominent figures in the old guard. His importance springs from the fact that he’s the only Sunni in the circle of six and the one with the widest expertise in foreign political matters. He is the man who could have created a real crisis between the majority of Syrians who are Sunnis and the Alawites minority if he stood up to his right to succeed Hafez as president. And if we accept the premise that the authority is split between old and new guard, then Khaddam is undoubtedly the political chief of the old guard and the ranks of the Baath party. He handled most of the pressure during the so-called Damascus spring when he gave a fired up speech at the Damascus university warning from turning Syria into Algeria.

Sobhi Hadidi is a prominent Syrian intellectual. Alternative translates this article from Arabic courtesy of the London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi.

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