Expecting Regime Change in Syria

(Jerusalem Post) Douglas Davis - * Bashar Assad has never lived up to his father's expectations. While Hafez managed to exploit - and somehow expand - the perception of Syria's power in the region, the weak and vacillating Bashar seems to have diminished it. The sclerotic "old guard" in Syria permitted the ineffectual Bashar Assad to remain in office, if not in power. The condition of his rule was that he must temper his visions of reform and modernization. Rather, sources say, he must maintain the status quo, which would allow them to preserve their vested interests. * But Bashar has failed to do even that. Through bad judgment and political incompetence he has failed to understand the new realities in Washington, refused to stop supporting Palestinian rejectionists, failed to cut his ties to Hizballah, etc. Not only has he roused Washington's ire by facilitating the passage of insurgents to Iraq, but according to numerous Syrian and Arab commentators, he also almost certainly had prior knowledge of the plot to assassinate former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. * True, the "old guard" does not pose an immediate challenge. Most of its most senior members are...well, senior. Vice President Abdul Khalim Khaddam, Foreign Minister Farouk a-Sharaa, Defense Minister Hassan al-Turkumani, and former deputy prime minister Mustafa Tlass are all in their late 60s and 70s. For many, ambition has long since been softened by the material cushion that corruption brings. But there are claims to succession both inside and outside the Assad family that will not remain dormant if Syria becomes dangerously unstable and power appears vulnerable in Alawite hands. * It should never have come to this. The succession belonged to the eminently suitable Basil Assad, Bashar's older brother. The "mysterious" car crash that killed the charismatic Basil, one well-placed Arab political source told me, was neither an accident nor a political vendetta. Rather, it was a crime of passion within the ruling family. Basil fell victim to the wrath of his sister, Bushra, who was incensed by his uncompromising disapproval of her affair with a then-rising star of Syrian military intelligence, Assef Shawkat, 15 years her senior and already married to two wives. When Basil discovered Shawkat and his sister together at the presidential palace one night, he was enraged. He not only banished Shawkat but physically beat Bushra - a woman of immense pride and formidable intellect - in the presence of the presidential guards. * Determined to avenge her humiliation, Bushra - known as the "Iron Lady" - arranged for the braking mechanism on her brother's brand-new Mercedes to be sabotaged just before his final, fatal journey to Damascus Airport for a flight to Germany. Nine months after Basil's death, Shawkat took Bushra as his third wife. He was embraced by the Assad family and propelled up the chain of command in Syria's military intelligence. These days, Shawkat, 55, is head of military intelligence and is a prime suspect in the Hariri killing. * All the old certainties that allowed Syria to sustain its despotic form of Ba'athism, develop stockpiles of chemical weapons and missiles, arm and train Palestinian terrorists, and provide logistical support for Hizballah have vanished. First, Washington no longer regards Syria as a pivotal regional player that must be courted and massaged. On the contrary, Syria has been labelled a pariah by the Bush administration. Second, the killing of Hariri has infuriated Riyadh, and Damascus can no longer rely on the unquestioned and substantial largesse of Saudi Arabia. Third, Damascus can no longer count on Iran. * Bashar's survival strategy appears to be based on destabilizing Lebanon abroad while simultaneously arming Alawite loyalists to protect his rule at home. In Lebanon, Bashar is said to be working via extremist Palestinian groups to threaten Lebanon's stability in an effort to simultaneously divert

2005-11-18 00:00:00

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