Saturday, March 19, 2005

Bashar Consolidates His Power

Hassan Fattah of the New York Times has an interesting article on how "Syria's Leader Moves to Consolidate His Power". He quotes yours truly.

"Bashar is learning that his father did things for a reason," says Joshua Landis of the University of Oklahoma and the Web site, who is spending 2005 in Damascus. "If you're going to be a dictator you're going to have to act like one."

Beginning last summer, analysts and diplomats here say, Mr. Assad purged the ranks of the military, sidelined prospective opponents and wrested control of foreign policy, especially the "Lebanon file," from his vice president.

It was clearly a gamble. When Mr. Assad decided last fall to push the Parliament of Lebanon to extend the term of Émile Lahoud, the pro-Syrian president, tensions rose. Rafik Hariri, Lebanon's longtime prime minister, quit and began to ally himself more solidly with the growing anti-Syrian opposition.

The assassination of Mr. Hariri last month produced a political explosion in Lebanon, with opposition forces blaming Syria and with governments throughout the Western and Arab worlds demanding that Syria withdraw its armed forces and intelligence officials from Lebanon.

Mr. Assad has promised to do so and has begun the withdrawal. Whether he will complete it and whether Syria will simply maintain its control through other means remain matters of keen debate here.

It is widely felt that maintaining control is central to his long-term survival, because of Lebanon's importance to Syria's economy. At the same time, there is no real challenge to Mr. Assad from the opposition.

In his five years in office he has worked to balance the security, military and business elements that make up the government against some new blood he has brought in. Though seen as weak, he has stood unchallenged against a fragmented opposition made up of intellectuals, Islamists and businessmen.

"The problem with the opposition is it's not changing with the times," said Riad al-Turk, widely regarded as the grandfather of the opposition movement. "Ultimately both sides are weak - the regime and the opposition. That means there's a vacuum and outside forces will enter to solve the problem."

More recently Mr. Assad's vulnerability became a point of discussion in Syrian back rooms, diplomats say, and that was cause for alarm.

So last July Mr. Assad reached for power. He began enforcing a longstanding age limit in the military, sending some 440 senior officers into retirement. He also managed to push out his army chief of staff, Gen. Imad Ali Aslan. He kept his confidants and young friends on the margins of the government, awaiting an entry, while actively playing the last remnants of the old guard against the new guard.

The result, many say, is a more inward-looking stance, less focused on the strategic implications of foreign policy. This is a change from his father, who viewed Syria as the most important frontline Arab state standing up to Israel.

"We are a generation that doesn't feel we have to justify what is happening in the entire Middle East," said one prominent government insider. "But there are still forces in Syria who don't understand what is happening in the world and don't know how to read the situation."

That misreading, analysts say, has led to numerous errors in judgment, epitomized by events in Lebanon beginning last August with the push to extend Mr. Lahoud's term as president.

In the latest crisis, the government here has shown signs of a siege mentality, cracking down on hard-won freedoms, censoring publications and communicating in words that kept much of the international community wondering what its real intentions are.

Behind the scenes, though, the crisis appears to have helped Mr. Assad frame his campaign more clearly.

In fact, despite his foot-dragging, the pullout - if it occurs - may end up being one of his less fraught decisions. Mr. Assad and his advisers are betting that Mr. Lahoud and Hezbollah, the militant Lebanese Shiite party nurtured by Syria, will oversee Syria's interests even after it withdraws. Meanwhile, Damascus will have staved off international sanctions, pinning responsibility for disarming Hezbollah on the United Nations.

In his speech announcing Syria's eventual pullout from Lebanon, Mr. Assad aimed a few barbs at his advisers, blaming them for some of his mistakes and pointedly announcing plans for a new regional conference of the governing Baath Party, which some analysts say signals the start of a shake-up.

In effect, Syrian analysts say, he must devise a split between the party and the government, cutting the party's decades-old cronyism and control over the government. But since the party is now his prime base of support, Mr. Assad must tread carefully and invent a new loyalty mechanism outside the party.

Ultimately, several prominent Syrians say, he must build his personal leadership and strengthen his rule enough to be ready for negotiations with Israel over the Golan Heights.

"There's simply no more room for mistakes now," said Samir al-Taqi, a researcher at the Damascus Center for Strategic Studies.

Nicholas Blanford and others have also written an important study of the events surrounding Hariri's murder and the subsequent investigation, which all but places the blame at Syria's feet.

'Something was going to happen - it was going to be me or him'

Days before Rafik Hariri's assassination last month, the Lebanese politician had played host to Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader, at his mansion in west Beirut. Mr Hariri had a warning for his old friend: the Syrians were after them. (Thanks to Paul at War in Context)

"He told me that in the next two weeks it was either going to be me or him," Mr Jumblatt told The Times. "Clearly he thought something was going to happen."

Something did. On February 14 Mr Hariri was killed when 600lb of explosives apparently buried in the road outside St George’s Hotel in Beirut blew up beneath his car.

The blast has echoed round the world. Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese have demonstrated in Beirut, the world has united in demanding Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon and the drive for democracy in the Middle East has been given a huge boost.

Syria has repeatedly protested its innocence and no irrefutable evidence of its involvement has yet emerged. But a reconstruction of events leading to Mr Hariri's murder, and interviews with at least a dozen Western, Lebanese and even Syrian officials, leave not the slightest doubt that the plot was hatched in Damascus. [complete article]


At 3/19/2005 05:30:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mukhabarat out of Syria! Not just out of Lebanon.
Do not defend the indefensible
Without his father setting him up, Bashar could not run Falafel stand.
Being in Lebanon made Kanaan, Tlas and the Assad wealthy but ruined our relationship with the Lebanese and we (Syrians) still poor people.
Muhammd Almassihi

At 3/20/2005 08:11:00 AM, Anonymous Warren said...


1. Where is Uncle Uncle Rifa'at now, and what is he doing/not doing? What is "the Arab News Network, a European-based satellite network that he owns" (Newsweek, June 26, 2000)saying, if anything?
2. If the U.S. wants to squeeze Syria some more, any move to reopen the case against "a textile business called Tatex" (Newsweek, 1/26/04), "a Syrian-owned company suspected of terrorist ties", which was raided by police in Hanmburg, Germany on September 10, 2002. The U.S. & Germany quietly closed the case, and the U.S. didn't freeze their assets. Newsweek implies that this was part of a U.S. sttempt to play ball with Syria, which was half heartedly co-operating with U.S. anti-al Queda operations. Now that the gloves are off, are they going to go after Tatex?
3. "In December (2003?-ed), Saudi Prince Al Waleed bin Talal, thought to be the world's sixth richest man, bought a 49% share in LBC" (Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation-ed). " 'Prince Al Waleed has political aspirations', Jaber (Ali Jaber, 1992 co-founder of Future TV-ed) observes. 'He's essentially opposed to Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Harriri, (still alive at the time this article was published-ed), so it makes sense for him to join his (Harriri's) competitor [at] LBC. He's using it for his own political agenda.'"
"...rumor has it his long-term goal is to be prime miniter." (Article in Variety, November 8, 2004) (Well, why not? Harriri was a Saudi citizen, too. Aparently, being an extra-national carpetbagger isn't a handicap in Lebanese politics-ed)

4. what's the media ownership picture in Syria? What outside broadcasting is getting through, and what isn't?

Your reactions, please-inquiring minds want to know.

At 3/20/2005 09:16:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

bashar will creat more hatred against him inside syria...this move is suicidal.

At 3/20/2005 09:26:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

syrian regime is weak ...he has no support among the syrian people...this sectarian regime is not able to tolerate any political reform.
The regime is not improvable.

At 3/20/2005 10:40:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A pitty that this valueble blog has developed into a site of scores. Some of the information provided by participants are qualified for science fiction.

At 3/20/2005 01:20:00 PM, Anonymous Mohamed D. said...

I agree with one of the annonymous bloggers that Bashar's latest strategy of conslidation is suicidal. Bashar does not need to open up new avenues for dissent within is people. It is interesting to me that contrary to other regimes in the region, who resorted to processes of political liberalization in the face of legitimacy crises and adversity, Bashar continues to consolidate a despotic regime that has throughout the years made Syria one of the least developped (politically and economically) countries in the region. It is hight time that Syria caught up with the modest political progress made in the region. Granted that political progress is by no means perfect, but it is a path that Syria should seriously contemplate.

At 3/20/2005 04:00:00 PM, Anonymous sottovoce said...

Warren, good question...
Where is Walid ibn Talal and what is he up to these days?

At 3/20/2005 08:58:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for the very informative post, Joshua. I'm glad we have you over there to find out what is going on.

At 3/21/2005 08:01:00 AM, Blogger DavidP said...

Syria has made some political progress. The 'red lines' are still there, but  they are less restrictive under Bashar.

Joshua, you've got a new reader, from the NY Times link. Looking at your archives here's one I don't think you mentioned, on Lebanon - from The Financial Times, 5 Feb,  'The last fling' by David Gardner (links here).


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