April 26, 2006

Syria: Has Assad Dodged a Bullet?

Esther Pan of the Council on Foreign Relations writes often about Syria, and sometimes interviews me because of my tour as the air attache there. Here is here latest piece (in which I am quoted), published April 26.

Syria: Has Assad Dodged a Bullet?
Esther Pan, Staff Writer
April 26, 2006


Last fall, the weight of international pressure fell hard on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. After the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, Syria was forced to withdraw its troops from Lebanon. A subsequent UN investigation into the assassination implicated senior intelligence figures of Assad's regime, and sanctions seemed about to be imposed on an uncooperative Damascus. But now, with the United States mired in Iraq and the international community preoccupied with Iran's nuclear threat, Assad appears to have escaped the heat, and is acting tough and consolidating his power.

What is the current political situation in Damascus?

Assad's government is cracking down on dissent, jailing activists, stifling critics, and forbidding opposition figures to travel to international conferences or meet exiles overseas. "The government's in the middle of a fairly intense crackdown," says Mona Yacoubian, a Middle East expert at the United States Institute of Peace. She says it's unclear if the repression is a result of Assad's regime feeling threatened, or conversely, emboldened to act because the international pressure is off his government. Rick Francona, a former U.S. military attaché in Damascus and Middle East military analyst for NBC News, says the attention of world powers is focused elsewhere. "The Iran threat has made life easier for the Syrians and given Bashar the freedom to crack down," Francona says.

What explains the reduction of pressure on Syria?

In the fall of 2005, Assad's regime seemed threatened after it was linked to the assassination of Hariri the previous February in Beirut. Pressure from France, the United States, and other nations forced Syria to withdraw its occupying troops from Lebanon in April 2005 after nearly thirty years. A UN investigation implicated high-level Syrian officials in the Hariri assassination, and the UN Security Council threatened sanctions. "In December [2005], Assad was on the ropes," Francona says. "It wasn't a question of when he would be deposed, but who would depose him."

But then international events intruded. "The whole policy approach the Syrian regime took in the wake of the Hariri assassination was to play for time," says Edward Djerejian, director of the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University and a former U.S. ambassador to Syria and Israel. He says Damascus' strategy worked: Iraq continued to disintegrate into violent chaos, and Iran escalated its rhetoric and defiance over its nuclear program. Both situations pushed Syria down the list of international priorities. "The Syrian government made a fairly astute calculation that with Iran on top of the international agenda and the United States mired in Iraq, the chances of coordinated international action against Syria are quite small," Yacoubian says. "Bashar should send [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad a thank-you note," Francona says. However, "although the decline in pressure is quite obvious, the situation in Syria remains quite uneasy," says Richard Murphy, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria.

How stable is Bashar al-Assad’s regime?

It appeared shaky through much of 2005, but has since stabilized, experts say. "The Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon could have constituted a serious blow to the regime's hold on power," Yacoubian says. But, Murphy says, "The sky didn't fall in. It was a public humiliation, but they've managed to maintain their position in Lebanon [and avoid] any uproar in Syria." Syria maintains intelligence operatives in Lebanon and continues to be a prime backer of Hezbollah activities there. Assad was able to step back from the threats to his regime and, at the Baath Party Congress in June 2005, he consolidated his power by moving allies into critical positions and demoting those considered threats—including Abdel Halim Khaddam, a former vice president who was driven into foreign exile.

Experts say the country's citizens, seeing the crisis of Iraq next door, would rather have Assad's authoritarianism than the upheaval of regime change. "At least this is the dictator you know," Francona says. "Whether you like the regime or not, at least there's some semblance of stability." And while Syrians may oppose Assad, few are willing to speak out. "The Syrian public is cowed into submission," Yacoubian says.

How strong is the internal opposition?

Human rights groups and non-governmental organizations exist, but they have little influence. "The opposition groups are weak and poorly organized," Djerejian says. "There's no imminent threat from any group that would come in and take power. In addition, "the Syrian security forces are very effective," Francona says. "They ferret these guys out, hunt them down ruthlessly, and kill them."

Another opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, is outlawed. The group was decimated by Hafez al-Assad, Bashar's father, at a massacre in Hama in 1982. The Muslim Brotherhood had tried to assassinate Hafez al-Assad, but since Hama, its remaining members have scattered and have not threatened the regime again. And the Syrian security forces keep it that way. "Syrian intelligence is clear that their job is to maintain security and eliminate threats to the regime or the national interest," Francona says. "In Syria, it's understood that there are Damascus rules, and if things got really bad, there are Hama rules."

How strong is the external opposition?

Former Vice President Khaddam, fired from his post in June last year, now leads a dissident movement from Europe. Khaddam, a longtime foreign minister of Syria, was considered an important rival to Assad before being forced out. "Since the death of Ghazi Kenaan [a former Syrian official who was found dead of an alleged suicide in October 2005] Khaddam probably has a unique stature with the senior ranks of Bashar's critics," Murphy says. In December, Khaddam told the al-Arabiya television station that Assad's government threatened Hariri before his death.

Experts say Khaddam has linked up with Muslim Brotherhood members—also in exile in France—to form a new party and a government-in-exile. They are demanding regime change, but experts say their influence is weak. "Many Syrians think Khaddam is as corrupt, and has as much blood on his hands, as anyone still in power," Yacoubian says. "Khaddam is so identified with Syria's Lebanon policies that he's not credible as an opposition figure," Djerejian says. And Francona says Khaddam is too far removed from the country to be effective. "The external opposition movements have limited impact," he says. "We learned that from Iraq."

Is there a threat of a military coup?

The Alawite generals who run the military and security services were worried at the end of last year about Assad's leadership, but they feel a bit more secure now, experts say. Syria still exerts significant control in the region through its support for the armed militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon, insurgents in Iraq, and Hamas in the Palestinian Authority. Hamas leader Khaled Meshal lives in Damascus. Experts say a military coup is unlikely at present. "They figure this is not the time to move against Bashar," Francona says. A coup would be more likely if the military elite feared Syria was coming apart, he says.

What effect has the UN investigation had?

Bashar and Vice President Farouk al-Shara, who was Syria's foreign minister during the Hariri assassination, met with UN investigator Serge Brammertz in Damascus April 25. Details from the meeting have not yet been released. Bashar had refused to meet Brammertz' predecessor, Detlev Mehlis. The first UN report by Mehlis, investigating Hariri's death, was released October 19, 2005, and accused the Syrian and Lebanese security services of cooperation, if not outright complicity, in Hariri's murder. It also implicated several senior members of Assad's regime, and was "nothing short of a bombshell," Yacoubian says.

The Mehlis report led to intense political pressure on Assad and the possibility of sanctions against Damascus. A second report from Mehlis, released in December, accused the Syrian administration of obstructing justice, tampering with or intimidating witnesses, and otherwise interfering with the investigation. The UN investigation is "the big black cloud hovering over Damascus that makes any movement forward very difficult," Djerejian says. A final report is due in June, although an extension is possible.

After that, "it all depends on the contents of the report," Djerejian says. "If there's incriminating evidence against Bashar's inner circle, it will be very difficult for the president." If that happens, sanctions are possible, but growing less likely as the immediacy and momentum behind punitive action against Syria have waned.

How much impact does Syrian intelligence have in Lebanon?

Syrian influence remains strong in Lebanon, experts say. "Because the army's gone, we shouldn't assume that Lebanon is free to act as a sovereign state," Murphy says. Many politicians, including Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, are openly pro-Syrian. Syrian intelligence agents are still influential throughout the country, and Syria still arms and supports Hezbollah, regional experts say. "You're not going to see Syria give up on Lebanon," says Francona. Syrians still refer to their smaller neighbor as "the province." Their influence persists in part because Lebanese leaders are struggling to set up a democracy amid deep sectarian divisions. "The imperatives of confessional democracy [where certain government posts are reserved for certain religions] are very complicated and difficult to deal with," Yacoubian says.