Why is this man smiling?

With all the cards stacked against him, Bashar Assad is lucky to still be in office.

bashar assad 88 (photo credit: )
bashar assad 88
(photo credit: )
In April 2000, Hafez Assad provided an object lesson in how he had kept an iron grip on Syria for almost three decades: Mahmoud Zoubi, who had been dismissed as prime minister one month earlier, was dead. According to the official pronouncements, Zoubi had committed suicide in a fit of depression after being fingered in an anti-corruption campaign led by the president's son, Bashar. In fact, a senior Arab source told me, Zoubi was a key figure in a Sunni-led plot to topple the Alawite regime of the ailing Hafez and had been killed by Syria's security forces - his throat was slit - fully five days before his "suicide" was announced. "Zoubi decided that if he couldn't be prime minister he'd be president," said the source. "After his death, Syrian intelligence officials joked among themselves about 'the depressed man in the refrigerator.'" The event was intended to kill two birds with one stone: The first objective was the plotter Zoubi; the second, more subtle, aim was to bolster Bashar's claim to succession by attaching to him the aura of ruthlessness. It was vintage Hafez, a classic in the genre of political brutality. The move not only eliminated an enemy but also strengthened an ally - in this case, enhancing the image of his lackluster son and reassuring a nervous Alawite constituency that the kid was tough enough to protect their interests. One month later, Hafez himself was dead, succumbing to a long-time heart ailment. Bashar, then just 35 and untutored in the arts of politics, the military or commerce, was propelled along a well-lubricated path that led directly to the presidential palace. 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. While Hafez was courted by every American president from Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton, Bashar has been ignored. Perhaps it was just bad luck that George W. Bush is the current White House incumbent. Whatever the reason, say observers in the Arab world and in Europe, Bashar is not up to the job of running a deeply opaque and often brutal Syria that was created in the image of Hafez. While the father exercised absolute control for almost three decades, the son has never quite managed to get his hands onto the levers of power. He failed to acquire the political skills for building a personal power-base, the wily cunning for dealing with the international community, and the steely toughness for crushing domestic dissent. And he lacks gravitas. Ever since assuming office five years ago, Bashar has failed to display the mix of ruthlessness and the charisma that are necessary for him to retain power in the face of a major crisis. He has not one but several such crises on his hands right now, and he is likely to be feeling distinctly queasy as he struggles to keep his balance on an increasingly perilous throne. Early hopes that Bashar would impose his Western ways on Damascus and realize his goal of modernizing Syria were quickly dashed. The ambitions of the young ophthalmology student in London, who hurried home to prepare for office after his older brother, Basil, died in a car crash, evaporated almost as soon as they were tested in the real world of Syrian politics. The sclerotic "old guard," which had consolidated its power and influence under Hafez, permitted the ineffectual Bashar 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 Hizbullah, 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. Syria's leader now faces the double challenges of a hostile Washington that is seeking to punish Bashar for facilitating the insurgency in Iraq and of a UN Security Council that is summoning its courage to punish Syria's failure to cooperate with UN investigator Detlev Mehlis, who is probing the Hariri killing. Yet another "suicide" - this time of Ghazi Kanaan, a former interior minister and long-time Syrian pro-consul in Lebanon - has neither satisfied Mehlis nor quelled the outcry that has followed Hariri's death. The fact that Bashar is still in office, say the pundits, owes less to his political ineptitude than to the fact that there is no apparent alternative to his leadership in the hereditary republic of Syria. Not so. 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. As long as they maintain their power and influence, they are unlikely to risk their necks. But if the "old guard" does not present a direct challenge to Bashar Assad, 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, who was cast in the mold of Hafez and who would have known instinctively how to avoid the crises that now beset Bashar. As with so much else in Syria, nothing is quite what it seems to be. The "mysterious" car crash that killed the charismatic Basil could hold a clue to the future. That crash, 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, said the source, 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. Desperate to be reunited with Shawkat and 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. His designated task was to "cleanse" the elements which opposed Bashar's leadership. These days, Shawkat, a 55-year-old imposing and burly general with a taste for expensive clothes, is head of Syrian military intelligence and is said to exercise power second only to Bashar. "He's ruthless and very ambitious, but he knows what he's doing," one Syrian intellectual said of him. "He's not stupid." But if Shawkat nurtures hopes of succeeding the feeble Bashar, he has a problem: Along with Bashar's brother, Maher, who wields power over the Republican Guard, Shawkat is a prime suspect in the Hariri killing. (One joke doing the rounds in Damascus is that Shawkat wanted to commit suicide, but he was not in his office when the security forces called.) Shawkat's elevation to the top job will now depend on his ability to either vindicate himself in the Mehlis investigation or to make himself indispensable to Washington if Syria is seriously destabilized and poses an even greater threat to American interests in Iraq. All that does not rule out Bushra herself, who is said to be the brightest, most ruthless and most ambitious of the surviving Assads. Since Bashar assumed power, she is said to have exerted her influence through her husband. But that, say analysts, need not necessarily be a permanent arrangement. Two other members of the immediate family who have previously demonstrated a taste for power and who could provide credible leadership are Rifa'at, brother of Hafez, and his son, Sumer, who now runs a substantial Arabic media empire in London. Rifa'at's most recent challenge appeared to have been extinguished in the dying days of his brother's rule when Hafez sent his troops to crush Rifa'at's 55,000-strong Defense Companies, destroy his 11,410-square-meter compound and his substantial port in the Mediterranean city of Latakia. The message was clear: Bashar was the sole, legitimate heir. Indeed, Rifa'at's appeal to Syrians, via his son's television network and newspapers, to remember the "glory and immortality of the martyrs of the Latakia massacre" was met with silence. But Rifa'at has a track record. It was his well-paid, garishly garbed men who were sent into the ancient town of Hama in 1982 to crush an Islamist revolt when up to 20,000 dissenters were slaughtered. He is said to continue to command an enthusiastic following among some elements of the military and he might still harbor leadership ambitions. Some sources say that Rifa'at's residual popularity within the military, combined with his political pragmatism, his economic acumen and his record of brutally suppressing Sunni dissidents offer a better guarantee of continued Alawite supremacy and Syrian stability than Bashar. Less well known is whether Rifa'at still has the stomach for the fight. While Rifa'at, a former vice-president of Syria, shares his brother's ruthlessness, he does not share all his prejudices. In the year before his brother's death, when he was touting himself as a potential successor, I was told, he established secret contacts with Israeli officials. At those meetings he stressed that he did not have any "complexes" about making peace with the Jewish state. Meanwhile, Bashar is being pushed ever more tightly into a diplomatic corner from which escape looks increasingly improbable. THE REIGN of Bashar Assad has been characterized by brief flirtations with reform followed by swift retreats. Those hardy Syrians who thought they detected a "Damascus Spring" quickly found themselves plunged into deep winter. Nothing, essentially, has changed. The status quo has been maintained. When, for example, Bashar encouraged political debate, meetings were convened in public halls and private homes to press for political reform, democracy and civil society. But within months the Syrian authorities turned on the activists and many were arrested. Then Bashar announced that political parties could be established. But no sooner were they created than they were proscribed. And although he promised economic liberalization, the old central command structures remain rigidly in place. "The umbrella of stability must not be damaged," Bashar explained recently to the German paper Der Spiegel when asked about the paucity of reform. "Naturally," he added, "the unresolved Middle East conflict also slows down development." Whatever rationalizations and explanations Bashar may offer for Syria's failure to come to terms with modernity, the Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party - based on Italian fascism and designed to give expression to Arab chauvinism - seems to be on the skids. Bashar, a senior Israeli official said recently, is making "every possible mistake... He is on a collision course with the United States and, under certain circumstances, this could cost him his hold on power." Indeed, 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 Hizbullah 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, a Saudi national, has infuriated Riyadh and Damascus can no longer rely on the unquestioned and substantial largesse of Saudi Arabia to fill its gas pumps and its coffers. Third, Damascus can no longer count on Iran, which decanted some $15 billion in cash and kind into its closest regional ally over the past quarter-century to express appreciation for facilitating its ties with Hizbullah. Farid al-Khazen, professor of political science at the American University of Beirut and a first-term member of the Lebanese parliament, says that Bashar's Syria has ignored all the warnings and advice it has been offered. Now, he says, "it has zero margin for flexibility or adaptation. Even Saddam had a larger base of support than the Syrian regime." BASHAR IS now engaged in a breathtaking high-wire act in an attempt to survive the desperate diplomatic, economic and military storms. The survival strategy he has developed appears to be based on the twin pillars of destabilizing Lebanon abroad while simultaneously arming Alawite loyalists to protect his rule at home. Both moves are likely to have disastrous consequences - for Syria, the region and for Bashar's hopes of survival. In Lebanon, Bashar is said to be working, via extremist Palestinian groups, to threaten Lebanon's stability in an effort to simultaneously divert attention from Damascus and signal to the international community that while Syria was forced to withdraw its troops from Lebanon, it has not lost its capacity to rock the regional boat. The Syrian regime is reportedly smuggling weapons to several extremist groups, particularly the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, inside Lebanon. He is also permitting extremist leaders, including PFLP-GC leader Ahmed Jibril, a puppet of the Syrian regime, to illegally enter the camps. Such action, which poses a deliberate threat to Lebanon's fragile sectarian balance, is expected to compound the Security Council's discontent over Syria's impediments to the Mehlis investigation. Meanwhile in Syria itself the arming of the Alawite community is likely to catalyze an arms race within other communities which will naturally feel an urgent need to defend themselves. In the longer-term, those arms could be used offensively to prosecute a civil war aimed at seizing back power from the minority Alawites. Bashar appears to be setting Syria - and, perhaps, Lebanon - on a path of a self-destructive, ethno-sectarian blood-letting. The mood among ordinary Syrians is said to be grim. BASHAR'S OPTIONS are not good. If he capitulates to the UN and hands over his brother and brother-in-law to face trial for their alleged role in the Hariri assassination, his credibility will be destroyed at home. If he does not, his country, already economically strapped, is likely to be crippled by sanctions from abroad. Nor are the threats to Bashar coming only from outside Syria. Shawkat, Bushra and, possibly, Rifa'at are waiting in the wings. And while there is speculation that Syrian Islamists are again on the move, perceptions of weakness in the presidential palace are red meat to coup-minded generals and to non-Alawite Syrians who have been excluded from the centers of power for so long. Ultimately, survival for the Assad family and Alawite power depends on a recognition of self-interest. A precondition for survival is that the family maintains an internal strength, pulls together and coalesces around the leader. But if Bashar is incapable of handling the challenges, elements within the family, within his own Qalbiyya tribe and within the wider Alawite community could panic and turn on each other in a desperate bid to find a tougher, more durable figurehead. That breach, once opened, will be difficult to close. Bashar's days in office, and those of the Alawites, appear to be numbered. The tragedy for Syria and its neighbors is that they are unlikely to go quietly.