SYRIA - Political Leadership - The US Challenge.
Officially, Bashar al-Assad is a Sunni Muslim. But in reality he belongs to the Alawite minority which has been ruling Ba'thist Syria since his father, Gen. Hafez al-Assad, took over power in 1970 and later converted to Sunnism. Among many challenges being faced by this regime are Syria's Kurdish minority, which wants to have an autonomous state similar to Iraq's Kurdistan.
On the Syrian side, the locals call it Western Kurdistan and area which Kurdish activists claim to be part of this extends as far to the west as the Aleppo area. The Kurds in Syria have begun aggressively demanding recognition of their political rights and status, including the granting of Syrian citizenship to about 250,000 who have been denied it, the right to register their land and the right to use their language. (Kurds are said to make up almost 2m of Syria's population of almost 20m. It is said that the Alawites, who control the Ba'thist regime, make up about 10% of the Syrian population.
Syrian Kurds deny seeking an independent homeland. But they say the government in Damascus should treat them like citizens. The state-controlled Syrian media reported late on March 13, 2004, that the government had appointed a committee to investigate reasons behind Kurdish rioting during that year - see background in Vol. 62, Gas Market Trends No. 12).
Bashar al-Assad, who took the presidency when his father died in the summer of 2000, has taken some steps to loosen Syria from its totalitarian system. He released hundreds of political detainees and initially allowed political groups to hold small gatherings indoors. But in 2001, after he was surrounded by the old guard in the invisible layer, Assad began to clamp down on pro-democracy activists, raiding their meetings and jailing lawmakers and other activists. They were convicted on a charge of trying illegally to change the constitution.
It was speculated in March 2000 that, under the rule of Gen. Hafez al-Assad since 1970 when he took power in a Baathist coup which he called a "corrective movement", Syria was going to change for the better. Assad was then preparing his eldest surviving son, Bashar, to become the next ruler. (Assad's first son and heir apparent, Basil, died in a car crash in 1994).
Hours after Gen. Assad died on June 10, 2000, however, a small elite around key Alawite intelligence and military officers took over power in a quiet Ba'thist coup. Consisting mainly of old guard Ba'thists who shun publicity, this elite assumed control as an invisible layer of authority. Most of the members of the invisible layer under Gen. Assad were either retired by the old ruler before he died or retained later by the ruling elite.
Allied to this layer then were the two Vice Presidents of the Republic, Abdul-Halim Khaddam who deputised for the head of state and Zuhair Masharqa who deputised for the head of the Arab Ba'th Socialist Party. The post of third vice president held by Rif'at al-Assad was abolished as Hafez banished his younger brother; but Rif'at, who now lives in Europe, still does not recognise the rule of his nephew Bashar and remains adamant on taking over power in Syria - though the ruling elite would do all it can to prevent a change to the current status quo.
The coup, hours after Bashar made then PM Miro interim president on June 10, was quick and simple. Hafez may have tried to abolish the invisible layer of authority in favour of a visible and modern one under his son Bashar, which may explain the latter's appointment of Miro as interim ruler. But soon after Miro's appointment, the new elite moved quickly to proclaim Khaddam as an interim president. Khaddam, a Sunni from the town of Banias who began his career as a layer and Ba'th Party activist, by then had become a pillar of the invisible layer - already having served as vice president for many years under Hafez.
Bashar, elected president in July 2000, was given limitations within which he could rule but beyond which no decision would be executed. Khaddam, supposed to be among figures to be convicted in a major corruption scandal, became one of Bashar's invisible mentors. But that relationship did not last long as Bashar rebelled against Khaddam and the subsequent years were like hell for the latter. By the time the ruling Ba'th command has its congress in June 2005, Khaddam had been out of real power. Before the congress concluded, Khaddam quit as first vice-president and later defected to France to join the opposition.
At this point it is important to note a sequence of events which occurred in the period between February 1982 and June 2000. In February 1982, then President Hafez al-Assad's younger brother Rif'at, vice president at the time, headed the campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood in what turned out to be a massacre of between 20,000-40,000 Sunni Arab Syrians in Hama - in a blitz which still has an effect on those who saw that drama and remember.
After that massacre, President Assad fell ill and Rif'at, thinking his elder brother was going to die, staged a coup d'etat as he had become more popular in the armed forces and the Ba'th leadership. But the coup attempt was foiled in a swift turn of events which saw Hafez recover and Rif'at banished from Syria. In the early 1990s, Rif'at tried to recover his power base in Syria with the help of loyal assistants. One of them was Asef Shawkat with whom Hafez's only daughter fell in love - and the two eloped. Hafez's eldest son, Basel, wanted to have Shawkat eliminated; but instead Basel died in 1994 "of a car crash", said to have been engineered by Shawkat and other assistants of Rif'at. It was rumoured that Basel had wanted to have both Rif'at and Shawkat assassinated.
The US today, however, does not have a rich menue from which it can select a candidate for regime change in Damascus. The US list is short and includes Rif'at, a billionaire who still claims to have a wide support base in each of Syria's Ba'th Party and military establishment.
After his failed coup attempt, it was said, Rif'at had to promise his mother, the late Na'isah, not to try again to topple Hafez. He had to live in exile, mostly in Paris. But he did press his claim to the Syrian throne in June 2000, when Hafez died, and later did call Bashar's presidency "illegitimate".
It is said in US media reports that Washington's contacts with Rif'at have been resumed. Hikmat al-Shihabi, a former chief of staff and a Sunni pillar of Hafez's leadership, now lives in the US and is in contact with the Bush administration. If Khaddam, Rif'at and Shihabi come to power as part of a collective leadership, they would have to do it through a peaceful coup d'etat, or after Bashar abdicates and leaves Syria, in partnership with the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups.
When the late Na'isah al-Assad got her younger son Rif'at to promise he will let Hafez rule Syria, the understanding was that the country was to be under this Alawite family for generations. Syria was to become a family estate, rather than a state in the modern sense (see news14cSyriaOct3-05).
Immediately as Khaddam defected in late 2005, he denounced Bashar's regime as being murderous, of having physically threatened ex-PM Hariri at a meeting in the Syrian presidential palace in August 2004, and of having made nothing but blunders since mid-2000. In subsequent interviews more recently, Khaddam predicted Bashar's downfall "within months".
Khaddam recently met in Brussels with leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood and other opposition parties, such as those of the Kurds, the Communists, the Arab nationalists and democrats. In an interview with the US government-sponsored Arabic TV network al-Hurra, Khaddam said the opposition bent on taking over in Damascus included important members of the Alawite minority as well as others who used to be key figures in the Ba'th Party before Bashar took over.
Bashar's regime, however, has declared Khaddam a traitor and lawsuits against him and members of his family have led to confiscation of their assets in Syria. The charge of high treason in Syria is punishable by death. But Khaddam has said repeatedly in recent weeks that the regime was an illegitimate, "personal dictatorship whose legal procedures have no value outside Syria".
Al-Hurra quoted Khaddam as telling the Syrian people to be on their guard and not to take any action that might lead to their physical harm. He asked the Syrians to be patient and await further developments from the opposition. It was later said the opposition was likely to form a government-in-exile.
International support for such a government would depend on a Franco-US approach to the Bashar regime. If Bashar continues to leap from one blunder to another, as Khaddam claims, then the international approach could be supportive of regime change (see news2-SyriaJan9-06). But for the time being, France and the US prefer "change of regime behaviour" - i.e., all depending on how Bashar will behave in the coming months. Bashar is being provoked particularly by the Hariri family, in the person of his son Sa'd who leads a Sunni-headed political faction in Lebanon, and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who calls Bashar "a terrorist" and a "dictator".
To understand this country, one must remember that Syria was in the past millennia a melting pot for all the major civilisations the world has known. This territory was attached to the empires of Egypt, Persia, Greece, Rome, Byzantium, the Arabs, Mongolia and the Ottomans. Much of Syria now is a living museum.
The founding dynasty of the Arab/Islamic empire, the Sunni Omayyads, ruled from Damascus. Their reign in the 7th and early 8th centuries stretched from India to Spain. Much of the confrontations between Christians and Muslims during the Crusades took place on battlegrounds in today's Syria. The Alawite community, to which the Assads and most members of the new elite belong, is said to be descended from the Crusaders.