Death, danger and diplomacy in Damascus

DR Bashar Al Assad faces the gravest movement of danger in his political career ever since he succeeded his father as the president of Syria and head of the Arab world’s sole surviving Baathist dynastic dictatorship.



By Matein Khalid (AT HOME)

Published: Wed 5 Mar 2008, 8:33 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 4:24 PM

The Bush White House has tightened the sanctions noose around the Syrian elite and frozen the financial assets of the president’s cousin Rami Makhlouf, Mr Economy of the Baathist regime. The US has also increased financing for the UN tribunal established to investigate the assassination of the Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Israel infuriates Damascus by refusing to discuss any negotiated settlement on the Golan Heights captured from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War and annexed by Begin after the Camp David accords with Sadat’s Egypt. Israeli warplanes bombed a nuclear facility in Dair Zawr, allegedly a clandestine North Korean project, buzzed the presidential palace in Latakia in a demonstration of the IDF’s overwhelming superiority in aerial power.

Hezbollah’s security chief Imad Mughniyeh, the mastermind of the suicide bombing that slaughtered 241 US Marines and 57 French paratroops in West Beirut, was assassinated, presumably by a Mossad hit squad, in the Damascus neighbourhood adjacent to a Syrian secret police base. The Christian, Druze and Sunni leaders of the March 14 coalition, led by Saad Hariri, Walid Jumblatt and the Marorite Zuama (political powerbrokers), have escalated their anti-Syrian accusations. The diplomatic cold war between Damascus and Riyadh threatens to torpedo the next Arab summit in the Syrian capital, which Saudi Arabia may well boycott. The Turkish government, which once threatened to attack Syria when it hosted PKK chief Abdullah Ocalan, has just launched another positive invasion of Iraqi Kurdistan, a provocative act to Syria’s two million Kurdish minority. There have been incidents of Islamist fundamentalist attacks, notably a terror attack against a UN compound in Damascus, that revive nightmarish memories of the 1982 Muslim Brotherhood revolt against the Alawite regime in Hama, an insurrection crushed with legendary violence by President Hafez Assad.

It is ironic that every US President from Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton viewed Damascus as central to the Arab-Israeli peace process. There used to be an old cliché in the Beirut of the 1980’s that my friends in American journalism, diplomacy and the think tanks would ritually intone. The Arabs cannot make war without the Egyptians but they cannot make peace without the Syrians. Hafez Assad used proxies to expel the United States and even Israel from Lebanon. He manipulated the Taif Accords to legitimise Syria’s de facto military occupation of a neighbour carved out from historic Bilaad Sham, Greater Syria, as a Marinate protectorate by French colonialists in 1946. Hafez Assad arm twisted Yasser Arafat’s Fatah to emerge as the eminence grise of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. American Secretaries of State and the best and brightest from Downing Street were routinely summoned to Damascus by the enigmatic, imperious heir of the Ummayad caliphs who seized power in a military coup d'état and turned Syria into his family fiefdom since 1969. Syria’s military supremacy in Lebanon was guaranteed by the Riyadh and Taif accords, its financial black hole compensated by billions of dollars in Saudi Arabian petrodollars.

But history has not been kind to the House of Assad in the past decade. Hafiz Assad’s eldest son and heir Basil was killed in a car accident, forcing his ophthalmologist brother Bashar to return from London as the Syrian Baath’s new crown prince. Bashar’s accession to power was contested by his uncle Rifaat and the Baathist Old Guard, led by former Vice President Khaddum who defected to Paris to denounced the Baathist regime. The collapse of the Soviet Union was a strategic disaster for Syria. The incoming Bush administration refused to deal with the Syrian as long as Damascus was allied to Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas. George Bush sponsored the UN Resolution 1559 that seeks to disarm Hezbollah, the Syrian Accountability Act in Congress and the international outrage after the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. The US invaded and overthrew the regime of Saddam Hussein, hosted the Syrian opposition leadership in Washington and made no secret of its desire to see regime change in Damascus. The Saudi Arabians were outraged by the killing of Rafik Hariri, their Sunni client in Lebanon and a trusted personal friend of the late King Fahd and Prince Sultan bin Abdel Aziz, the current Saudi crown prince. Overt US, Israeli and Saudi hostility after the assassination of Rafik Hariri compelled Dr Assad to withdraw Syrian combat troops and intelligence agents from Lebanon after the Cedar Revolution that evoked poignant memories of the Orange and Rose people’s power demonstrations in Ukraine and Georgia. Even Nicolas Sarkozy’s Elysee Palace abandoned Jacques Chirac’s bonhomie with the Assads and joined Washington in making sure that Baathist Syria was anathema to the diplomatic process in the West Bank and Gaza. Syria, in essence, replaced Saddam’s Iraq’s in the West’s geopolitical axis of evil.

It is a dangerous illusion for Washington to believe that financial sanctions will lead to regime change in Baathist Syria. There is no Syrian Musharraf, as so many hardliners in the CIA and French intelligence naively believe. After all, a decade of sanctions in the 1990’s cost the lives of 300,000 Iraqis but did not trigger a successful coup d'état against Saddam Hussein even though he had lost two wars in Iran and Kuwait. Nor did UN sanctions provoke a coup d'état against Libyan Colonel Gaddafi. The Alawite palace guard, special forces, intelligence agencies and military high command are the backbone of the Assad regime and their loyalty in sealed in blood kinship networks, financial largesse and a coup proof security architecture designed by Hafiz Assad, the longest serving ruler of Syria since the Ummayad Caliph Muaawiya.

The “assisted suicide” of Ghazi Kaanan, once Syria’s Alawite viceroy in Lebanon, sent a chilling message to the world. Totalitarian dictatorships created the Yes (Naam) Generation and even a succession of geopolitical disasters cannot move the terrified Yes Men of Damascus. Yet Leon Trotsky said that a revolution is impossible until it becomes inevitable, an idea vindicated time and again by the modern history of the Middle East.

Matein Khalid is a Dubai-based investment banker and economic analyst


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