Special Report

Trouble in Damascus

The Mehlis investigation brings up new questions concerning the President of Syria.

By 9.22.05

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WASHINGTON -- Last week, German judge Detlev Mehlis arrived in Damascus, prepared to interview several high-ranking Syrian security chiefs over their role in the February murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Mehlis, whose U.S.-backed UN-led investigation has already led to the unprecedented arrest of four Lebanese security officials, is rumored to have requested additional interviews with Assad family members, a move destined to heighten the apprehension among Syria's ruling elite.

Just five years ago, such a chain of events would have been considered patently absurd. The idea than an international investigation would gain access to those who hold the Assad regime's darkest secrets, let alone be allowed into the country, would have been unfathomable under the reign of Bashar's father, Hafiz. After all, the elder Assad once consigned the entire city of Hama to death on the simple suspicion that some of its residents were rendering aid and comfort to anti-regime elements.

The younger Assad's willingness to accede to Mehlis's demands adds to the mystery concerning the nature of his regime. Upon his assumption of the presidential throne in 2000, many experts -- pointing to his Western training as, of all things, an ophthalmologist -- expected a more moderate tone from Syria. This initial optimism among Syria observers laid the foundations for a major school of thought, which views Bashar as an unwilling captive of his father's considerable legacy.

The view, most elegantly advanced by former NSC staffer and Brookings Institution fellow Flynt Leverett and enumerated in his latest work Inheriting Syria, holds that the Syrian dictator is a virtual prisoner of his father's shadow, obliged to satisfy his old guard minders while unable to enact reform because of a woefully decrepit state bureaucracy. Those who adhere to the Leverett school see in Bashar a repressed reformer who, as Leverett contends, exudes "reformist impulses," including the construction of a shadow governing mechanism which allows him to bypass the moribund apparatus built by his father.

Other Syrian watchers, especially those in academia, see Assad in an even more sympathetic light, as a closeted pro-American figure whose interests are in many ways analogous with Washington's. One such academic observer, Jonathan Landis, writing in the New York Times, suggested that Assad and the United States "share a common interest in subduing jihadism and helping Iraq build stability."

Recent events in Lebanon seem to support the idea of Bashar as clandestine reformer. His willingness to end the overt occupation of Lebanon -- a cornerstone of his father's foreign policy -- appeared to signal a readiness to defy hardliners in pursuit of international favor.

THERE IS CONSIDERABLE REASON, however, to doubt the "captive president" theory. A more accurate view which, wisely, seems to have been embraced by the Bush administration, sees Bashar as a leader who holds the levers of Syrian power firmly in his grasp. Like his predecessor, he has little interest in fundamental reform, only seeking change when it serves to maintain the power of his meticulously managed elite. Externally, he is content with a continuation of Syria's quiet but considerable alliance with various terrorist organizations, while facilitating the Iraqi insurgency through inaction and covert cooperation.

Additionally, as Assad's actions in Lebanon have shown, he is far from the Syrian Gorbachev some desperately wish him to be. While much remains unknown concerning the regime's possible role in the murder of Mr. Hariri, the present body of evidence seems to be leading investigators to Damascus, with a particular focus placed on an August 2004 meeting between Assad and Hariri. At the high-level conference, Assad informed Hariri that, were he to refuse to acquiesce to the Syrian plan to reinstall Emile Lahoud as Lebanese president, the Syrian dictator would "break Lebanon over [Hariri's] head."

To guarantee Hariri's cooperation, Assad turned to two close allies, Minister of the Interior and former Syrian intelligence chief in Lebanon Ghazi Kana'an and Rustom Ghazaleh, the current Syrian intelligence commander in Lebanon. The two Assad loyalists were to maintain the pressure on Hariri through threats and intimidation, ensuring that the popular and wealthy former prime minister would continue to toe the Damascus line. Tensions immediately flared when Hariri spurned Ghazaleh's request for increased political cooperation during a meeting that took place just weeks before Hariri's assassination. Not surprisingly, Kana'an and Ghazaleh have become the prime targets of the Mehlis investigation, and have had their overseas assets frozen by the United States government for their involvement in facilitating terrorist attacks inside Lebanon.

While none of these facts implicate Assad personally, there can be little doubt he gave at least his assent -- if not guidance -- to the operation. For the past five years, Assad has methodically purged his security services of anyone not regarded as directly loyal to him. This process was quickly followed by the appointments of such Bashar stalwarts as his brother Maher Assad, brother-in-law Asif Shawkat, and family friend Fouad Nassif Khair-Bek to critical positions in the intelligence apparatus. In fact, the security agencies, along with the military, have been the two instruments of Syrian power most affected by Bashar's consolidation, a detail which calls into question their willingness or ability to initiate independent action absent presidential consent.

THE IDEA OF ASSAD AS COVERT reformer can further be challenged by his disinclination to embrace even rudimentary alterations of his domestic policy. His much anticipated speech before the Baath Party Congress in June -- during which Assad was expected to announce several new reform initiatives -- was instead a retread airing of conservative rhetoric which elicited a cacophony of anguished groans even from normally regime-friendly elements.

This political stasis has fueled a widespread disgust with the Baathist regime among the vast majority of Syria's population, an antipathy only heightened by the nation's failing economic situation. With unemployment at 20 percent and the nation's energy supplies rapidly dwindling, even some in the ruling class are chafing at the regime's consistent inability to make meaningful changes to the centralized economic model of the Syrian state. All of this comes as Bashar has assiduously shaped the government in his own image, making it difficult for observers to suggest that culpability for Syria's deteriorating state lies anywhere else but in the presidential offices.

In the coming weeks, Assad will have a truly golden opportunity to enact the reform that some believe him to sincerely want. He could choose to cooperate with the Hariri investigation (he has plenty of intelligence functionaries to sacrifice to Mehlis), end aid to Iraqi insurgents, and authorize the cessation of Syrian-motivated violence in Lebanon. Of course, as long as the Assad power structure is thoroughly ensconced in Damascus, these developments will never come to pass, no matter how "conciliatory" U.S. policy becomes. Bashar Assad does have the authority and the requisite power to enact real change in Syria and the rest of the Middle East, but has shown little willingness to do so, offering weak excuses which are too readily accepted by some in the West. Were his recalcitrance to stir some form of backlash -- either internal or external -- against the regime, he would have no one to blame but himself.

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About the Author

Patrick Devenny is the Henry M. Jackson National Security Fellow at the Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C. Email: patrick.devenny@gmail.com