A Last Chance to Snatch Almost Certain Success from the Syrian Ruler
After holding back for weeks, US president Barack Obama may finally be ready to tackle Syrian President Bashar Assad head on, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Washington sources reported shortly before this issue closed. Depending on the course of events in the showdown between the Assad regime and the opposition, Obama is on the point of deciding whether to put the Syrian president at the head of the US sanctions list or go further and denounce him by name as the man responsible for the massacre of hundreds of civilian protesters.
As we write this, the White House is working on the final text of the presidential statement and people in Syria are holding their breath.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Middle East sources stress that the firmness of stand taken by Obama will be critical in determining Assad's fate and the outcome of his brutal crackdown against the opposition.
The timing is pivotal because by late Thursday, May 12, the situation in Syria was touch and go: The harsh measures the Syrian ruler had ordered looked, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military and intelligence sources, as though they were beginning to take effect: The Syrian president was gaining ground against the insurrection and showing signs of weathering the storm .
Up until Thursday, some Western intelligence experts, especially in Washington, thought that even if it crushed the current round of protest, the ruling clique in Damascus had no more than 6 to 18 months left in power before the uprising flared up again. This assessment was intended to explain away the Obama administration's widely-criticized decision to hold back until now from intervening in the conflict on the side of the opposition.
Obama feared a second Libyan debacle in Syria
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Syria watchers are sure that had Obama targeted Bashar Assad earlier on, the affluent and influential middle class denizens of the main Syrian cities would have been encouraged to throw in their lot with the less privileged and more religious classes in revolt against the regime and together improved the chances of success.
But the US president held back quite simply, according to some senior American sources, because he feared a repetition of the Libyan fiasco, which caught Washington backing a lost Arab insurgency against a ruler capable of defying America and standing up to NATO.
If Obama continues to pussyfoot around Assad and fall back on sanctions, he will have enhanced the Syrian president's ability to stay in power and destroy his opponents.
But if, even at this late date, the US president goes beyond sterile sanctions, bluntly denounces Bashar Assad in person and puts him on notice the way he targeted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the dwellers of Aleppo and Damascus, the social and economic backbone of the regime, may yet be emboldened to take to the streets and turn the tables on Assad's mighty machine of repression.
Wednesday, May 11, Syrian personal presidential adviser Bouthaina Shaaban suggested that the regime could overcome such punishments as European sanctions, which listed 13 Syrian individuals without mentioning the ruler.
However, say our sources, personally punishing Assad would be another matter altogether.
Syrian security chiefs say victory is in the bag
If the administration hits Assad really hard, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources also point out he is quite capable of venting his frustration by sending his army to fight Israel, Lebanon or Iraq.
The Syrian ruler was bucked up by the round of conferences he held with his political, military and intelligence chiefs at his palace in Damascus on Tuesday and Wednesday, May 9-10.
The general consensus was that the regime had been able to ride out the storm and was past its breaking-point.
This view was shared by Abdul Fatah Qudsiah, Director of Military Intelligence; Jamil Hasan, Head of Air Force Intelligence – both of whom are members of the ruling minority Alawite sect; Ali Malouk, Head of State Security, Deeb Zaitoun, Head of Political Security – the latter two belong to the Sunni majority; and Gen. Hisham Ikhtiyar, Chairman of the Syrian National Security Council.
They were all of the opinion that the back of the revolt was broken and only the last embers of resistance remained to be extinguished. It was therefore time to deal not only with the rebels but also any other persons who had showed disloyalty to the regime.
So if Assad does indeed clinch his victory, his hatchet men will be busy in the weeks ahead with mass arrests and ruthless punitive action on a national scale.
The security chiefs explained why they were sure the uprising was on its last legs: The numbers of protesters on the streets were dwindling day by day. At the end of April, hundreds of thousands were turning out, while in early May the figures had shrunk to tens of thousands and hundreds at most in the second week of the month. In very few places were demonstrators turning out in their thousands.
No military defections reported
Furthermore, they reported, predictions that Syrian officers and soldiers belonging to the Sunni community would defect en masse to the rebels did not materialize. Sensing which way the wind was blowing, most fell in behind their officers and obeyed orders.
The security chiefs lauded the Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt for the hand he lent the regime by directing Syrian Druze tribes to keep their distance from the uprising and Druze officers and men of the Syrian army to carry out their orders for storming the protesters.
Kurdish officers and soldiers were just as obedient.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources report from the meetings at the presidential palace that Gen. Rustum Ghazale, at the head of units from the 1st and 5th Syrian divisions, was said to have finally quelled the unrest in the Horan region of southern Syria and its stormy epicenter the city of Daraa and was winding the operation down by going house to house to round up protesters.
Units fighting the uprising in the south were therefore freed to move into other parts of the country and cities this week.
Parts of special Syrian (commando) Divisions 8 and 11 were assigned to Homs and Hama; elements of the 14th Division to Banias, Latakia and Tartus; and the entire 4th Mechanized Division under the command of Gen. Maher Assad took up positions in the restive Damascus suburbs.
The conferences at the presidential palace ended with a decision for the Syrian army and security services to extend the Horan roundup and carry out house-to-house searches and loyalty tests in the rest of the country. This massive operation and the attendant purge of regime opponents are expected to take up most of this year.