They call him an enigma wrapped in a conundrum. Syrian president Bashar Assad has a way of leaving even the most seasoned American diplomats and politicians baffled.
Senator John Kerry, fresh from his November presidential loss to George W. Bush, was the last American figure to report for Damascus duty. He met Assad this week shortly after deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage handed the Syrian leader a list of nine Bush administration demands.
(See “Syria Has Plenty of Smoking Guns”, DEBKA-Net-Weekly 188, January 6, 2005).
Kerry tried hard but couldn’t make head or tail of the message the lanky Syrian leader wanted him to take back to Washington. Moreover, the senator gained the uneasy impression from Assad’s habitual blank gaze that he had no notion of just how much anger he has aroused in America.
The American asked himself, like many visitors before him: What’s wrong with the man? Is he getting bad advice? Is he craftily playing dumb about Washington’s demands or is he genuinely at sea? Is he in charge?
The same ambiguities surround the Syrian ruler’s actions as well as his words.
This week, rumors reached Washington that Assad was finally getting rid of Farouq a–Shara, the hard-line foreign minister and member of top policy team he inherited from his father. Before anyone in the West had a chance to celebrate, a second rumor indicated that Shara would soon be kicked upstairs as vice president.
Assad already has one inflexible anti-Western vice president, Abdel Halim Khaddam. The two VPs combined look like adding height to Syria’s barrier to communication with the West.
The Shara episode is a typical example of presidential ambiguity or lack of coordination between his right and left hands – which keeps the West constantly guessing.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Middle East experts have compiled more striking examples of Assad’s odd inconsistencies:
No phone line if Shara doesn’t like you
1. Earlier this month, Assad appointed former Syrian ambassador to Washington, Walid Mualam, deputy foreign minister and put him in charge of Lebanese policy.
The choice was an incongruous one – even for the Syrian president.
Lebanon is a top-shelf issue for Damascus, right up there with Iraq, and yet Assad handed the job to an official the powerful foreign minister detests; so much so, that in the years since he returned from Washington, Mualam has never been allowed a direct-dialing phone in his office. His calls go through a switchboard in Shara’s bureau where they are monitored.
Mualam may be persona non grata for the minister, but as deputy foreign minister he made a splash in Beirut this week by coming out with Syrian positions diametrically opposed to those advocated by the two hardliners Shara and Khaddam.
He announced in fact that Damascus would not only permit a new Lebanese general election in the spring, but would support moves to curtail the presidential term of Syria’s protege, Emile Lahoud, and perform some serious gerrymandering to boost opposition representation in parliament.
Mualam even went so far as to hint that Syria might be amenable to letting the former Christian Phalange president, Gen. Michel Aoun, return home from his Paris exile to an active role in Lebanese national politics. (In 1991, Syrian forces broke into the presidential palace in Beirut and threw Aoun out at gunpoint).
Caught by surprise, the Lebanese asked Damascus if Mualam spoke for Assad. The answer that came back was that there had been no decisions on this matter and no new policies formulated.
2. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Washington, Syria’s current ambassador to Washington Imad Mustapha was ordered to stop filing his reports on American-Syrian relations to the foreign minister’s office and relay them instead without copies to Assad’s bureau in the presidential palace in Damascus.
Aside from the Syrian chief of staff, General Ali Habib, Mustapha is the only Syrian official inspiring any trust in Washington. It was Mustapha who assured the Bush administration that the Syrian president would do his utmost to halt the flow of guerrillas, weapons and explosives from Syria to Iraq. He convinced Armitage to tone down for the benefit of the media the harshness of his words to Assad during their talks last week.
3. Iraq’s new ambassador to Syria, Hassan Allawi (no relation to the Iraqi prime minister), arrived in Damascus at the same time as Armitage. A mysterious hand scotched his incumbency before it began.
Allawi is a confidant of Ahmed Chalabi, Iraqi National Congress party leader. Chalabi is known for his close ties with Teheran. Ambassador Allawi’s own pro-Iranian proclivities helped him secure the ambassadorial post in Syria. Yet, according to our sources, Allawi staged a midnight flight from Damascus after a week and returned to Baghdad without presenting his credentials to the Syrian president.
It turns out that as soon as he set foot in the Syrian capital, Allawi started receiving death threats telling him to get out at once or risk having his head cut off. The ambassador-to-be appealed repeatedly to Assad’s bureau and Shara’s office for protection. He never got a reply. None of the intelligence bodies in the Syrian capital professes to know the source of the threats.
In Damascus, yes means no
4. Seasoned in Assad’s wayward methods, Armitage hammered home to him a demand for a presidential statement or videotape emphasizing in simple language for the benefit of Syria’s border units the vital importance of preventing border crossings by Iraqi Baath and al Qaeda fighters. The president was to stress that this order must be executed to the fullest extent as a presidential command in the interests of national security.
Armitage made his demand plain and forceful after the Americans discovered that, notwithstanding previous Damascus-Washington understandings, the orders issued to Syrian border troops did not include closing the frontier to illicit traffic into Iraq.
Still, Assad made a great show of welcoming the US official’s “suggestion,” saying it was a good idea and promising to take it up. Mustapha and Gen. Habib subsequently informed Washington that Assad had instructed the required text to be prepared for the border units. But by press time, no new directives on sealing the border had actually reached the troops.
This weaving and tacking is not only practiced towards Washington. It is applied just as disconcertingly to Syria’s relations with Turkey and the Palestinians.
Two weeks ago, visiting Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Assad agreed on a joint venture to construct a dam over the Asi River in Iskenderun (formerly Alexandretta) province. Ankara interpreted Assad’s assent as a historic Syrian waiver of its claim to the area under Turkish control.
Next chapter: Ankara asked for a date for a Turkish team to visit Damascus and plan the project together. The reply that shot back was that it was inconceivable that the dam would ever be built.
Another historic event, reconciliation between the Assad dynasty and the Palestinians, was marked with a visit to Damascus by Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), a privilege denied his predecessor Yasser Arafat. In a gesture solemnizing the occasion, Assad gave his permission to reopen the Palestinian embassy in Damascus, closed for 21 years.
Our sources confirm that the Palestinian embassy building’s doors are still shut. When Assad telephoned Abu Mazen to congratulate him on his January 9 election win as chairman of the Palestinian Authority, he made no mention of the embassy.
Is Assad boss or puppet?
Leaders in Israel, other Middle East capitals and Washington have no logical explanation for the Syrian ruler failure to make good on at least some of his undertakings.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence and counter-terrorism sources suggest that he may not be in full control of the Damascus regime. Indeed, three or even four parallel agencies may be running government, often acting separately or in concert to countermand the president’s wishes:
One, Assad and his circle confined to the presidential palace and disregarded by Syria’s powerful Baath party. The question is: how much power does the president wield? Maybe he is the boss and only hides behind the backs of the other power centers as a convenience.
Two, Baath old-timers led by Shara, Haddam, ex-defense minister Mustapha Tlas and behind-the scenes party apparatus chief, Abdallah al-Ahmar. Are they strong enough to dominate Damascus policy-making unchallenged? Do they manipulate the president, or are they manipulated by him?
Three, Syrian businessmen, who are well connected in government and are pushing for liberal economic “reforms” that would leave at least 60 percent of national resources in their hands.
Four, Iraqi Baath party leaders granted sanctuary by the fraternal Baath regime in Damascus. This group, led by Sibawi Ibrahim and Taher Habbush, two of Saddam Hussein’s former intelligence chiefs, is generally believed to be scattering the millions of dollars he squirreled away in Syrian banks to bribe Syrian political leaders and security, intelligence and military chiefs. They come cheap: Syria is a poor country and it doesn’t take much of a payoff to buy influence. Are they entrenched too deeply in Syria’s ruling circles to be dislodged?
This murky situation in Damascus raises yet another question: which power center should an American military strike target to be effective?
Shortly before we went to press Thursday night, January 13, our sources reported a loud quarrel over authority between intelligence strongman Gen. Ghazi Kenaan and prime minister Sami al-Uteiri. Kenaan announced he did not recognize the prime minister’s superior authority and would only take orders from one person, President Assad in person. This spat is symptomatic of the unclear division of powers in Damascus.