Assad Boxed in

Pressure from the Bush administration is getting to Syrian President Bashar Assad. It is catching him wrong-footed in mid-maneuver for the rejuvenation of his antiquated government while fending off popular disaffection. These days, he never misses an opportunity to labor to foreign visitors that Syria and Lebanon should have a “road map to peace” just like the Israelis and the Palestinians. In other words, Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon’s willingness to promise the Palestinians a state of their own by 2005 ahead of negotiations, ought to be translated into a comparable advance Israeli pledge to return the Golan to Syria.
He believes, according to debkafile‘s Middle East sources, that a diplomatic gain on this scale would deflect some of the strains oppressing him and open up a friendlier channel of dialogue with Washington, without requiring him to modify his basic policy positions. Thus far, he has only partially met Washington’s demands, handing over Iraqi VIPs, but not dismantling Palestinian terror headquarters in Damascus, giving up the locations of Saddam’s WMD or disarming the Hizballah.
The Americans are not hanging about waiting any longer. They have begun working quietly to divest him of one of his most powerful international levers, the Hizballah. For the last two weeks, a senior US official has been in secret negotiations with the group’s leaders for its voluntary disarmament, its withdrawal from the Israeli frontier and parts of southern Lebanon and a pledge to stay out of Iraqi Shiite affairs.
That’s for starters. Next, the Bush administration’s emissaries will demand guarantees from Hizballah leaders to desist from supporting Yasser Arafat and his Fatah-Tanzim and al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades as well as the Hamas and the Jihad Islami, and to break off operational interchanges with those Palestinian terror groups. The Americans also want an assurance that in the event of an outbreak of hostilities with Iran, the Hizballah will stand aside and not open a second anti-American front. Accession to these demands would end the Hizballah’s life as a fire-eating radical terrorist organization and remake it as a Lebanese Shiite political movement, safe from the threat of American assault.
US officialdom is talking directly to Hizballah secretary general Hassan Nasrallah, head of a group branded a terrorist organization and widely associated with the design and setting up of the 9/11 suicide attacks on New York and Washington. The middleman is the Lebanese Shiite religious leader Sheik Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, the Hizballah’s spiritual guide who is also esteemed by Iraqi Shiites. Given the dramatis personae, the talks, still at an early stage, are extremely delicate, depending heavily on the course of events in Iraq and the state of US-Iranian relations.
But the Syrian president feels boxed in. What he sees is the United States, after knocking over his eastern prop in Baghdad, relentlessly chipping away at his western mainstay in Lebanon.
This is going on while he is attempting to replace his old government with a new lineup in the face of spiky imperatives:
1. debkafile‘s sources note the little-known fact that the incumbent Syrian prime minister Mustafa Miro is of Kurdish origin. He is tainted in Arab eyes since America won Kurdish support for its conquest of Iraq. Assad has to dump his Kurdish prime minister in order to keep faith with the hallowed cause of Arab unity.
2. The hard-line Farouk Shara, a carryover from the president’s father’s administration, is fighting a rearguard action on his way out as foreign minister – mainly against the ministry’s head of information, Dr. Buthaina Shaban. High profile in the aftermath of the Iraq War, she is the favorite to replace him. Last week, Shara committed the unthinkable solecism of shouting at Dr. Shaban in the presence of British visitors, “I don’t need your help!”
3. The ground in Damascus is shaking hard in the face of Assad’s decision to finally get rid of General Mustafa Tlas, the veteran fixture of both Assad regimes from the days of the Soviet-Syrian military alliance. Apart from considerations of age, he has to go because his son, Firas Tlas, was the Syrian government’s point man for its oil and weapons smuggling transactions with the Saddam regime. He also arranged for the clandestine transfer of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction from Baghdad, Tikrit and al Qaim, into Syria and Lebanon. Parts of this arsenal have since been destroyed; the rest buried under an army base in northern Syria and in huge pits dug by Syrian engineering units in the Beqaa valley. As debkafile was first to reveal on April 3, Syria also set up a secure escape route across its territory for high-ranking members of the Saddam regime, establishing a safe house for one group with families at the palatial Cote D’Azur de Cham Resort near the Mediterranean town of Latakia.
To distance himself from his Saddam associations in Washington’s eyes, the Syrian president needs to remove anyone named Tlas from his government.
Those charging the Bush and Blair governments with exaggerating the threat posed by Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction need look no further than Firas Tlas for their facts. He has them at his fingertips. In fact, the Tlases, father and son, are now rich men, paid handsomely for their services by the deposed Iraqi ruler.
On the domestic front, Assad is also faced with a troubling deadline. The municipal elections taking place on June 20-21 are far more important than a vote for mayors and city councils would suggest. They select the Baath committees that will run every locality in the country and every urban district including the densely populated sections of Damascus. A Syrian expert consulted by debkafile explains that these elections lay the ground floor of national government.
In the past, the ruling Baath center made up the list of candidates running for every position. For the coming vote, Assad opened the lists up to non-party candidates as well for the first time. Our Syrian expert reports the Syrian president was not moved by the democratic impulse bur rather by the hope of venting the spreading popular disaffection with his regime, signs of which have been picked up by his intelligence agents. Assad took the risk of opening up local government to a broader range of candidates as the lesser evil, in order to bring underground opposition factions into the open and gauge the strength of popular criticism.
However, after 25 years of repression, the move got out of hand and produced an unforeseen consequence. By long tradition, the “local parties” defer to centralist Baath party, never venturing to take the slightest step outside the dictated line. This time however members of the “local parties” took advantage of the candidature’s accessibility to outsides in order to break away and jump aboard opposition lists. To stem the outflow of defections, Assad ordered opposition leaders en masse to be thrown into jail.
debkafile‘s sources report he now faces a fresh crisis: a popular boycott of the local elections in protest against the arrest of opposition candidates. A low turnout will be a sore blow to Assad’s standing. It will also weaken his hand as chosen leader of the Syrian people in his confrontations with Washington and undermine his demand to place negotiations with Damascus ahead of diplomacy with Israel, the Palestinians and the Hizballah.

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