Assad’s Decree 408 = Arab World’s Boldest Regime Reform

On July 6, the day before he took off for Cairo, Syrian President Bashar Assad signed Decree 408 in the name of the ruling Baath party. This bureaucratic measure hit the Syrian political system like a bolt from the blue. In a trice, the party which had governed ever corner of Syria’s civil and military administration single-handed for forty years was removed from the levers of control. For decades, the lowliest officials in government and the economy, every university lecturer, journalist, military and police officer was obliged to be a member of the Baath party.
Decree 408 dismissed the party as the main engine of power. Assad’s next step, debkafile reports from its Middle East sources, is a major government reshuffle.
By divorcing the ruling party from its influence over all forms of government in Syria, Assad has shown himself to be the only Arab leader who understands the import of the Iraq War in terms of regional democratization.
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In Iraq, although the sister Baath party exercised its grip on every nook and cranny of life in the country, its leader Saddam Hussein, his army and security services, were toppled almost overnight. The Syrian ruler has grasped that a comprehensive single-party system is not a fail-safe bulwark for his survival against political or military upheavals. He is therefore ditching the party bastion he inherited from his father and campaigning over its head for the support of the people.
That support as he recently discovered is not easily won. Last May, when the only candidates running for parliament were Baathists or their satellites, the voter turnout was a dismal 12 percent, a cold, cynical shoulder turned by the people to the regime. This went from bad to worse in the June 22 municipal elections when only 6 percent bothered to cast ballots.
Decree 408 was the Syrian ruler’s move to gain a measure of popular confidence. The people have responded initially with mistrust and disbelief. After 40 years of living under an autocracy, three quarters of that period under an Assad, the average Syrian wants tangible evidence that he is not being let up the garden path before he believes any kind of liberal reform is genuine.
It would not be the first time he was misled. In mid-2000, when Bashar succeeded his father Hafez Assad as president, he made bombastic promises of democratic reforms and the introduction of 21st century economic and technological benefits. The man in the street believed him.
But the Assad junior’s new spring soon turned frosty when he attached security police to the citizens who most loudly hailed the promised changes. Thousands of delighted Syrian men and women were clapped behind bars charged with threatening national security. Some are still there. Only a few days ago, the well-known Syrian journalist Sabna Karakutai published an article in the Lebanese Al-Nahar, explaining that she had sent her first article after choosing to spend 30 years on the editorial desk to a foreign paper because it was still impossible to express herself freely in any Syrian medium.
Elections in Kuwait
One day before Assad published his Decree 408, Kuwait held a general election for its 50-seat National Assembly – a general election only in Gulf terms, meaning 85 percent of the population is ineligible to vote – women, new citizens and members of the armed forces. This time, hundreds of Kuwaiti women refused to take their disenfranchisement lying down and staged a mock election to vent their feelings. Thus America’s leading ally in the war against Iraq is probably the least democratic. The ruling al-Sabah family succeeded in shaving the already marginal liberal party’s representation down from 14 to three, while the fundamentalist Islamists improved their standing by one seat to 21. The only concession the rulers made was to end the practice whereby the post of prime minister goes automatically to the crown prince. Now any Kuwait can get the job – on condition he is sponsored by the royal family.
Syria departs Lebanon
After 27 years in Lebanon, the Syrian army is completing its evacuation of the country, including even the strategic Beirut-Damascus highway. Some 40,000 Syrian troops have retired from the country, barring a small pocket in the eastern Beqaa Valley abutting the Syrian frontier, where DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Beirut sources report two armored brigades are stationed to guard the routes from Lebanon to the Syrian capital. The rest of the Syrian Lebanese garrison has been redeployed on the Syrian side of the border.
President Bashar Assad and his administration were not eager to pull their forces out of Lebanon, but decided it would be the cheapest way to appease the Americans after discovering an American-Saudi plan to transform Lebanon from a country torn by civil strife and dominated by armed militias, including the Hizballah, into a state with an orderly central government and armed forces, fit to regain its old pre-1975 civil war position as financial and banking center of the Middle East. This transformation would not have worked under Syrian-Hizballah domination, especially with the latter branded by Washington a terrorist organization with links to al Qaeda.
Assad hopes that the Bush administration will show its gratitude by forgiving Syria’s other misdeeds, such as its sponsorship of 10m Palestinian terrorist organizations and its intervention in Iraq. He asked Egyptian president Mubarak this week to intercede with Washington in his favor as well persuading the Middle East Quartet to give him a place on the Palestinian-Israel road map to peace.
The Syrian ruler, though unlikely to be let off lightly, might have gained points from his army’s exit from Lebanon had he acted in good faith. However, according to our sources, he assigned General Rustum Ghazaleh, head of Syria’s intelligence station in Lebanon, to set up a joint Syrian-Lebanese network with the Lebanese internal security chief, Gamal al Sayed that will maintain Syria’s intelligence grip on Lebanon and set limits for the US-Saudi hold on Beirut.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military and counter-terror sources have discovered the Hizballah matching Syria’s military movements by rolling up its positions and removing many of its lookout posts along the Israeli frontier and avoiding outright provocations of Israel. But, like the Syrians, the Hizballah may be changing its tactics, but not its goals or ways. General secretary Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, is in the midst of a struggle for control of the smuggling routes of drugs, arms and money inside Lebanon and across the Middle East and Persian Gulf. He looks like achieving his objective in the short term thanks to the powerful and far-flung intelligence network the terrorist organization maintains in the region, in North and South America, Europe and Western and Eastern Africa. But he and Hizballah’s Iranian and Syrian sponsors are at the same time pumping fighting strength, explosives and cash into Palestinian areas in the West bank and Gaza Strip, and sleeper cells into Israeli Arab communities. The new Syrian-Hizballah deployments have therefore had the effect of bringing Damascus-based Palestinian terrorists and the Hizballah threat much deeper in Palestinian territory and positioned for menacing Israel at point-blank range. Thus far, Washington has not responded.
Terrorist leaders return to Damascus
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terrorism sources revealed on July 4 the return of Hamas leaders Khaled Mashal and Musa Abu Marzuk and Ramadan Abdallah Shalah, head of the Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad, to Damascus last week. Their Syrian bases were reopened notwithstanding the Syrian president’s assurances to Washington in late April 2003 that the terrorists’ command centers had been shut down and their leaders sent out of Damascus.
The fact of the matter is that not a single command center had stopped operating. For a short time, the top terrorists traveled outside Damascus now and again, often giving their media interviews from Lebanon or Qatar. However, this week, even that pretence was abandoned when President Bashar Assad personally requested their return to their old operational headquarters in the Syrian capital. He needed them close at hand to execute his latest plan of action.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terrorism sources reveal that the Syrian leader asked Hamas and Islamic Jihad to send their operations officers over to Syrian military intelligence headquarters to work with his liaison officers on the drafting of “urgent” operational plans for smuggling terrorist infiltrators into the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Israel.
Their mission: To carry out multi-casualty terrorist attacks against Israeli targets. The Syrian president believes the operational interaction of terrorist squads from Lebanon and Syria with Yasser Arafat’s Tanzim and Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades squads in the main cities of the West Bank will produce a convulsion violent enough to torpedo the Bush’s peace plan and bring Abbas’ reformist government crashing down.
Bent on his anti-American course, the Syrian ruler plans to step up guerrilla attacks to sabotage the Iraq-Turkish oil pipeline from northern Iraq to the Mediterranean, as well as its anti-American hate propaganda.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources count more anti-American Syrian actions as they come to light.
A. Interrogations of Iraqis and Syrians caught on the Iraqi-Syrian frontier have yielded evidence that East Syrian towns are transit points for Saddam Hussein’s top officials who come and go at will. Syrian banks are furthermore the main conduit for the movement of hundreds of millions of dollars from the old regime for use in a wide range of activities, including military operations against American forces. The Syrians are charging an arm and a leg for every individual Iraqi or group crossing the border – a sort of transit tax. The money helps compensate Syria for revenue lost when the United States shut down the Iraqi-Syrian oil pipeline.
B. Syrian channels of communications serve to keep Saddam and his sons abreast of developments in Iraq whenever they are out of the country and the outside world when they are back home.
C. From messages and documents such as travel papers, birth certificates and passports – all carrying official stamps but with identification details left blank – found on captured couriers, the role of the Belarus embassy in Damascus has come into sharper focus. It has become a sort of intelligence-logistical center catering to all the needs of Saddam, his sons and top Iraqis.
D. Some 50 to 100 senior Iraqis are currently in Syria.
E. Just as Syria is a byway station for Saddam’s clique, Damascus international airport is a useful way station for Al Qaeda commanders moving around the Middle East and Gulf.
Damascus has not only become the mainline hub of anti-American opposition forces in the region, Syria is constantly raising the stakes of its campaign against Washington.

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