Both Bashar Assad & Mahmoud Abbas Are Teetering
The Syrian leadership has gathered itself in for the next shock after the UN Hariri investigation’s findings drawn up by Detlev Mehlis implicated President Bashar Assad’s close family circle in the assassination of Lebanese leader Rafiq Hariri last February. They expect the UN Security Council convening Tuesday, Oct. 25, to pass an American-French draft resolution condemning Damascus. They are also braced for another disastrous UN report. This one was drawn up by Special Middle East Envoy Terje Roed-Larsen – according to debkafile‘s sources, as a cooperative effort with Mehlis. It damns Damascus for violating Security Council resolution 1559 which ordered foreign forces to quit Lebanon and the dismantling of militias in the country.
Larsen will expose Syria as continuing to maintain military intelligence agents in Lebanon and derailing efforts to start decommissioning the Hizballah.
The presidential palace in Damascus has set up an emergency response team to ward off these hammer blows. It is made up of officials of the presidency, the foreign ministry, the security services and legal experts. But this official framework is only a facade; it does not affect the turmoil raging inside the close Assad family circle or pacify the top military brass.
The Assads are dominated by four figures: the president, his sister Bouchra (regarded as the toughest and most corrupt), her husband Assef Shawqat, head of general intelligence, who is a reputed professional hitman, and Maher Assad, Bashar’s younger brother.
Close enough to be seen as part of the Assad clan is the Syrian tycoon Rami Makhlouf. He is the ruling family’s moneybags whose financial dealings, including transactions with Iraq, have filled the ruling Assad coffers with billions of dollars which are invested outside the country. Makhlouf is especially close to Bouchra.
The first crack in the family’s cohesion was forced by interior minister Ghazi Kenaan and his death (whether murder or suicide. Kenaan provided the cement for the strong bond between the president and brother-in-law Shawqat. Hariri’s assassination convinced Kenaan to pull away from that partnership. This made him a liability and his days were numbered. Then came the traumatic night of Oct. 20, when the unrevised Mehlis report on the Hariri murder handed to the UN secretary implicated Maher Assad and Shawqat by name.
Because of the universal assumption that the pair would never have performed a deed of this magnitude without the president’s knowledge, the ugly cloud moved over his head – even before any proof was adduced that could stand up in court.
This foursome is now locked in together in stifling proximity. Given the slightest hint that any formation of three is willing to sacrifice the fourth member to save themselves will tip the group over into a life-and-death struggle. That is the moment the Assad clan’s enemies are watching and waiting for – within the Assad’s own Alawite sect, among his opponents in the intelligence, security, and military communities and, it goes without saying, among Syrian opposition parties in exile. Rifat Assad, the president’s uncle, is waiting in the wings for his chance to seize the presidency. Washington and Paris are also biding their time. They all judge the Assad family as being on the brink of imploding – which is why condemnation rather than sanctions will come out of the Security Council session Tuesday and why Condoleezza Rice spoke of accountability – but not punishment.
This waiting game is also a game of hazard. The Assad family may hold up through its vicissitudes – only to be overthrown in a military coup; or by another branch of the Assad clan, such as the one led by Rifat. He may opt for violence to topple his nephew’s regime and save the dynasty. The violent removal of Syria’s ally in Beirut, president Emil Lahoud, whom the UN Hariri report places under grave suspicion, would also shake the Assad presidency to its core.
The situation of the Palestinian Authority’s Chairman Mahmoud Abbas is no less shaky. As though synchronized with the mortal UN findings against Damascus, Abbas called on the White House on Oct. 20 only to make the disturbing discovery that he was no longer President George W. Bush’s blue-eyed boy. Washington would back economic measures to improve the lives of ordinary Palestinians, but Abu Mazen’s refusal to crack down on the terrorists had cost him the White House’s support for his leadership.
In an effort to disguise the fiasco, Abbas went around proclaiming the great success of his talks with the US president. He claimed he had convinced him of the wisdom of allowing the Hamas to take part in the Palestinian general election next January 15. He was also completely confident that a Palestinian state could be achieved before Bush left office – contradicting the US president’s public statement in the Rose Garden after their meeting.
Abu Mazen was clearly aware of his disastrous situation. Lacking a solid domestic power base from the start, he lasted in office for most of a year, only because he was propped up by Washington and Jerusalem. The Palestinian organizations, including Fatah, found him useful as their external diplomatic face for only as long as the Americans and Israelis accepted him. Without the American crutch, his own ruling Fatah may find it has no more use for him, especially as he has proved incapable of holding the leadership primary on time and is moving to postpone the event from October 27 to November 9.
Abu Mazen also lacks the authority to carry through his order, issued Sunday Oct. 23 by prime minister Ahmed Qureia, to place all the Fatah factions, including the al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, under a single roof-command, ostensibly the Palestinian security forces. This was intended to satisfy the American demand to disarm terrorists. In reality, the consolidated body would have given Fatah a new unified military wing.
But Al Aqsa chiefs refused on the spot to relinquish control of their regional commands, much less to disarm.
Breathing down the back of his neck are the radical Fatah political bureau chief Farouk Kadumi in Damascus and his ambitious civil affairs minister Mohammed Dahlan, who has established an interim headquarters in Montenegro. Both keenly eye Abbas’ job and will topple him at the drop of a hat. The only party who wants him to stay in power is Hamas, which used him to gain control of the Gaza Strip; were it not for Israel’s mass detentions of its senior operatives, Hamas would be well on the way to seizing the West Bank as well.
Abu Mazen is therefore insisting on letting the Hamas participate in the January election as his main life belt. He is counting on the only political and military instrument left to him to force his opponents in the Fatah to keep their heads down.
Mahmoud Abbas in October 2005 is placed in a position analogous to the late Yasser Arafat in August 2000. He faces three options:
1. To bow to Washington’s will;
2. To emulate Arafat and choose the path of terror and war;
3. To do nothing.
Syrian president Assad faces three similar options:
1. To obey Washington, namely, to cooperate with the Hariri inquiry by sacrificing the members of his family implicated in the crime.
2. To raise war tensions on Syria’s borders with Lebanon and Israel, either directly by employing his own army or through proxies, Palestinian terrorist groups or Hizballah.
3. To do nothing.