Faced with Hostile World, Assad (Apparently) Cleans House

Syrian president Bashar Assad is in a tight corner. Hemmed in by Washington, denied a trading breakthrough with the European Union as long as he persists in his partnership with Iran for the manufacture of advanced missiles and chemical and biological weapons, and beset by painful domestic pressures for economic and regime reform, he has begun striking out with unforeseen measures.

According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources, this week he began releasing political prisoners from jail. The first wave of 250 were let out on Monday, July 19, of the more than 2000 who will benefit for the broadest amnesty granted in Syria in the last forty years. Some had been locked up by his father, President Hafez Assad, for voicing views opposed to the regime and have been rotting in prison for three decades or more.

News of the amnesty shot through the country like a bolt from the blue setting up jitters. No one can tell how the ex-prisoners will use their freedom, whether to retire quietly or go back to political activity. Should they decide to speak out about conditions in Syrian prisons, the regime will face acute embarrassment.

Our sources stress that the pardon does not cover Muslim Brotherhood inmates. Some escaped in the 1980s, but at least 1,500 key members remain behind bars.

Assad has taken a second step to relieve some of the pressures preying on him. He has made an initial approach toward a government drive against the corruption afflicting the national and Syrian Baath leadership, preparing to investigate, sack and prosecute one of the most powerful figures in regime and party, Abdullah al-Ahmar, deputy secretary-general of the ruling Baath.

The grounds are the vast sum invested in building a highway from Damascus to Ahmar’s small town of Tel, most of which was allocated for compensating landowners along the route. It later transpired that most of those landowners are members of the Hamar clan, who pocketed the generous funds.

If the president goes through with indicting and prosecuting the Baath official, it will be first time in Syrian history that a top regime member has ever faced charges of corruption.

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