The minority Allawite sect is the bulwark of the Assad clan’s rule in Syria. No more than a quarter of a million in all – most in Syria – the Allawite sect is a Shiite offshoot which digresses from some mainstream Muslim customs, duties and festivals.
Like all very small minority sects, it is fiercely protective of its own. Therefore, the spectacle of five Allawite leaders handing out pamphlets in Syrian cities which castigate the government in Damascus as not Allawite but belonging to the Assads and the Mahloufs, means that President Bashar Assad is in deep trouble at home. One of the main props of his regime is buckling.
(Rami Mahlouf is a Syrian tycoon at the center of the elaborate web of financial and arms transactions involving the president and his brother-in-law, military intelligence chief Gen. Assad Shawqat.)
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Middle East sources report that the Allawites are not alone. Five centers of anti-regime agitation have seized on Israel’s Sept 6 attack as grist for their campaigns to ostracize Bashar Assad and his government and bring them low.
1. Saturday, Oct. 27, debkafile‘s exclusive sources disclosed that US and Israeli intelligence had acquired solid evidence of Assad’s personal involvement in the “corn for nuclear” deal with North Korea. It included documentary evidence of the transactions with instructions appended in Assad’s handwriting.
(See HOT POINTS below)
DEBKA-Net-Weekly has since discovered that cabinet ministers and officials of the Ministry of Trade and Industry are circulating facsimiles of these documents anonymously across Syria. They pin the blame for maneuvering Syria into a nuclear crisis with the United States and Israel on the man who signed the documents. They are bent on clearing themselves of culpability for a transaction, of which they were ignorant until after the Israeli attack. That is one center of anti-Assad dissidence.
Vice president, ministers, public gang up against Assad
2. Another is the Vice President Farouk a-Shara and his circle, who maintain that no one was in on Assad’s nuclear activities outside the presidential bureau and apart from the president’s brother-in law, military intelligence chief Gen. Shawqat.
A-Shara has been bending over backwards to distance himself from the affair by directing influential figures in the army, parliament, the economy and the media to a clause in the presidential decree which states: “Farouk a-Shara is appointed to deal with issues assigned him by the president.”
Since he had received no such assignment and was not even briefed on the nuclear installations under construction in northern Syria, Shara protested his hands were perfectly clean.
3. The third center of disaffection is the general public, whom Assad treated this week to a 30% increase on householders’ electricity bills by canceling the government subsidy on mazut – although Syria gets most of its fuel gratis from Iran.
The popular presumption was that the president was squeezing the public to raise funds for reconstructing the ruined nuclear installation. Assad is known for his doggedness. Accentuating this quality, flyers and rumors were put about stressing that the president would not be deterred from his nuclear adventure by the Israeli attack.
4. Two more key ministers, Mohsein Bilal, information and Bassam Abdul Majid, interior, are also getting their own back after being chastised by the Syrian media and public for their poor handling of the publicity in the aftermath of the Israeli attack. Like the vice president, they angrily protest that Assad kept them out of his nuclear plans and were therefore not at fault. Indignation in the country and anger in government ranks are feeding on each other to exacerbate the disaffection.
5. Finally, mutual recriminations are flying between Syrian defense minister Gen. Hassan Turkmani and chief of staff Gen. Ali Habib. They accuse each other of failing to brief corps and division commanders on the nuclear program, when in fact neither had heard of it or had even been briefed on the fact that Israel had staged an attack deep inside Syria. The resentment seething in the Syrian street reflects strongly on all ranks of the military.
Assad is fighting hard for survival
Hanging over the presidency, moreover, is a black cloud of suspicion which is deepening with the approach of the trial before an international tribune against those guilty of the 2005 assassination of Lebanese ex-prime minister Rafiq Hariri.
The prospect of their rulers being called to account cuts further into Assad’s prestige in the eyes of his people, at a time when the opposition ranged against him overseas and at home is gaining in potency.
Bashad Assad is not yet a goner. He still has allies but, aware of his waning popularity, the Syrian president is reported by DEBKA-Net-Weekly to have taken three steps to calm the unrest in the country:
First, he enlisted Gen. Bahjat Suleiman, national heavyweight and big boss of all Syria’s intelligence and security services, to sign an open letter in the Syria media which answered questions as to why the president did not hit back at the Israeli attack and defend national honor.
“Our policy,” he wrote, “derives from the political legacy of Bashar’s father, President Hafez Assad, who cherished the principle of de-escalation, a concept which must not be confused with capitulation. What Egyptian president Anwar Sadat did at Camp David (the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty of 1979) was capitulation.
“Hafez’s son in contrast is faithful to the path his father initiated, when he made the historic choice to range Syria behind Iran in the war against Saddam Hussein of Iraq. By this choice (Assad Sr.) not only kept Israel at bay but held back the polarization of the Muslim world and an all-out war between the Arab world and Shiite Iran.
“That was de-escalation and it is a course which the president upholds.”
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Middle East sources read between the lines of Gen. Suleiman’s open letter an implied warning to the disaffected army, the recalcitrant ministers and the angry public that if the nuclear controversy besetting the country is allowed to go on, Syria’s strategic alliance with Iran will be at risk.
Second, Assad is conferring intensively on the advisability of installing a new government to deflect the recriminations against him. Our sources report he is considering sacking the incumbent Mohammad Naji Ottri as prime minister in favor of Muhammed Hosseini, a businessman who has no qualifications for the job aside from being a trusted crony of the Assad clan.
Third, the Syrian President is planning a major crime-busting drive that will entail hundreds of executions of mobsters. This will demonstrate to everyone who the boss is in Syria.