Damascus insiders are quietly calling for an accounting with the party responsible for Syria’s agonizing departure from Lebanon, an epic debacle that can no longer be avoided. But they are running round in circles with no firm handle on the culprit. In the dark days that have overtaken Damascus, fingers are pointing many ways but no one seems to have any real information.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence sources enumerate some of the reasons for the confusion.
1. No serious Western intelligence service has come up with an answer to the riddle.
2. Syria is in the grip of power plays among rivals, some of them mafia-type gangs from different branches of president Bashar Assad‘s clan. They are vying against one another by manipulating the various government and military factions that they control with bewildering effect.
3. It is becoming hard to make head or tail of Assad’s actions. His conduct has become strikingly inconsistent, even muddled. His latest decisions suggest he is either incapable of grasping the consequences of his actions or responding to half-digested dictates from Syria’s real power brokers.
Conversely, the Syrian dictator is playing dumb as a ruse to outwit his opponents.
A few contours are surfacing from the confusion:
A. For the first time in the history of the Assad dynasty and its ruling Alawi sect, cooperation among Syria’s many secret services has broken down under the weight of factional infighting. The crisis has shown its face in the rift between the two most powerful services, the intelligence branch of General Ghazi Kanaan‘s interior ministry and military intelligence headed by Assad’s brother-in-law Assef Shawqat.
B. The rift has erupted at a critical juncture for Syria when the blow to Syrian interests in Lebanon threatens to spill over and weaken the regime’s authority in Damascus. Nonetheless, Assad is strangely passive in the face of a feud that could cause the collapse of his regime unless it is patched up in a hurry. Either he lacks the authority to make the two intelligence chiefs bury the hatchet or he plans to play one intelligence chief against the other.
Syria‘s intelligence machine is in a mess
C. Assaf’s two mainstays are Syrian military intelligence chief in Lebanon General Rustom Ghazaleh and his cousin, Numeir Assad.
Numeir, whose father Jamal was the brother of Bashar’s father, the late president Hafez Assad, runs a “mafia” gang which is fighting to commandeer Syria’s leading banks and financial institutions. Its latest acquisition is the country’s largest funds transfer firm Haram.
It is unclear where another leading power player, Firas Tlas, stands. The son of former defense chief Mustafa Tlas, he was employed by his father to direct Syria’s dealings with Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. In this capacity, he managed the arms and oil smuggling routes and the secret transfer of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction to Syrian territory. He also helped organize the bases in Syria from which Iraqi Baath leaders are directing the flow of orders, aid and weapons to fuel the guerrilla war against US forces in Iraq.
Some intelligence data indicate that Firas and Shawqat, who is backed by Syrian foreign minister Farouk al-Shara, worked together on certain schemes. But it is not clear how closely they cooperated.
D. Kanaan is thought to draw most of his support from unnamed, middle-ranking officers whose advancement was thwarted by Tlas and Shara. Out in the field, these officers, some of them department heads in intelligence agencies or brigade commanders, often have more control than the higher echelons.
His main political ally is deputy foreign minister Walid Mualam, for many years Syria’s ambassador to Washington.
E. No one has precisely assessed the degree of foreign involvement – by Iran, for instance – in the power struggles besetting Damascus. Tehran maintains a diplomatic office in Syria and a large military and intelligence command presence in Damascus. Its rulers are hardly likely to stay aloof from a political struggle for the domination of a country that is Iran’s most important link to its Lebanese proxy, the Hizballah.
The Iraqi Baath party network based in Syria also has a compelling reason to thrust a finger in the pie. Iraqi Baathists are in almost daily contact with elements of the Syrian leadership. These former Iraqi politicians, military officers and intelligence operatives must be anxious to prop up the Syrian officials who guarantee their continued operation in Iraq and across the Arab world from save havens in Syria.
Hizballah, too, will be looking out for its interests in Syria.
Another way-out Assad caprice?
This week, Assad signed an administrative directive for Syrian embassies worldwide, ordering them to issue a passport valid for two years without question or demands for documentation to any overseas applicant.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Middle Eastern sources find this as puzzling as many of Assad’s actions. Several million Syrians went into exile during the more than 40 years that the Assads have been in power. Among them are their biggest foes, members of the Muslim Brotherhood, Syrian communists and anti-Syrian Baath opponents.
Now, these exiles are suddenly being given the chance to reclaim their nationality and return home. Many have spent years in North and South America and Europe and grown accustomed to lifestyles and freedoms far different from those current in their home country.
Assad is taking a real risk in permitted their repatriation, raising the question of whether he is acting of his own free will or is under duress from some power group or another. Could the Syria president have signed the directive – or been maneuvered into doing so – in order to import several hundred thousands of returnees who can be used to bludgeon his political rivals? It is hard to find any rational explanation for this apparent caprice.
Last minute Flash:
On March 11, DEBKA-Net-Weekly 197 reported on hopes of an anti-Assad protest movement becoming an avalanche, with particular reference to the Kurdish minority of Syria. Our military sources have just learned that Syria has sent two brigades of 5,000 men to three northeastern Kurdish towns, Qameshli, Afrin and Amuda, placing the Kurdish region under virtual martial law. At the same time, Syrian intelligence agents placed dozens of Kurdish activists in “preventive custody.” The Kurdish minority is estimated to number two million out of the Syrian population of 17 million.
It is feared in Damascus that Kurdish riots are on the point of boiling over following the distribution of a joint circular by the three main Kurdish parties, the nationalist Yekiti, the leftist Kurdish party and the Kurdish People’s Union.
The text claims that Assad has deployed the army brigades to enforce the settlement of Arab fellaheen in the Kurdish regions in the same way as the Iraqi Baathist Saddam Hussein supplanted the Kurdish inhabitants of Kirkuk and Mosul.
All three Syrian parties are backed by Jalal Talabani and Masoud Barzani’s Iraqi Kurdish factionsHowever, Assad believes the Americans have put the Kurds up to making trouble.