Wind of Change Over Damascus

Posted in Broader Middle East | 14-Nov-06 | Author: Manuela Paraipan

Abdel Halim Khaddam

Since Rafiq al-Hariri's assassination, Syria has enacted its survival mechanism, translated into crushing the opposition at home, its continuous support for Hezbollah and the Palestinian terror factions and aligning itself with Iran, which has its own battles to carry onward. This strategy has its loopholes, and being in a hostile mode toward the United States does not exactly suit Bashar al-Assad's clan interests. The economic and political pressure President Assad is facing from inside and outside is tremendous, and we are likely to see the end of the Syrian Baath Party, at least the way it used to be.

There is more than one kind of Syrian opposition: The indigenous one made up of Syrian communists, socialists and to a lesser extent liberals, which apparently has not been so publicized by the mainstream, Western media; the opposition headed by former Vice-President Abdel Halim Khaddam, together with Ali Sadr al-Din al-Bayanouni, the Muslim Brotherhood Syrian leader who lives in exile in Europe, and in the United States, the Reform Party of Syria (RPS), headed by Farid al-Ghadry. The latter has drawn up a plan that would enter into action “after Assad's regime.” In November last year, Farid al-Ghadry declared that the RPS supports a democratic, open regime with “a strong decentralized government.” Also, there is the former Syrian Chief of Staff, Hikmat al-Shahabi, who lives in the United States and is believed to be involved in talks over a new regime for Damascus, but he seems to be keeping a rather low profile. The declared purpose of the opposition operating from outside Syria is to peacefully oust the Baathist regime. This works in theory, but it is enough to look at the actions of the Iraqi Baathists to acknowledge that no one gives up power voluntarily, especially not a mafia-style regime.

Abdel Halim Khaddam is quite a controversial person. He has served in the Baath Party for decades, succeeding to the top level as one of the party’s highest-ranking Sunni officials, when all of a sudden (or so it appears to be) he traveled to France and decided to remain there, opposing the regime that he served under as vice president. The logical question that arises is whether or not Khaddam can be considered a better alternative to President Assad, or even an alternative at all? This is a man who largely profited from Syria's tutelage of Lebanon, together with the former Syrian Intelligence Chief in Lebanon, Ghazi Kanaan, who reportedly committed suicide just days before the first UN report about the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri was published. Khaddam was also number two in the state, running a clannish, dishonest-to-the-bone type of regime, where only the inner circle reaped the benefits whilst the others suffered all the losses. It is wise to not just yet place all bets on Khaddam.

The alliance between Khaddam and Bayanouni is like a Molotov cocktail waiting to blow up. The Muslim Brotherhood has a philosophy of its own, including a governing platform, but it is not what is normally referred to as a progressive, open and democratic plan of action. The Muslim Brotherhood's (MB) aim is to install a theocracy, sooner rather than later. In the 1980s, when the Muslim Brotherhood defied the rule of Hafez Assad and tried to assassinate him, the army in return killed thousands of people believed to be affiliated with the MB in Hama. There has never been a genuine, peaceful coexistence between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Baath because of their very different visions of the country’s political future. There is no reason whatsoever to think that the situation has changed. On the other hand, the Baathist regime did not kill the Islamists in Hama to protect the Syrian citizens, but to protect its own interests and position. From this perspective, either the rule of Khaddam who was a major player inside the Baath, or that of the Muslim Brotherhood separately or together, may very well carry with it unpleasant surprises for the Syrians, as well as for all countries in the Middle East, Arab or otherwise.

The Kuwaiti newspaper al-Seyassah reported that there are growing tensions between President Bashar al-Assad, his brother Maher, who is the commanding general of the presidential guard brigades, and their brother in law, Assef Shawkat, who is the head of Syria's intelligence services. There are voices suggesting that Shawkat may be the right one to groom to replace Bashar Assad. However, as seen before in Syria, is it possible for a person who loyally served the oppressive regime to be more than just a wolf that changes its fur, but not its nature?

The solution is to support the indigenous opposition made up of people who have endured the regime, and fought it, with the little means they had. The average citizen will likely identify with those who dearly paid for the sin of opposing the Baath and the Assad clan, and not with those living a potentially lavish life, enjoying freedom and rights outside the borders. It is a simple matter of human nature. However, it is imperative to establish a dialogue with the dissidents living outside Syria because together, they will be stronger and more efficient.

Many of the weapons used by the Palestinians and Hezbollah come through Syria. The extremist Palestinian leader, Khaled Meshal, has been offered a safe shelter in Damascus.

In an interview with Spain's El Pais newspaper, President Assad said that "if there is a real desire to smuggle [weapons into Lebanon for Hezbollah], neither Security Council resolutions nor surveillance nor the whole armies of the world can prevent this." President Assad is right. As long as his regime is still in power and supports the terror networks, the opposition of the West is to a large extent futile. Alongside with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Syria could have played a major role in the region, but it has instead chosen to side with Tehran, also nicknamed "the head of the terrorist snake" and to use as a strategic asset the terror networks it logistically and/or financially supports.

Pan-Arabism, national socialism and the Baath ideology altered into hideous regimes, and all have failed. What the Middle East has never experienced but should is an ideology of liberal orientation. Whether this can be possible while maintaining the regime of President Assad is for the Syrians to decide, but no one can deny that there is a slow wind of change blowing over Damascus.