Thursday, July 14, 2005


Since Bashar inherited the presidency speculations have been rampant as to whether he is truly in full control of all his security services. In fact, it has become common place to hear US policymakers openly speculating on the issue. Dennis Ross’s recent interview with the Arab “Al Moushahid Al Seyyasi” magazine is a case in point.

The interview demonstrates to what extent the US is now incorporating the idea of Bashar’s limited power into its policymaking process. Ross recommends that US policy should be one of offering Bashar carrots for cooperation, while not discounting the real possibility that he might simply be unable to respond. He goes as far as suggesting that Bashar might even be replaced in coming years.

Dennis Ross’s assessment of the Syrian situation is not foreign to US officials. In fact, there already exists a special degree of interest in Assef Shawkat amongst many in US policy circles. The powerful head of Syrian military intelligence, and Bashar’s brother-in-law, has exhibited nothing but loyalty to his President thus far. Yet speculation is rife as to whether Shawkat (in particular) will change his ways if Bashar’s miscalculations continue to threaten regime survival.

The speculation amongst many observers of Syrian affairs is not unfounded. Several events in recent years cause one to question what is taking place amongst Syria’s security services. In April 2004, bomb trucks filled with tons of chemicals crossed the border from Syria to Jordan. In a country in which numerous security services reign supreme, such “lapses in security” were startling to say the least. Could trucks filled with tons of explosives have really crossed the Iraqi-Syrian border, traveled across the width of Syria, and then crossed into Jordan undetected?

The large scale operation to assassinate Hariri, along with attempts still unfolding in Lebanon, raises similar questions.

Interestingly enough, in his embarrassing meeting with Crown Prince Abdullah, (which the Saudies then leaked to hsi further embarresment) Bashar told Abdallah that he was not responsible for Hariri’s death. He suggested that the Chief of Internal Intelligence in the Syrian General Intelligence Directorate was the one responsible, and that all found responsible will be punished. Since then, the once powerful Bahjat Suleiman has been demoted and returned to the headquarters on General Intelligence.

Since the Baath Party Conference in June, and in what seems to be an attempt at consolidation of power, Syria has witnessed a major security shake up. If what many US officials believe is true, this is Bashar’s attempt at gaining full control of his security services. Whether he sees it through or not is a different matter. Clearly the US is hedging its bets….


Anton Efendi said...

Come on, we've been through this before. This is all bull. Assef Shawkat has been in control of intelligence for the longest time. He removed Bahjat now. The other one removed is Khaddam. Josh had discussed it a bit here:

Look, the Hariri hit was taken at the top, in Bashar's own inner circle. This was no "rogue element". This myth is his way of trying to weasel out by banking on this myth that he's not in control. After the Baath conference, this excuse should not even be mentioned any more. There's no one left but Bashar's innermost circle.

Raja said...

Tony, I agree and disagree with you. I've heard and read from numerous sources, that Bashar is now in control after the Ba'ath Conference. But remember, the conference took place only a month ago.

Firas, it is amazing that you bring the issue of Bashar's control up. This past Sunday, the New York Times Magazine published a six-page article featuring an interview with the "first family" of Syria. In case anyone hasn't read that article, I highly recommend it.

Well, the thought/question that kept on recurring in my head was: is the man really in control? The impression I had (reading between the lines) was that if he is, he is having a very difficult time. One point before I continue: Convincing your security people not to overthrow you is one thing. Getting them to do what you want beyond that point is something else.

Bashar, in my opinion, is facing the dilemma that all politicians face in dealing with the mechanisms of the state - i.e. the bureaucracies. Bureuacrats (security as well as non-security) believe they know best, possess information that politicians do not have access to and most importantly, manifest the power of the politician to do as he or she pleases in the country.

If such organizations are so powerful (and self=righteous), why would they listen to "curropted" politicians? Even in Democracies, where politicians are the most legitimate in this world, the conflict between bureaucrat and politician continues: Each side struggling for a larger say in the affairs of the nation; each side claiming that they know what is the best solution for whatever the problem.

If Bashar does not have legitimacy and the support of the people behind him, what other tools does he have to make the bureaucracies do what he pleases: 1. Money (corruption) 2. Violence (the fear of violence) (Assassinations. Other than that, the guy's pretty dry.

If such an analysis reflects reality, then expect no progress on any front in Syria (be it "reform" or security). If a man is unable to use the tools he needs to exert his power, then he is not powerful - rather, he's being taken for a ride!

Firas said...

As one US diplomat once put it...

"In the past the heads of Syria's intelligence services owed their jobs to Hazef Assad, today Bashar owes his job to Syria's intelligence chiefs."

The dynamics are very different...questioning whether Bashar is fully in control deserves some thinking and is not unfounded given recent events...

That said, I agree that Syrian officials have used this as a convenient excuse... Imad Moustafa has perfected the argument that Bashar wants to do more but can't...this however does not mean that there isn't at least some truth to it...