An Asad Arrested for Smuggling Weapons
Munzir al-Asad, a cousin of President Bashar, was detained by the security services of an unnamed European country to prevent American intelligence agents from arresting him. That is what a Syrian exile group called the National Council for Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation in Syria is saying. According to Michael Young's report on this in Reason, July 8:
It is fairly certain that the Syrian intelligence services did not arrest Munzar in order to end the smuggling of arms or anything else to Iraq. Indeed, according to Syrian sources, the shootout that occurred in Damascus last April, and which was falsely blamed on Islamic militants, was, in fact, an exchange of fire between a group of smugglers reportedly tied to Military Intelligence, and a group from a rival intelligence service, the Political Security directorate, that was shadowing them. The smugglers, among many deeds, reportedly ran guns to Iraq.If these reports are true (and there seems to be much confusion about them), it can mean only one of two things: either Bashar is unable to contain the freelancing of his subordinates and is as weak as many of his critics claim, or he is much more Machiavellian than I have suspected. Most likely, it is the former. News stories about the Tlas son being involved with smuggling as well as the recent Times story about the al-Majid clan (see last entry) helping to organize the Iraqi resistance from Syria and Jordan would suggest that Bashar doesn't have control over his minions and intelligence services.
By most accounts, Bashar’s control over the various centers of power in Syria is very weak, so that it’s unlikely that he would further erode this by going after a cousin. Nor would Syria's intelligence services hit on an Assad family member. The "house arrest" claim seems partly or entirely bogus.
The real question was which European intelligence service arrested Munzar, evidently to shield him? I have my doubts—if indeed the exiles’ account is accurate.
Most interesting was the exiles' claim that "the events surrounding the Munzar Assad case were the reason that the Syrian president cut short a recent trip to China." I know people who were on that trip, and the rumor among the delegation was that a coup attempt, or something similar, had taken place. That never seemed plausible, but I'm not sure this story is either.
This is very bad for business in Syria. The British and Europeans are trying to give Bashar the benefit of the doubt in the face of US criticism. If they get mud in their face, they will give up on Syria and Bashar will be completely isolated. Bashar must be as good as his word. When he promises that he is doing everything he can to control smuggling across the border, he needs to back it up. It seems quite clear that he does not want to destabilize Iraq, but if he can't control the border, he will demonstrate that he does not make Syrian foreign policy.
Mundhir al-Asad is the son of Jamil al-Asad, the brother of Hafiz. At one time in the 1990s Jamil sought to present himself as the Mahdi al-Muntazir but Hafiz stopped that pretense in its tracks. Jamil has two sons by his wife (I don't know her name but she is one of at least 4 wives) - Fawwaz and Mundhir, who is the oldest. Fawwaz was always a troublemaker, involved in smuggling, etc. Mundhir was the "good" son. He is married to Hikmiyya (last name may be Shalish, a relative) Hikmiyya is well educated and a good mother. Mundhir is reportedly a good family man and was always interested in business and kept out of the limelight, unlike his brother. Mundhir, though, like his brother watches al-Manar TV (the Hizballah station)and may well have been caught up in the nationalist ethos of resisting the American invasion of Iraq. This is probably the case with many power brokers in Syria.
There is some proof that Bashar is not afraid to discipline his cousins. In 1999 he had Fawwaz's bodyguards thrown into jail for a time, after they beat the living day-lights out of someone for no good reason other than he had looked at them in the wrong way. When a friend complained to Bashar of this lawlessness, he didn't hesitate to shame Fawwaz by chucking the toughs in the clink. In a separate incident, Bashar forced Fawwaz to open the street in front of his house in Latakia to traffic. Fawwaz had closed it in order to connect his front yard to the park which spread out on the other side of the road. The closure created havoc with local traffic. When someone complained to Bashar about the closure, he didn't hesitate to tell his cousin to back off, much to the delight of the Ladhqanis. And this was all before he had become president. Bashar was a very postive force in Latakia during the late 1990s. He disciplined the "Shabiha" as they are called - the young and lawless Asad relatives or their retainers who largely come from Qardaha and who ran roughshod over the town.
Hazem Saghieh reports in al-Hayat that the US is gearing up to put more pressure on Syria in the coming months. The breathing space Bashar earned from the unexpected virulence of the Iraqi opposition to the US occupation forces, he argues, was just that, a breathing space. Bashar must now prepare Syria for round two.
Now that the Iraqi PM, Imad Allawi is reaching out to Bashar and hopes to visit Syria in the coming days, Bashar is on the spot. He must get control over his people and put an end to regime sponsored smuggling.
On a personal note, I would also like to thank Michael Young for fluffing "Syria Comment" in his "Hit and Run" post the other day. Though we don't always agree about Syria, Young, the opinion editor of the Daily Star and regular commentator at Reason Magazine, is one of the very smartest on the Middle East.
Ammar Abdulhamid, director of the Tharwa Project, has featured my Islamic Education in Syria article on his site as well as having it translated into Arabic, which is a great boon. He said the initial reaction to it was largely "negative," but calmed my wounded vanity by saying he wouldn't change a thing. "It means it is hitting home." A more flattering reader wrote to say, "The paper is outstanding. It documents facts even some very educated Syrians do not know about." But argued:
One concern I have is that it may overstate the impact of the education system on where we are today. Please note, I am not disagreeing with the fact that Syria, the Middle East, and Islam have major, gigantic issues to deal with in catching up with the modern world. I am saying that schools and textbooks are not the reason. I have seen a large number of people survive the educational system. They lived as secularist despite having to read these texts. Then in the 90s, they reverted to religion and Hijab etc. These are people I went to swimming pools with, who listened exclusively to western music, and who wore shocking clothing even by Italian standards.I answered: I appreciate your argument that it isn’t the education that makes Syrians become fundamentalists later in life. You would probably argue that they turn to fundamentalism because of the pervasive corruption in Syria, the lack of freedoms, a terrible economy, and a general sense of frustration and injustice. I would agree with this. But what can they fall back on when they have a philosophical crisis later in life? Their schooling and cultural education as children have prepared them to believe that Islam has the answers to their ethical questions and political problems. The school books are written by the same Imams that push a generic and narrow Islam in the mosques. If the texts actually taught Syrian school children that Islam is a "big ocean: filled with many currents – shiite, sufi, ghuluw, mu`tazali, hanbali, wahhabi, liberal and conservative, they would be better prepared to question the easy answers of the fundamentalists. If they want a more accurate understanding of Islam, they must find it on their own, because the schools, which should be teaching them about the richness of the Islamic tradition, fail to prepare them for the big questions that arise later in life.
So, the question is why did these people revert to fundamentalism after 20 years of leaving the system. I do not think it is the education system.
Another point. My secular classmates considered my religion teachers idiots. My religious classmates considered them government stooges. They got their religion from the mosques and the brotherhood. So even the religious ones paid very little attention in class.