Disarray in Syrian Ranks Leads to Crisis
“The decision to extend President Emile Lahoud’s term was taken by the Asad family itself.”
So said a smart diplomat when we met yesterday to discuss the crisis. “We know that,” he said.” Vice President Khaddam and Interior Minister Canaan – Syria’s most knowledgeable Lebanon hands who long handled the Lebanon portfolio – recommended against extending Lahoud’s term and manipulating the Lebanese constitution as if it were the Syrian constitution. “They were over-ruled by the Asad family itself,” the diplomat said. The decision turned out to be a fateful one, for it set Syria on its recent collision course with Lebanon.
Why the young Asad brother and cousins decided they could do without the advice of “the Old Guard” is where conjecture and speculation begin.
One Syrian general, reflecting on the mess Syria finds itself in since the Hariri murder, wondered how his government could have gotten so out of touch with the political pulse in Lebanon to make such ill-fated decisions. In the end, he said:
“We made many, many mistakes in Lebanon. Do you know how much a Lebanese car cost in Syria during the war? 2,500 Syrian pounds at the border. Imagine, 2,500 SYRIAN pounds! (The equivalent of 400 dollars.) And that was a Mercedes. Every officer stole what he wanted. That’s what happens in war. Syria was filled with Lebanese cars. And for every one of those cars, there is a Lebanese family who hates Syria.”
“It wasn’t just cars,” he added. “Soldiers filled trucks with kitchen tiles, faucets, perfume, bathtubs, you name it, and drove them back to Syria. It was easy for them. They had guns. Who was going to say no to them?”
“But Syria paid a heavy price for stopping the civil war in Lebanon,” he added, perhaps in an attempt to explain that things are never as simple as they seem. “My youngest brother was killed in Lebanon.” He paused. “It was 1976. Six were killed in a tank. He left eight children…. Do you know how he was returned to us? They brought the bodies back to Damascus and put them on a gas truck – just an ordinary gas truck – and delivered them to the villages. There was no officer in the truck, just a regular soldier without rank, wearing dusty fatigues. The government didn’t send anyone in a proper uniform to say ‘Thank you for your sacrifice, and for fighting for your country.’ But I told my brother when we buried him, ‘Muhsin, thank you. You died to help the Lebanese and to bring peace.’ I still believe that today…. We made many mistakes. The Lebanese were grateful at first, but that was many years ago.”
But such explanations don’t help us understand the recent series of miscalculations beginning with the extension of Lahoud’s presidency that have inflamed Lebanese opinion and led Syria into its recent crisis.
The diplomat I spoke with believes the reason the Asad family overruled the older generation of experienced Lebanon hands was that family members such as Bashar’s brother Maher and his cousin Rami Makhlouf had important business dealings in Lebanon which depended on Lahoud. “They needed Lahoud to stay for their own interests,” he said. “The family members were pushing for his retention. Perhaps they were trying to create their own Lebanon policy and side-line the ‘old guard,’” he added. “Maybe Bashar went along because he is trying to create his own base of power?”
This is where the speculation within the diplomatic community begins to veer off into a number of directions. The diplomat, then concluded, “There doesn’t seem to be anyone at the top with a real sense of long-term strategy for Syria’s foreign policy. It is being patched together for reasons which are hard to figure. In the past, Hafiz al-Asad was the strategist. He had a clear vision of what Syria’s ultimate goals should be. Today, it is not clear where Syria is headed or why decisions are being made.”
The theory that the Asad family made the decision to extend Lahoud’s presidency at the last minute jives with Hariri’s own version of events. The Daily Star yesterday ran an interview with Hariri given to a Lebanese reporter the day before his death. He had spoken off the record on a number of topics, but the reporter broke with journalistic protocol because of Hariri’s assassination and wrote up the entire conversation. Hariri explained that he had “gone into opposition the moment Lahoud’s term was extended.” He explained how he had been completely blind-sided by the decision. Bashar al-Asad himself had called Hariri to a meeting in Damascus and told him that Lahoud’s term would be extended and effectively ordered him to ease the passage through parliament. Hariri said that Bashar did not consult him beforehand or ask his opinion on the matter. He was told what to do. The meeting lasted only 10 minutes. For Hariri, this was a Rubicon.
Undoubtedly, Hariri’s friends in Damascus, such as Khaddam, had not prepared him for the Asad meeting. Hariri was understandably incensed to be taken so off-guard and cut out of the decision-making process. From what the diplomat explained to me, we can conclude that the reason Khaddam could not warn him or bring him into the decision-making process was because Khaddam himself did not believe that Lahoud would be kept on. Perhaps he and other “old guard” advisors had assured Hariri that Syria would do no such thing. The Syrian government had, after all, announced only weeks before the elections were to take place that it would not interfere. In all likelihood, Hariri had been assured by his “old guard” Syrian friends that the presidential election would go forward without Lahoud. Clearly, Hariri was used to knowing and being consulted about such momentous decisions before the fact. The Asad overrule and disarray within the Syrian chain of command drove Hariri into the opposition. Eventual, it led to his death.
But could the Syrian President have ordered Hariri’s assassination? No one here will say that, and I don’t think they believe it. It is not consistent with his character or policies. The consequences of Hariri’s murder are too devastating for Syria for such a decision to make sense.
So what can we learn from this?
1. So far there is nothing to point to the Syrian president having foreknowledge of Hariri’s assassination.
2. The “old guard,” were not always bad. They understood Lebanese sensibilities and Syrian strategic interests better than the new guard – or at least, better than many close to the president.
3. There is tension between old and new guard over foreign policy, which has caused disarray in Syria’s decision making process. It led directly to the mishandling of Syria’s relationship with Lebanon and the extension of Lahoud’s presidency. It caused Syria to burn its bridges with Hariri and pushed him into the “opposition,” where he was uncomfortable and did not want to be.
4. Could Hariri have been killed by someone high up in the Lebanese government and also possibly a business enemy? Quite possibly. Could they have opened a back door with people in Syria? Also possible. There is a lot of money being made in Lebanon by both Lebanese and Syrians, which depends on government power, contracts, and corruption.
5. Could Bashar not know about this? Only if there is disarray in the uppermost ranks of the government.