False Reports of a Coup in Syria and Analysis
"I spent most of my day trying to deny that a coup had taken place in Syria." That is how one diplomat, accounted for himself yesterday when he came to dinner with a lively crowd. I was gratified he didn't bring his bullet-proof vest.
If anyone is interested in how a blogger's hoax can cause a stir, the Syrian coup alarm is a good starting place. Here is the email that greeted me as I began my morning rituals following my first thimble-full of Turkish coffee.
Some of you may know me, some of you may not. I'm Robert Mayer from the blog Publius Pundit. I am emailing you all because you are either inside Syria, within the region, or are experts on the region. There are reports on this side of the Atlantic that there has been a possible military coup in Syria, but it is not hitting the newswires. Can any of you confirm this and send me additional information and observations? Everyone here is watching and is desperate to know. This would be a big help if any of you can confirm or deny this. Thank you all,
The Lebanese Foundation for Peace is reporting that a military coup has swept Assad’s regime because of disputes over the withdrawal from Lebanon.
A Coup d’ Etat took place in Damascus late last night. Intelligence reports coming from within the Syrian Military Command indicate the following:
A rebellion split The Syrian Army in two factions.
Since yesterday , Damascus is under the de facto control of the Syrian Army, under the command of Syrian Interior Minister Ghazi Kanaan, and supported by Syrian Intelligence General Rustom Ghazaleh, Syrian military General Ali Safi, and Firas Tlass son of former Minister of Defence, Mustafa Tlass. The group rebelled against the decision of President Bashar el Assad to withdraw from Lebanon and seized the Damascus military yesterday.
Around 3 am, Damascus time, the Syrian Air Force bombarded two military airfields around Damascus, the Air force base of Dumair, and the Air force base of Katana. Also, late night around 3 am, the Syrian Air force bombarded military positions of the Syrian Army west of the city of Homs.
President Bachar el Assad retreated secretly to the city of Aleppo where he is temporarily holding ground. He is massing special forces troops loyal to him and preparing himself to take back Damascus by force .
The Syrian President left in Damascus his brother in Law, Syrian Military Intelligence Chief General Assef Shawkat to negotiate a settlement with the dissidents. The situation within the Syrian military was very tense for a week and exploded yesterday. The dissident group took control of Damascus as they were very upset at the Lebanon withdrawal for they left behind a billion dollar industry.
Dear Robert,All the same emails kept coming my way - from Stratfor intelligence unit, local reporters, and other bloggers asking me for information about the "coup" and The Lebanese Foundation for Peace, which turns out to be a LFP site. Sasa from The Syrian News Wire, explained that "they are the post-Phalange group (the Israeli army’s proxy in Lebanon during the Civil War) presently in exile in Israel.
Someone has a rich imagination. All is normal here as far as I can tell. Sunny spring day and everyone is bustling about happily. One diplomat just emailed about what he should wear to dinner tonight - casual or formal? Didn't suggest bullet proof vest, so I assume all is normal.
Best to you from Damascus.
To follow how the story unrolled and how Nagi Najjar, who maintains the LFP site responded, read the post and particularly the comments at Robert's site.
Najjar defended his coup information by writing:
If the shooting didn’t started yet or Joshua Landis was invited at a dinnerA comment by "blue" reads:
party with the Military Attache there without a bulletproof vest doesn’t mean
that the situation is “normal” within the Syrian Regime.
There are things happening they are not aware and the Baath Regime is
not going to tell a US journalist nor brief the Embassy and the CIA station
there what is going on within. We are expected to receive additional information
soon, we will publish it.
We believe our “sources” are good and never betrayed us before…
Josh Landis may have been right about this, but he often appears to be
nothing but an apologist for Assad’s regime. Sad, really, that an academic in
the US turns to propaganda for an authoritarian ruler.
Josh Landis’s agenda would seem to be to maintain this myth that the brutal Syrian regime is good for the Syrian people.This morning Robert wrote me another email:
News flash: it’s not! It’s killing innocent Syrian people.
Quite frankly I don’t believe news that comes out of Syria, whether from LFP, The New York Times, or SNW; the country’s too tightly controlled.
Just following up with you all. Thanks to all of your emails, this story has effectively gotten around the whole blogosphere and has been debunked.
The original offending information, which is STILL being propogated, is located here: http://free-lebanon.com/
Thank you all very much for helping dispel the rumors. If any of you in particular know about the Lebanese Foundation for Peace, it's purpose, etc.... as they are the ones dispensing this information, please let me know. I am very interested to learn about them.
All the best,
Najjar and a few others will be disappointed to learn that information does get out of Syria fairly easily, despite ham-fisted attempts by the government to control the news flow. Bashar liberalized the control of information in Syria and promoted much freer debate He will have a hard time restricting it even if he wants to.
Bashar seems to have consolidated his grip on power internally, even as Syria took a beating on the Lebanon front. In fact, by undoing Hariri in Lebanon and shunting aside his supporters here in Syria, the president has been tightening his control over the internal situation.
This strategy may back-fire in the long run because the president will have narrowed his social base around his family. But in the short run, he is firmly in control.
Yes, there are members of the military who are upset that the president didn't get out of Lebanon five years ago. Most were not upset that they had to withdraw. They complain that business interests kept Syria in Lebanon too long and set the military up for this humiliating withdrawal. They are not about to make a coup over it, however.
The Sunni business elite of Damascus is clearly upset at how Hariri was undone. Many had connections to him and to those around him who were doing well in Beirut. He was a towering example of Sunni business and political success, not only for the Lebanese, but also for the Syrians. Even people who had no connection to him viewed his success as a symbol of what can be accomplished with good leadership and economic acumen.
Whether his murder will have "confessional" fallout in Syria, as it has in Lebanon, has yet to be seen. I suspect it will harden the wall of distrust that has always divided the Alawite ruling elite from the Damascene business community, which largely controls the economy in Syria. There are some signs of that already.
All the same, the Sunni business elite is not organized for formal opposition. Damascene business leaders will sulk in their tents. Many must be worried that Bashar is becoming more like his father and less like the reformer they were hoping for. Some will resent the fact that he has strengthened himself and his family. Perhaps they saw in Hariri's rise to power in Beirut an example which they hoped to follow in Damascus?
Much will depend on how Bashar treats reform going forward. So far, his record is one of little dramatic achievement. If he does not become his father, content to hold power tightly and rely on stability to keep him in power, but rather uses his newly won authority to make so important changes, the Hariri affair may actually turn to his advantage.