Personalities, Economy and Nationalism
Syria releases 190 political prisoners Wednesday under a presidential amnesty as part of a " comprehensive reform", the official SANA news agency reported. The Damascus Spring prisoners were not included. Evidently added reform measures are going to be announced ever few weeks according to analysts here. This will be done to show the people that the government has not stalled on the reform front and to keep the people close as Syria confronts the inevitable surprises of Mehlis.
The story below sums up the feelings of many here quite well, particularly among the younger generation. Undoubtedly, public opinion will go through many ups and downs over the next few months as leaks from the Mehlis investigation begin to appear in the press. Many reporters are trying to get information for biographies on Asef, Bushra, Maher and others in order to get drama and personalities into the story. This is going to be a three ring circus, but little is know about the main actors to give real color to the story.
Nationalism Mixes With Dissatisfaction in the Streets of Syria
By Jeffrey Fleishman
November 3, 2005 - Los Angeles Times
DAMASCUS, Syria — Perched in an old city cafe scented with apple-flavored tobacco, unemployed lawyer Mohammed Kroma ran through a list of the West's criticisms of his government.
First it was the U.S. alleging that Syria wasn't doing enough to stop insurgents from crossing into Iraq. Now it's the United Nations, threatening possible sanctions if the country doesn't cooperate fully with an inquiry on the killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
"Why does the West threaten sanctions on us?" Kroma asked. "We are trying to cooperate on Iraq and other things."
But after offering his defense of President Bashar Assad's regime, Kroma opened up with what was once unspeakable: his own complaints.
"The biggest problem in Syria is not Hariri but nepotism," Kroma said. "I'm a university graduate with a law school degree. But I didn't get a job because it went to a person with family connections. That's how this country works, and it has to change."
The U.N. inquiry into the February assassination of Hariri has spurred a spasm of nationalism against what many here view as Western aggression. But it has also spurred Syrians to voice increasing dissatisfaction with Assad's stalled reforms.
Within Damascus' old city walls, Syrians are asking why Assad is risking further international isolation and why he has not purged his regime of hard-liners who have slowed modernization and stifled the economy. The nation is operating these days on a complex psychology of supporting the president against foreign condemnation, but quietly chastising him at home.
Anwar Hamouda, a university student, even pondered replacing Assad: "If we don't like the president it's for us to change him, not Washington. He's ours. And, yes, I'm unhappy with the president for the slow pace of change in this country."
Such criticisms are tame by Western standards, but in a nation where phones are tapped and opposition figures tailed by intelligence agents, these sentiments would not have been openly voiced or tolerated five years ago. They point to a rising frustration among young, educated Syrians with Assad, who they hoped would lead them away from a Cold War-era mind-set and toward globalization.
Raised to be a doctor not a statesman, Assad took over Syria's presidency in 2000 after the death of his autocratic father, Hafez Assad, who had ruled for 30 years. Bashar Assad began a slight democratic opening, bringing younger professionals into the government and offering a bit more tolerance of free expression. Some old-guard Baath Party loyalists were fired, but the legacy of Assad's father proved tough to shake, even as the government failed to adjust to drastically altered regional politics after Sept. 11.
The regime, accustomed to corruption that benefits an intricate weave of Assad's relatives, has resisted reforms, and the government has hardened amid domestic and foreign crises, including Damascus' dwindling oil exports and the chaos in Iraq. Assad continues to push his father's brand of pan-Arab nationalism.
"Syria has lost some of its prestige in the Arab world," said Hamdan Hamdan, a Syrian-based writer and political analyst. "The regime has grown incompetent and lacks the diplomatic skills Damascus once had. The son is a doctor who likes antique cars. He doesn't have the clout of his father.
"The international community told Bashar Assad to leave Lebanon, and Syria pulled its troops out," he added. "Then he put 15,000 soldiers on the Iraqi border to stop insurgents from entering Iraq. But his regime never gets rewards from the West for these concessions."
As for Hariri's death, Assad's government has maintained that it was not involved. But questions have grown since an initial report by U.N. investigators last month described an August 2004 encounter in which Assad allegedly threatened Hariri. Investigators suspect that three of Assad's relatives, including Gen. Asef Shawkat, the president's brother-in-law and head of Syrian military intelligence, planned the bombing.
A possible motive, according to the U.N., was Hariri's opposition to Syria's long-standing meddling in Lebanese politics.
A final U.N. report is due Dec. 15, and analysts say Assad faces critical decisions before then.
Some observers believe the current atmosphere gives Assad the latitude to remove shady officials, including relatives, who are jeopardizing the country while failing to improve an economy with more than 20% unemployment and skittish foreign investment.
A reshuffling of Cabinet and intelligence officials would "win Assad immediate domestic and international support," Patrick Seale, a Middle East analyst, wrote recently in the Daily Star in Beirut. "But to manage a crisis of such unprecedented proportions, Assad would need to display unusual qualities of courage and political acumen. This is the most difficult moment in the president's career."
If the final U.N. report offers strong proof Syrian intelligence orchestrated Hariri's assassination, many analysts predict Assad could be toppled from within his own ranks. This secular capital may then tilt toward either rigid elements of the regime — or Islamic-backed parties.
Some worry about U.S. involvement.
"There's a fear that Iraq will be repeated here," said Raed Naseer, a university student sitting in the same cafe as Kroma. "President Bush might use the U.N. report to start something on his own. We know our government made mistakes in Lebanon, but now Bush is using this to get what he wants."
There was a similar mix of nationalism and criticism across town at Damascus University.
"The government has made mistakes," said Taif Hamui, a biology student. "But the government is doing things. There are new private universities, and the president is raising government salaries. But more improvements are needed. We have the same old professors. Our buildings need renovations. But all the time there are delays and slowness.
"My hope is to study in London and then in Jordan and return to Syria as an infertility specialist," she said. "I don't want sanctions to disrupt my plans…. But if they come, we're not afraid. We're ready mentally and emotionally for whatever happens."
In Syria, a tale of romance and power
By Michael Slackman and Katherine Zoepf
THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 3, 2005 - The New York Times
DAMASCUS It was a love story that captured the imagination of many Syrians: a man and a woman defied her father, eloped and lived happily ever after. But for many people it was not the romance that made the story compelling, it was how the tale spoke of power.
The woman was Bushra al-Assad, the daughter of the former Syrian president, Hafez al-Assad, and the man, Asef Shawkat, was to become Syria's head of military intelligence.
The father - who was president from 1971 until his death in 2000 - and his oldest son, Basil, opposed the marriage of Bushra and Shawkat, a divorced father of five who was 10 years her senior. But after Basil died in a car crash in 1994 and Bushra insisted, they eloped, and a decade later they have emerged as one of the most powerful couples in Syria.
"Anyone who could go into the home of Hafez Assad and take his daughter away without his permission has the power to do anything," said a television newscaster in Syria who has met Shawkat several times. The newscaster, who originally spoke on the record, called back later agitated and asked not to be identified for fear of retribution.
It is to a large degree because of Shawkat's position at the center of Syrian authority that the government here finds itself backed into a corner by a UN investigation into the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri.
With Shawkat a prime suspect, the question being debated here is whether Bashar al-Assad, who succeeded his father as president, would ever be willing or able to turn over his brother-in-law - with whom he is considered closely allied - for trial. If he did so, many Syrians and diplomats said, it could lead to chaos in the intelligence service and the dilution of Bashar's grip on power by fracturing the unity of his family.
It is unclear what role, if any, Shawkat played in the assassination. The authorities here say that he and other Syrian officials are innocent and that they hope the UN prosecutor, Detlev Mehlis of Germany, does not recommend charges. But tensions are high, because the investigators have a witness who says Shawkat helped plan the slaying and held the final planning session in his home in Damascus.
A tall, broad-shouldered man often said to look like a young Saddam Hussein, Shawkat draws his strength from multiple sources. As head of military intelligence, he has the loyalty and support of Syria's most powerful, and feared, institution. As an Alawite, he is a member of a religious minority that has guarded its monopoly on power for decades.
His wife, Bushra, is a power in her own right, part of the small ruling circle that includes her brothers, Bashar and Maher, the head of the presidential guard. Shawkat was promoted to his present post by Bashar in February, the day after the Hariri assassination, but by many accounts he was effectively in charge of the intelligence apparatus long before.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, diplomats and Syrians said Shawkat was one of the president's main liaisons to intelligence agencies in the United States and in Europe, and helped set up a U.S. operation in Syria, which has since been shut down.
A month ago, when the pressure began to grow on Syria in connection with the investigation, diplomats and a political analyst close to the president said Shawkat was dispatched to France to try to cut a deal with the authorities there.
The analyst, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, said Shawkat went with two files, one with information that Syria hoped would discredit one of the UN investigation's primary witnesses, and another offering the French a lucrative oil and gas deal. The effort, details of which could not be independently confirmed, did not prove successful.
"He is clever, charismatic and deep," the analyst said of Shawkat. "He is very dangerous, but he is very pragmatic."
Faced with a UN Security Council resolution demanding Syria's full cooperation in the investigation, the government here may soon have to decide if it will send Shawkat abroad for interrogation - and perhaps, if the evidence warrants it, a trial.
"I don't know how they can survive that," Andrew Tabler, a Beirut-based researcher on Syria and Lebanon for the Institute of Current World Affairs, said of Shawkat's potential legal troubles.
Shawkat is well known around Damascus, where he is feared and admired. Among those who consider him a friend, some say it can be easier to ask for his help in getting projects done than to go through formal channels.
In a country where there are two sets of rules, one for those with power and connections and one for everyone else, Shawkat is at the top of the food chain.
"The fascination of such people is that we all know that in one moment they could give you everything you wish for, or they could kick you into an iron box," the newscaster said. "They have fists of steel and ropes of silk."
Long time treated as an outsider, he has consolidated his power.
"Shawkat is a very strong man, and it's not just about the love story between him and Bushra," said a well-connected Syrian political analyst, who asked not to be identified for fear of arrest. "Shawkat was hated by Hafez and hated by Basil, and he's overcome that. He's very, very strong."
Syria upbeat on ability to cope with UN sanctions
By Ferry Biedermann
Published: November 2 2005 02:00 | Last updated: November 2 2005 02:00
Syria has set up a crisis team to prepare for the possibility of international sanctions, in spite of having escaped the immediate threat of such measures in UN resolution 1636 that was adopted unanimously by the Security Council on Monday.
Abdullah Dardari, the country's deputy prime minister for economic affairs, told the Financial Times that Syria expected further international pressure as the inquiry continued into the killing of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri.
But sanctions would not pose an insurmountable obstacle for Syria, Mr Dardari indicated. There was no shortage of "sanctions busters" willing to evade current US measures against the country, he said.
Speaking at the prime minister's office in Damascus, Mr Dardari said Syria was preparing for all possibilities, even though he was confident that his country would co-operate fully with the UN inquiry into the Hariri assassination, as demanded in the resolution.
He is heading an economic crisis team, set up on Monday, that is charged with planning for "every scenario".
"Our experience is very bitter," said Mr Dardari, claiming that Syria had already extended full co-operation to the UN probe headed by the German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, "so now when the resolution says we want full co-operation or else, how can we prove to you we are giving full co-operation?"
Damascus sees the US government as the driving force behind the pressure on the country and the deputy prime minister did not think a US change of heart by the next Security Council deadline, on December 15, was "going to happen".
But Syria would co-operate with the inquiry to strengthen its supporters on the council, "like Russia, China and Algeria who are saying Syria must be given a chance to prove its innocence".
While the threat of international sanctions has been deflected for at least another six weeks, the country has been the target of US sanctions under the Syria Accountability Act since the beginning of last year. And Syria is on the US State Department's list of states said to be supporting terrorism.
Mr Dardari said that this had targeted the purchase of technology, as in aircraft and control panels for power plants.
"But to be honest, sanction busters are everywhere," he said. "There are American companies setting up in Canada to sell to Syria."
Syria's economy was generally holding up well under the strain, Mr. Dardari said.
"There is no panic in the country. The Syrian pound is under pressure but we managed to contain it and control it very nicely. It is a sign of confidence."
He vowed that the country would forge ahead with, thus far tentative, economic reforms. "You don't meet international pressure with isolation. You meet it with more interdependence and integration in the global economy and we will be doing that," said Mr Dardari.
He said it was "ironic" that countries that had pushed Syria in the past to open up its centrally led economy were threatening it with sanctions.