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Syrian President Faces International and Internal Pressure

A U.N. appointed investigation, headed by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, has implicated top Syrian officials Maher Assad, Bashar’s brother, and Asef Shawkat, his brother in-law, as possibly having a hand in Hariri’s murder and the deaths of 20 others killed when a car bomb exploded in Beirut on Feb. 14.

Now, what was a quiet push from the United States and others for Assad to reform his government and bring about democratic reforms has become an international and internal test for the son of the late Hafez Assad.

“Bashar [Assad] is being asked to get rid of the old guard and create a new government,” Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian activist and visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said at a press briefing. “This is what is expected of him. It’s the only way he can cooperate with the [Mehlis] investigation.”

But to rid himself of this “old guard” is to turn on his closest advisers, many of whom are family members he has relied on since the death of his father in 2000.

Maher Assad, the leader’s youngest brother, heads the Presidential Guard and is responsible for Syria’s infamous security force, a feared machine that maintains a tight grip on life in Damascus and, until Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon in April, also controlled Beirut.

In 1999, Maher reportedly shot his brother-in-law, Shawkat, in the stomach. The two have since reconciled and Shawkat, one of the main suspects in Hariri’s death, is married to Assad’s younger sister Bushra, herself said to be a shrewd politician and close presidential adviser.

Infighting among Assad’s close inner-circle persists and that such a small group is running a country of 18.5 million has led to its increased isolation, some inside Syria say.

“Nobody listens, nobody reads,” Marwan Kabalan, an analyst and Damascus University professor told the Washington Post in an Oct. 27 report of Syria’s current failings. “You have a very small circle of decision-makers in charge of decisions in the country. What do you expect?”

As the U.N. investigation progresses, experts say Assad will have to decide whether to close ranks with his family or turn his back on them in order to save himself. Either choice could have devastating consequences for the European educated doctor-turned-president. The latter could see a backlash from Syrian citizens, many of whom oppose any Western-led change. The former most likely would lead to further international isolation and the possible push for a change in government.

Though American officials claim diplomatic measures are the only path they would take toward reforming Assad’s government, rumblings that the United States could be pressing for a change in leadership abound.

“The U.S. administration is seeking regime change in Syria on the cheap. They know the risks of regime implosion. They are in search of alternatives,” Flynt Leverett, a former member of the National Security Council under President Bush, said recently. “They’ve asked governments outside for advice. They’ve asked experts inside.”

But, according to Leverett and others familiar with Syrian politics, no alternative has emerged. Within Syria, no key opposition figure is a clear choice to replace the troubled Assad. And for U.S. allies like Israel, keeping Assad, who has managed to maintain a fairly stable government until now, in power may be better than the alternative.

In an editorial published in the Jerusalem Post, Nathan Sharansky, a scholar and former deputy prime minister of Israel, criticized the Israeli government for failing to support regime change in Syria.

“And what is Israel’s position on this issue? Does it support changes that could replace a dictatorial, hostile and aggressive regime with one that is more peaceful and democratic? Hardly. In fact, anonymous voices coming from the highest government quarters express strong reservations concerning the idea,” he wrote.

But, according to Sharansky, a forced change in regime will not be necessary.

“There is no doubt that Bashar Assad’s regime — as is true of all dictatorships — is rotting from within. Changing it does not even require outside intervention,” he said.

Sharansky may be right. No outside action may be needed to force a change in leadership style or leadership in Syria. Mehlis’ scathing report and U.S. and French calls for sanctions may be enough to cause implosion from within.

“The problem sometimes in the Middle East is there isn’t a solution. There isn’t always an alternative to a bad regime,” said former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk. “On the other hand there has been a murder and there is this German investigator who is determined to get to the bottom of this. And there are going to be unintended consequences of that process.”

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