Tuesday, June 20, 2006

How Secure Is the Assads Regime, Really?

To many observers of Syrian affairs, especially in the aftermath of the vaguely-worded report by Brammertz and in view of the growing alliance with Iran, the Assads regime must seem more secure than it has been in many months now, international criticism of its policies notwithstanding. Whether it is the Assads strategy that is working here or whether it is their luck that is holding, it doesn't really matter, the end result is the same, the Assads seem practically untouchable.

Or are they?

Well, there are certain other considerations which, though they continue to receive scant attention in mainstream media, tend to paint a less rosy picture of the situation. Indeed, the whole story regarding the quiet crisis between Syria and Qatar, and the continuing intelligence reports signifying a seemingly growing rift between Bashar/Maher/Makhlouf axis and that presented by their sister, Bushra, and her husband, Assef, and their considerable support within the intelligence services, the army, and the Alawite community, tend to suggest that the selfsame forces and currents that threatened to undermine the security of the Assads regime over the last six years are still very much with us ad still gnawing at the heart of the regime.

The first instance, and Qatar’s recent affirmation that it stands squarely in the American-French camp with regard to their policy vis-à-vis the Assads, means that yet another country in the region has just made its “peace” with the idea of regime change in Syria (for, as we all should now by now, the mouth might say behavior change, but the heart and mind cry out regime change). Considering the fact that the Qatari prince has recently a secret visit to Syria during which he reportedly met with Bashar indicates that the famous presidential charms of our eternal leader wannbe continue to fail him when it comes to his dealing with fellow Arab potentates. Obviously, the Qatari decision to join the anti-Assad camp was not made without forethought.

This new and far less nuanced position by the Qatari rulers is bound to strengthen the hand of the indigenous regional camp that seeks the further isolation of the Assads regime at this stage. This may not have any adverse effects over the tourist season, but then, the Assad regime seems one where all normal appearances will likely be maintained until the whole things comes crashing down.

Which brings us to the second point and to the story of the growing rift between Bashar and his brother-in-law, sometimes rumored to be his right-hand man, and others his main Alawite rival. Here, and while we may not be able to know the exact details with any certainty, we can, nonetheless, be assured by now that the rivalry between the two camps is all too real, and that it is bound to heat up even more in the coming few weeks and months, seeing that the regime is in a confident mode these days.

What is really interesting here is the fact that Assef is able to continue to be a main player in this game despite the fact that, other than Bushra, almost everyone in the Assad and Makhlouf clans seem to be against him. How could he do it? What is the nature of his power base?

Well, Assef seems to have inherited the mantle of the dear old Uncle Rif’at within the Alawite community, that is, the position of the tough leader that people can look up to. Considering the nature of the regime and the times, this is not a bad reputation to have. Hell, even his old reputation as an opportunist, which he earned when he eloped and married his benefactor’s daughter seem to be serving him well now. After all, the man, in a sense, defied death. He is fearless. More importantly though, he is a "commoner," he did not come from the ruling family, he is an outsider, and, in times like these, it is always good to have such an image.

So, Assef is both in and out, he is tough, yet, in the public eye, his name was never mentioned in connection to any act of violence or torture, or, more importantly perhaps, any overt act of corruption. There are no businesses out there that are being run in his name.

All in all then, Assef appear to be the “ideal” Alawite figure out there, and now more than ever. Indeed, Syria’s isolation seems to have strengthened his hands at one point, as it put him virtually in charge of drawing up the regime's new policies, including the alliance with Iran, continuing defiance of the international community, and continuing dabbling in Lebanese affairs.

But he remains a rival to Bashar. So, and now that the regime seems to be emerging from its isolation, or so its leaders would like to think, including perhaps Assef himself, times seem to be quite favorable to attempt some necessary wing-clipping.

Will it work? How would anyone know really? All we can tell that Assef is bound to fight back, and so the firework is bound to be quite interesting, though not necessarily enjoyable.