Thu, Oct 27, 2005 - Page 9 News List

The end of Assad may not be so clear-cut

By Simon Tisdall  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Syrian President Bashar Assad is in a box from which he cannot escape, Western diplomats say, after UN investigators implicated senior regime figures in February's murder of Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri. But while Syria's president is no Houdini, rumors of his imminent demise appear exaggerated.

One reason is international divisions about what to do. The US and Britain want UN action, leading to possible sanctions.

But French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said on Monday that any decision-making should be left until the UN's inquiry was complete.

Damascus has credible grounds for hoping that Russia and China will oppose Western-initiated punitive action through the UN, as has been the case with other "states of concern" such as Sudan, Myanmar and Zimbabwe.

And Washington may yet be distracted by a bigger target. US National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley was in Moscow on Sunday seeking Russian support for UN action against Iran. The Syrian dossier barely got a mention.

"I expect the UN Security Council will only issue a warning this week," said Rime Allaf, a Syria expert at the think tank Chatham House. "But if the UN inquiry's final report on Dec. 15 says regime figures should be handed over, Assad will be in a very difficult position."

Syria's leader has other options. He would play for time and to the Arab gallery, Allaf suggested, presenting his country to the Muslim world as the latest victim of a familiar US antipathy.

That is already happening. Syria rejected the UN report as being politically motivated; at the same time, the foreign ministry dangled the possibility of increased cooperation.

And the war for Arab ears has already begun. Mass pro-government demonstrations in Damascus and Aleppo on Monday illustrated the leadership's determination to mobilize regional opinion in support of what is being portrayed as a confrontation with the US as much as the UN. "Wake up Arabs, your turn will come soon!" said one banner.

The officially organized protests were a reminder that despite public dissatisfaction over living standards, 20 percent unemployment and falling oil income, the regime still knows how to exploit nationalist sentiment -- and faces little political opposition.

Assad's second line of defense follows the Gaullist model: Apres moi, le deluge. This posits that there is no obvious or acceptable successor to the ruling Baathists that he and his late father, Hafez Assad, have succeeded in holding together in an ethnically and confessionally disparate country, and that civil war merging with Iraq's could ensue if the regime fell.

Malik al-Abdeh, spokesman for the exiled Movement for Justice and Development opposition party, said such dire eventualities could not be ignored.

"The Sunni Salafist movement with its jihadist offshoots is a growing force within Syria, especially among the rural young," he said. "It is not under the influence of traditional Islamist parties like the Muslim Brotherhood. It is a relatively new phenomenon, greatly boosted by the Iraq insurgency ... it represents the strongest challenge to the regime on the ground."

But Abdeh argued that was a reason to replace Assad, not tolerate him. The US wanted "a more seasoned and pragmatic politician than Bashar" to confront the Islamists, he claimed.

Allaf disagreed.

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