Who controls Syria?
Joe Klein from Time magazine has written a very interesting article that makes you wonder: who exactly controls Syria? The official photograph of Syrian President Bashar Assad is extremely stern. The photos and murals of his father and predecessor Hafez Assad, still festooned throughout Syria, are leavened by the confident gaze and beneficent smile possible only for a dictator in total control. Bashar, however, stares off into the middle distance, working hard to convey vision and strength but avoiding direct eye contact with his subjects. Indeed, the younger Assad, an ophthalmologist by trade who became heir apparent only when his older brother was killed in an automobile crash, remains something of a mystery to just about everyone. "The question is, Is he really in charge?" a U.S. intelligence expert told me. On Lebanon, Assad clearly indicated that a political decision had been made to withdraw Syria's troops and the only questions now were "technical": how much time it would take to move heavy equipment and rebuild fortifications on the border. He said he had not yet met with his generals about that. At the end of the interview, I asked again when Syrian troops would withdraw, and he responded, "Out completely?" I said yes. "It should be very soon and maybe in the next few months, not after that," he said. "I can't give you the technical answer. The point is, the next few months." Two days later, however, the Syrian government issued a correction: the President hadn't really been talking about a total withdrawal but about compliance with the 1989 Taif Agreement ending Lebanon's long civil war. This wasn't the first time the Syrian government retracted or corrected or denied things that the President had said. In the days after last month's assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, Assad told Arab League President Amr Moussa that he was planning to withdraw from Lebanon, only to have the Syrian Information Minister later say that Moussa had got it wrong—Syria was only redeploying its troops to the Bekaa Valley. The tap dance continued all week, culminating in Assad's speech to the Syrian Parliament on Saturday, in which he scuttled back to his pre-Moussa position: no mention of complete withdrawal but the promise of gradual redeployment to the Bekaa Valley. "It is an embarrassment," said Ayman Abdul Nour, founder of the All4Syria website and an Assad supporter who is hoping for reform of the ruling Baath Party. "We always hope for delay. If we can delay withdrawal, the Lebanese will start to fight among themselves, the Americans will turn their attention to Iran, the French will be caught in internal politics. But this situation is different. The spotlight is on us." See, that's the thing. Syria continues to do this whole dance, betting that the lebanese would start fighting amongst themselves if they delayed enough for them to lose momentum. The fact that they are using Hezbollah and getting syrians from across the borders to join in today's planned Pro-Syria demonstrations is a ploy for time. The lebanese shia are actually conspiring against the lebanese oput of their desire to protect hezbollah, who has been the bane for the rest of lebanon ever since it's started. They know that without Syrian protection and with the implementation of the security council resoloution 1559 they might find themselves without power, especially since they are on the US terrorist group list. Anyway, back to Syria... "The only way for Bashar to show strength now," said a close associate of the President, "is to be extremely decisive. Leave Lebanon. Reform our government. It's time for leadership." Enlightened leadership seemed a possibility when Bashar Assad inherited office in 2000. He promised a more open society. He brought intellectuals and free-market economists into the government, but they were quickly overwhelmed by the Baathist old guard. Soon the multiple, overlapping Syrian police and intelligence agencies—a Byzantine web that entangles both Syria and Lebanon—seemed to regain control of the President as well. Dozens of "Damascus Spring" democracy advocates were tossed in jail. "Reform is not like pushing a button," Assad told me. "When there's trouble externally, it will affect Syria ... If you don't have peace, you have to spend most of your money on the army and security issues. All these factors won't make reform fast. It will definitely be slow. We are living under tension ... You can't have reform under tension." But it isn't easy to repeal the promise of freedom, especially in a country where satellite dishes sprout from almost every rooftop. People speak more openly in Syria than they have in the past. The President's allies are candid, if not yet quotable, about their disappointment in him. Yet even Assad's reform-minded opponents seem to believe that he remains the best hope for change. "I am a doctor," said Kamal Labwani, a Damascus Spring activist recently released from jail. "The President is a doctor. Does he think we'll be able to live like this another 40 years? I don't think so." Labwani wanted me to ask Assad why he had been imprisoned. "I didn't throw him in jail," Assad told me. "I don't do everything in this country." It was an admission his father never would have made. The President's body language was more ophthalmologist than dictator. He sat hunched deep in a black leather couch. There was no physical sense of power or menace to the man, no sociopathic cool, just consternation. As i said before, i do not believe Bashar to be the asshole that his dad is, but rather a figurehead that his dad's old guard are using to stay in power and in control. He has a rare chnace now, with all the pressure facing syria, to pull a Sadat- 15th of may-like-coup and put all those poeple in the syrian government that undermine him away. Or he can resign and force them all to show their faces. The man said " I am not Saddam Hussein" and i believe him to be not the asshole that Saddam or his sons were. But unless he shows true leadership for the sake of his own people and take control of his country, the situation is unlikely to improve for neither syria or lebanon or himself.