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Regime Change Syria: Khaddam's Alliance and Assad's Missing Base

By Steve Schippert | March 17, 2006

There is again a spike in talk of regime change in Syria, with Syria’s former vice president, Abdel-Halim Khaddam, leading the chorus. He has organized the major opposition movements within Syria after his (supposed) democratic epiphany.

The irony - and the serious challenge to continuity after any successful dethroning of Assad and the Syrian Ba'athists – is that two of the largest contingents joining him in the room are decidedly not democratic. At least not beyond any first election, one which each would seek to win and keep, such as is the current elections schedule in the Palestinian Territories. Khaddam’s partners in his quest are largely communists and Islamists from the outlawed Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.

The Muslim Brotherhood may pose the greatest threat to any potential of coexistent continuity, if they chose to resist power sharing, because of the influx of funds, weapons and men from around the Middle East and its various groups who would seek to extend the border of what they perceive as their developing caliphate. There would be no room for a secularist leader or a powerful communist faction.

The chief of U.S. Central Command, Army Gen. John Abizaid, said in a Senate hearing that the current Assad regime had suddenly become helpful in stemming the tide of foreign terrorists streaming across the Syrian border with Iraq. But he rightly pointed out that this was not a reaction to US diplomatic pressure or the fear of US Marines poised at his doorstep.

"Why have they? Because the foreign fighters represent a threat to Syria, and they certainly don't want to have these organizations and groups operating within their own country that are ultimately going to be a threat to their own government," Abizaid continued. "So, out of self-interest, the Syrians have reacted in a way that has slowed the flow of foreign fighters."

This Islamist threat that Assad currently senses will be the same threat that any potential President Khaddam would quickly identify in the form of an unsatisfied Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, urged and prodded, if needed, by outside Islamist forces.

But the Iraqi border frontier is not the only place Assad has begun to dance a new tune. He also has suddenly become quite helpful (insofar as his public showing) to the UN's Hariri investigation. Among other things, he has actually agreed to be personally interviewed by the investigative team, a move unthinkable just a couple short months ago. Assad realizes that he needs to minimize his enemies, or at least minimize their aggression towards his regime. What better place to start than with the internationally high-profile Hariri investigation?

But Abdel-Halim Khaddam has made his own countermoves, cozying up to the same anti-Syrian Lebanese leaders he had no use or affection for while he held Syria’s vice presidency. Khaddam recently met with Lebanese opposition leader Walid Jumblatt and assured him that Lebanon and Syria will be friendly neighbors under his leadership. Said Khaddam, "Demarcating the border is natural and necessary to serve the interests of both countries; this situation is existent between Syria and its neighboring countries and therefore it is natural to say that diplomatic representation is normal in relations between countries."

But, for whatever a Khaddam presidency may or may not bring - or how long it would or would not last - the tide is clearly shifting in his short-term favor. For, as he is gathering and growing his allies, Bashar Assad is left with little more than minimizing his enemies.

Nibras Kazimi illustrates this masterfully in The New York Sun, pointing out that, unlike Saddam Hussein and his staunchly loyal minority base of Sunni Iraqis, Assad clearly has no such base to bolster and protect himself with.

The regime survives by dint of their political lethargy.

The Syrian regime seems brittle, and after all this time, there may be too few people who can make sense of why it should continue. Syria under Bashar is a land of co-existing contradictions that allow embassies to burn, while wanting to be part of the world community, or whose stilted bureaucracy would thwart an effort as simple as recalibrating taxi meters. It is adrift and characterless: this dictatorship does not seem to inspire a base that would defend it. This is good news for the handful of local democrats pushing back at the regime to gauge the limitations of freedom, but also for shadowy jihadists, who may be preparing for a blitz of terror. The current regime will not sustain a challenge from either, and it is now a question of who rises to the challenge first.

Assad will soon be left struggling in vain to hold back the tide with few hands assisting. The tide is being gathered and will be loosed from a Parisian ball room, as all coups and revolts seem to be these days.

What takes the Assad regime's place is the type of speculation that shapes careers in foreign policy circles. But one thing is for certain: The fall of Assad will mark the beginning of the struggle, not its close. And hanging one’s hat on the hopes of Khaddam’s democratic epiphany is a gamble at the very least and a huge risk at best.

1 Comment

Steve Schippert's excellent piece hit the nail on the head. The Syrian Regime is in real trouble. Political blunders in Lebanon and the meddling in Iraqi and Palestinian affairs have alienated neighbouing countries as well as the US and France.

Internally the repressive regime still act as Saddam did in the years before the collapse of Baghdad exactly three years ago . Arbitrary arrests, abuse of human rights, torture, and corruption are rife in Syria.

This regime will not be saved by co-operation in the Hariri investigation and the tightening of the borders with Iraq.
The only alternative for Syria is a comprehensive national reconciliation initiative. Followed by a series of drastic reforms to allow the formation of political parties and free elections. Many of the provisions of the constitution are out of date and are not suitable for the 21st century. Emergency Law and martial courts need to be reprealed. New laws allowing the free formation of political parties and election are urgently needed.

Nothing else will work. I agree with Steve Schippert that the Islamic threat still exists and the Jihadis might make a move when they feel the time has come. To avoid further deterioration in Syria, the regime must allow the return of the Syrian exciles, including the Strong Man of Syria Rifaat Alassad, the former Vice President. Rifaat Alassad now Heads the United National Group, an umbrella organization that welcome all opposition parties and groups who are interested in reforming Syria by non-violent means to join.The UNG introduced a programme for reforms and salvation of Syria with a simple message and objective; which is the transfer Syria from a dictatorship to a democracy by peaceful means through a programme of graduated reforms and change.This programme is gaining momentum and support in Syria and outside. Unfotunately the
regime is not listening and is playing politics with the future of the Syrian people. No one in Syria would like to see a repeat of the disastrous Iraqi experience. But the Regime's behaviour is not serving the interests of the Syrian people who deserve freedom and democracy but without the upheaval and the violence.

nehad ismail
commentator on Middle East Affairs based in UK