Middle East Intelligence Bulletin
Jointly published by the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon and the Middle East Forum
  Vol. 2   No. 5

1 June 2000 

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Syria's Night of Long Knives
by Gary C. Gambill

Bashar Assad, the son and heir apparent of Syrian President Hafez Assad, has begun what promises to be the most extensive political purge in modern Syrian history in reaction to the deteriorating health of his father, and the eclipse of the peace process with Israel. The investigation and indictment of current and former government officials on corruption charges has proceeded at breakneck speed, while Bashar's allies stand poised to seize full control of the ruling Ba'ath party at its ninth congress on June 17.

Mahmoud Zoubi
Former Syrian Prime Minister Mahmoud al-Zu'bi
    The most dramatic political downfall was that of former Prime Minister Mahmoud al-Zu'bi, who ousted on March 7 amid accusations of corruption and mismanagement and banned from leaving the country. On May 10, the Ba'ath Party National Command expelled Zu'bi from the party for "actions, behavior and untrustworthiness which are contrary to the values, ethics, and principles of the party, violate the law, and caused immense damage to the reputation of the party, state, and national economy."1 This was only the third time that a high-ranking member of the Ba'ath party had been publicly disgraced in such a fashion (the only precedents being Rifaat Assad in 1998 and former Deputy Prime Minister Muhammad Haidar in 1999). Three days later, Syrian Finance Minister Muhammad Khalid al-Mahayini issued a decree freezing Zu'bi's assets "in order to safeguard the public funds in the light of what will be revealed by the investigations."2 Although the exact nature of his transgressions was not officially revealed, press reports have indicated that Zu'bi and his two sons, who headed Syria's Higher Council for Investment, were accused of embezzling millions of dollars. Shortly thereafter Zu'bi was indicted on charges of corruption and "harming the national economy" during his 13-year tenure in office and scheduled to go on trial before the economic security court, which hears cases of government corruption and regularly imposes sentences of over 20 years in prison with hard labor.

    Zu'bi never had his day in court. The Syrian interior ministry released a brief statement on May 21 explaining that the former prime minister committed suicide after police arrived to arrest him at his home in the Damascus suburb of Dumer. "After the [police] commander conveyed the demand to Zu'bi's family, a shot was heard upstairs, fired by Zu'bi at himself with his own pistol on the second floor of his house," said the statement. "Mr. Zu'bi was rushed to the al-Muwasat hospital in Damascus but he died at the hospital."3

    The official account of Zu'bi's death was ridiculed by members of the London-based Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, who pointed out that he had been under house arrest for over a week--security forces had thoroughly searched his home and would not have allowed him to keep possession of a firearm. Putting Zu'bi on trial would have risked exposing top government and party officials currently aligned with Bashar who, by most accounts, are nearly as corrupt themselves. Allowing him to make such embarrassing revelations in court would have undermined Bashar's efforts to lay all of the blame for Syria's stagnant economy on Zu'bi and other former members of his cabinet.4 Erroneous reports of a previous suicide attempt by Miru, published in several Arab media outlets earlier this month, may have been deliberately leaked by Syrian officials in order to lend credence to official claims that Zu'bi's death was self-inflicted.5

    In addition to Zu'ibi, scores of other former and current government officials have been targeted by Bashar's investigative dragnet during the last month:

    The timing of this purge appears intended to consolidate Bashar's authority and credentials as a government reformer in advance of the ruling Ba'ath Party's ninth congress, scheduled to open on June 17. The 950 delegates who attend this meeting, most of whom were chosen during preliminary local party elections last month, will elect a new 21-member Regional Command Council (as well as the less powerful 90-member Central Committee). Bashar, who currently holds no high-level position within the party, is widely expected to be elected to the Regional Command and may also succeed in securing the election of two of his closest allies, Suleiman Qaddah and Sa'id Hamadi. Bashar's supporters in the party, who now include Abdullah al-Ahmar, the deputy secretary-general of the party's Pan-Arab command, have been actively seeking to influence the election of favorable delegates by the local party branches.

    Politics in Syria is (like everywhere else) a zero-sum game--for every winner there must be a loser. Bashar's power play, if successful, will necessarily involve the ouster of several key political figures on the council whose loyalty to the heir of Syria's dictatorship has been called into question. The violent downfall of Zu'bi was probably intended to frighten members of the "old guard" and induce them to withdraw from the party apparatus on their own accord. Four senior members of the Regional Command--Vice-President Abdul Halim Khaddam, Vice-President Zuhair Masharqa, former chief of staff Hikmat Shihabi, and former prime minister Abd al-Ra'uf al-Kasm--have publicly boycotted the electoral process, while working quietly behind the scenes to undermine Bashar's efforts to seize control over the Regional Command.8

    Bashar's decision to directly challenge these political heavyweights is surprising--Khaddam, al-Kasm, and Shihabi were close allies of the elder Assad long before his ascension to power in 1970. This suggests that his ailing father, who reportedly suffered another stroke earlier this Spring,9 is now politically out of commission. The Syrian dictator's withdrawal from public view has become virtually complete--he made no appearances, either in public or on television, at all during the latter of May. One story making the rounds in Damascus is that Chief of Staff Gen. Ali Aslan refused a request by the Command of Syria's Republic Guard, which is aligned with Bashar, to deploy his army units to provide security at Zu'bi's funeral, insisting that he would wait until receiving a direct order to this effect from the Syrian president. The order from Assad never came . . . eventually, one of the Republican Guard units was sent.10

  1 Al-Quds al-Arabi (London), 12 May 2000.
  2 Al-Ba'ath (Damascus), 15 May 2000.
  3 Syrian Arab News Agency (Damascus), 21 May 2000.
  4 Al-Quds al-Arabi (London), 22 May 2000.
  5 See Al-Rai al-Am, 12 May 2000, and Al-Hayat   6 Al-Majd (Amman), 15 May 2000.
  7 Al-Ba'ath (Damascus), 29 May 2000.
  8 Al-Quds al-Arabi, 30 May 2000.
  9 The Sunday Telegraph (London), 30 April 2000.
  10 Mideast Mirror, 30 May 2000.

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