Middle East Intelligence Bulletin
Jointly published by the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon and the Middle East Forum
  Vol. 6   No. 2/3 Table of Contents
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February-March 2004 


The Myth of Syria's Old Guard
by Gary C. Gambill

Bashar Assad

When Bashar Assad assumed power in Damascus after the death of his late father in June 2000, many Western observers expressed hope that the youngster would introduce political reforms in Syria, modernize its stagnant economy, adopt a more moderate stance toward Israel, and improve Syrian relations with the United States. Three and a half years later, however, the process of political liberalization launched by the late Hafez Assad has ground to a halt and even suffered reversals. Economic reform has fallen by the wayside and high-level corruption has become more rampant than ever. Rather than moderating its stance toward Israel, Syria has dramatically increased the scale and breadth of its sponsorship of militant anti-Israeli terrorist organizations. Instead of upgrading ties with the United States, Assad provided material support to Saddam Hussein's military in the months leading up to Operation Iraqi Freedom - a foolish initiative that did nothing forestall its defeat by US-led coalition forces, but prompted Washington to re-assess its longstanding policy of constructive engagement with Damascus.

In spite of this track record, however, the vast majority of Western journalists, academics, and government officials have yet to utter a disparaging word about Assad, who is frequently described as Western-educated (he isn't - he merely completed part of his medical residency in a London hospital) and reform-minded, with a lasting affinity for the music of Phil Collins and an unshakeable Gameboy addiction. The young dictator's reputation as a well-meaning reformer has remained untarnished in the West because of a pervasive, but highly questionable, assumption about Syrian politics - that Assad is checked at every turn by a powerful cabal of corrupt military and intelligence officials who constitute an independent sphere of authority, the so-called "old guard." The London Times, for example, considers Assad to be "in no position to confront his father's old guard."[1] According to Flynt Leverett, a former senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council, Assad has "demonstrated some reformist impulses, but has been constrained by his father's still-powerful retainers."[2]

The "old guard" assumption underlies most thinking about Syria in the American foreign policy establishment. It is gospel for Syria's apologists in the State Department, who justify constructive engagement on the grounds that it can strengthen Assad's hand against hard-liners. This premise is even accepted by hawks, who typically argue that efforts to woo Assad are misguided because he is not the one running the show in Damascus. This fundamentally benevolent view of Syria's young leader remained unshaken even at the height of Syrian-US tensions last April, when Bush administration officials publicly accused Damascus of funneling arms to Saddam Hussein's military. The Syrian president was never publicly accused of personally approving, or even knowing about, the weapons transfers.

Etymology of a Catch Phrase

References to Syria's "old guard" predate Bashar's ascension. The term first gained currency among Western observers in the mid-1990s, when the elder Assad was said to be on the brink of signing a peace treaty with Israel. In 1994, Janes Defence Weekly reported that Assad was replacing much of the "old-guard, combat-tested officers who have kept him in power since he took over in November 1970, with a new breed of security controllers" who were less opposed to peace.[3] Although Assad did, if fact, fire many senior security officials, he remained as unwilling as ever to make peace with the Jewish state. Nevertheless, the notion that it was the regime's "old guard," not Assad, that obstructed peace persisted. "Assad must still cater to the old guard," reported Business Week in 1999. "The Syrian President maintains his power through a network of military and intelligence commanders, and he must be careful not to look soft in the talks. That's one reason Assad can't afford to settle for anything less than a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights."[4]

Use of the term "old guard" as a means of deflecting responsibility for negative aspects of Syrian policy away from Assad was not confined to the West. Arabic variations of the term have long been used by Syrian intellectuals when criticizing the Assad regime. As in the West, the term was favored not because of its analytical precision, but because of its political correctness. Fearful of disparaging Assad personally, or the regime as a whole, Syrian intellectuals attributed dismal conditions in the country to a nameless clique of power barons standing in the way of needed reforms. Assad was typically portrayed as being unable to assert his authority over the "old guard," not unwilling, for the latter would imply that he was indirectly responsible for its excesses (even oblique criticism of the Syrian dictator was dangerous).

This dynamic is not uncommon in the Arab world. In Jordan, where freedom of expression is much less restrained, the prime minister and his cabinet are regularly pilloried in the media, but no one criticizes the king. In fact, criticisms of the government are frequently couched as appeals to the king, urging him to sack this or that minister or informing him of those who ostensibly scheme behind his back. But no one in Jordan imagines that the king does not personally approve all major government decisions, or that cabinet ministers do not serve in office at his whim.

Following the ascension of Bashar Assad in 2000, references to an "old guard" constraining the young dictator's authority became virtually ubiquitous among Western observers writing about Syria. Although the term's meaning became somewhat more nuanced because of the generational gap between Assad and senior officials in the regime and the former's lack of military credentials, its fundamental connotation remained the same - that Assad's lack of authority, not his mindset or intentions, account for the unsavory behavior of his regime.

Is There an "Old Guard"?

The most obvious flaw in the "old guard" assumption is that it presupposes the existence of cohesive hard-liner and reformist factions of the regime with discernibly different interests. There are, of course, divergences of interests within the regime, but they do not fall neatly into the hard-liner/reformist dichotomy. Due to the dismal performance of Syria's economy in recent years the amount of "surplus" lining the pockets of the regime's top beneficiaries has diminished and competition among them for pieces of an ever-shrinking pie has been quite fierce. Limited economic reforms introduced by Bashar have served to concentrate these diminishing spoils in fewer hands. For example, portions of the traditional Sunni bourgeoisie of Aleppo and Damascus who were coopted by the regime in the 1990s have been brushed aside as private sector businessmen close to Assad have seized control over lucrative markets. Economic opportunities have also become increasingly concentrated within Assad's own clan, at the expense of competing Alawite tribal groups that shared power under his father.[5] In short, the beneficiaries of Assad's presidency are not bona fide economic "reformers" in any meaningful sense of the word, nor are those who have seen their privileges shrink necessarily opponents of economic liberalization.

With respect to political reform, the divergence of interests within the regime is much less discernible. Syria's political and economic elite is strongly united by an overriding stake in the stability of the Baathist regime - were it to collapse, no one who was highly privileged during its reign in power would have much of a future in Syria. Within the regime's Alawite core, a successor government even minimally representative of the country's majority Sunni population is seen as an existential threat. The few Sunnis who occupy high-level positions in government, such as Vice-president Abdul Halim Khaddam and Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass, would not fare much better - in the Middle East, betrayal of one's own ethno-sectarian group is usually viewed as an unforgivable offense.

It is true that Assad inaugurated an expansion of public freedoms during the first six months of his presidency as a means of bolstering the regime's legitimacy. It is also true that the so-called "Damascus Spring" was suddenly brought to a halt in 2001, with the country's ten leading dissidents all finding themselves behind bars by the end of the year. However, the notion that an "old guard" within the regime was responsible for this reversal is a canard. The Damascus Spring was a temporary, carefully managed political opening engineered by Assad to outmaneuver his rivals and consolidate his grip on power by drawing support from outside the regime. Once he had fully asserted his authority, the activities of the reformers became a liability for the Syrian president and were quickly curtailed. While many in the regime had misgivings about the increasingly bold activities of Syrian dissidents, many of those who were arrested ran into trouble after they criticized people close to Bashar or challenged the legacy of his father. For example, the country's leading dissident, MP Riyad Sayf, was arrested after he released a study showing that a lucrative mobile phone contract awarded to Syriatel, a company controlled by Assad's cousin, Rami Makhlouf, would cost the government billions of dollars in lost revenue. Riyad al-Turk was arrested after he condemned the country's "hereditary republic" - a direct swipe at Bashar.

Significantly, this crackdown happened to coincide with major administrative changes in the government and security forces that consolidated Assad's authority. The dramatic expansion of civil liberties that took place early in Assad's tenure was not brought to a halt because the young dictator lacked authority, but because he had acquired enough of it to dispense with reformist pretenses. One striking indication of this is that three quarters of the sixty or so officials in the regime's upper political and military echelon had been replaced by the end of his second year in office.[6]

The old guard concept continues to inform Western thinking in part because of Assad's habitual claims of ignorance regarding his regime's involvement in illicit activities ranging from terrorism to arms trafficking - the idea that he is unaware of or powerless to prevent wrongdoing that draws American criticism is a self-serving lie. But it is an illusion that the Syrian leader is having more and more difficulty maintaining.

Mounting evidence compiled by US authorities in Iraq indicates that Assad almost certainly approved Syrian military assistance to Saddam Hussein prior to the US-led invasion. Documents gleaned from computer hard drives at the Baghdad office of Al-Bashair Trading Company - the largest of the former Iraqi regime's military procurement companies - show that a Syrian company, SES International Corp., signed more than 50 contracts to supply arms and equipment worth tens of millions of dollars to Iraq's military prior to the war. The general manager of SES, Asef Isa Shaleesh, is a first cousin of Assad, and one of its major shareholders, Maj. Gen. Dhu Himma Shaleesh, is a relative of Assad who heads an elite presidential security corps. According to the report, the director-general of Al-Bashair, Munir A. Awad, fled to Syria during the war and is now living there "under government protection."[7] Other captured documents and interviews with captured members of Saddam's inner circle indicate that Iraqi officials met with representatives of North Korea on Syrian soil to negotiate the purchase of missile technology - meetings that would have been impossible without the knowledge of intelligence chiefs close to Assad, such as Maj. Gen. Assef Shawkat.[8]

Of course, a number of senior figures who rose to power during the late Assad's 30-year reign continue to hold positions of influence in Syria (and some who don't continue to be influential behind the scenes), but the commonly-held view that they are in serious conflict with the president and have the power to act independently is unsubstantiated. Indeed, plenty of informed Syrian analysts say it is a myth. "If we speak of two currents (in the regime), that implies that there is conflict between them, but we have not seen evidence of that yet," said Riyad al-Turk after his release from prison last year under pressure from the European Union (which accords him more freedom than his peers to speak candidly).[9] Ibrahim Hamidi, the Damascus correspondent for the London-based daily Al-Hayat, dismisses the idea that there is even a difference in mindsets:

We should be very careful when we talk about the "old guard" and the "reformists." I know some of the "new guard" and they are not very different from the old . . . The maximum they want is to change some names, to get rid of some people. Their goal is continuity, not to make substantial changes beneficial for the people.[10]
"This story of an old guard that prevents some reforms is nonsense," concurs one Syrian businessman interviewed by a Western NGO. "Bashar manipulates everybody and this serves him as a cover, especially for intoxicating European officials who believe in him."[11]

Notes

  [1] "Sitting targets," The Times (London), 7 October 2003.
  [2] "America must do more to engage with Syria," The Financial Times, 9 October 2003.
  [3] Quoted in "Assad shuffles intelligence," The Jerusalem Post, 30 November 1994.
  [4] "Will Peace Push Syria into the Modern World?," Business Week, 27 December 1999.
  [5] See "As Reform Falters, Syrian Elite tighten Grip," The Christian Science Monitor, 30 September 2003.
  [6] See Volker Perthes, Syria Under Bashar al-Assad: Modernization and the Limits of Change (forthcoming).
  [7] "Banned Arms Flowed Into Iraq Through Syrian Firm," The Los Angeles Times, 30 December 2003.
  [8] "For the Iraqis, a Missile Deal That Went Sour; Files Tell of Talks With North Korea," The New York Times, 1 December 2003.
  [9] Interview with Al-Hayat, quoted in "Reform at a Snail's Pace in Damascus," Mideast Mirror, 6 January 2003.
  [10] Alan George, Syria: Neither Bread nor Freedom (London: Zed Books, 2003), p. 162.
  [11] International Crisis Group, Syria Under Bashar (II): Domestic Policy Challenges, 11 February 2004.


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