Al-Ahram Weekly Online   16 - 22 February 2006
Issue No. 782
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Strengthening the line

A presidential cabinet shake-up leaves Syria's Baath Party more firmly in command, writes Sami Moubayed

President Bashar Al-Assad reshuffled the cabinet of Prime Minister Mohamed Naji Al-Otari 11 February, ending months of speculation in Syria. In all, 12 out of 33 ministers were changed. The upper hand, as always in Syria, went to the ruling Baath Party who maintained control of the ministries of interior, foreign affairs, defence, education, economy, finance, and information.

The new composition in itself is no surprise to the Syrians. Otari, a Baathist, remains in his post, despite great frustration at his snail-paced reforms, and Al-Assad's long-serving Foreign Minister Farouk Al-Sharaa at 68 became vice- president of the republic. The veteran Al-Sharaa fills the vacant post of former vice-president Abdul-Halim Khaddam, who stepped down in June 2005 and moved into the opposition last December. It is yet to be revealed if Al-Sharaa's new post is an upgrade, wherein he will be given real powers and room to manoeuvre, or signal that his political role is finished and he has begun his slow march into the annals of history. After all, the post of vice-president is a relatively new one in Syria, created by a bedridden Hafez Al-Assad in 1984. He had two deputies, Zuhayr Masharka and Khaddam. Masharka was colourless and powerless while Khaddam commanded very strong influence through handling the then-called "Lebanon file".

Will Al-Sharaa be another Masharka or another Khaddam? Indication that his new job is not a polite route to retirement, however, came in the presidential decree naming Al-Sharaa vice-president, wherein is stated that Al-Sharaa is to be furnished "with a mandate to follow-up on implementation of foreign and media policy under directors of the president." Primarily, this is because Al-Assad has great trust in Al-Sharaa. By all accounts, he is financially honest. The ex-foreign minister, however, is vehemently condemned by regime critics, considered responsible for Syria's blunders before, during, and after the war on Iraq in March 2003, and blameworthy for UN Security Council Resolution 1559. Yet having been minister for 22 years there is reason for keeping him partially in control of foreign affairs. He cannot suddenly abandon his job without securing a smooth transition for his successor, who is his former deputy, Walid Al-Moualim.

Replacing Al-Moualim as deputy foreign minister is Faysal Miqdad, a protégé of Al-Sharaa who was Syria's ambassador to the United Nations. Al-Moualim's good points are that he is a career diplomat, who rose from attaché at Syrian embassies worldwide to become Syria's ambassador to the United States, 1990-1999. He is highly experienced in dealing with the Americans, having served through the Gulf War of 1991, the Madrid Peace Conference, and the Syrian-Israeli peace talks under former president Bill Clinton in the 1990s. Al-Moualim is fluent in languages, worldly, cunning, and highly adaptive to changing political circumstances. He is highly opposed to confrontation with the United States and is a master of strengthening Syria's ties in the Arab world.

Al-Sharaa on the other hand, was parachuted into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as ambassador to Italy by then-Foreign Minister Khaddam in 1976. Before that he had been manager of Syrian-Arab Airways. He is a hardliner who still believes that Syria must grant no concessions whatsoever to the United States since America cannot survive in the Middle East without Syria. His aggressive diplomacy once paid off, particularly at the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991 when he endeared himself to the Syrians and Arabs by displaying a "Wanted!" picture of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir. Al-Sharaa addressed the conference and said, "I will just show you, if I may, an old photograph of Mr Shamir. Why was this picture distributed? Because he was wanted! He helped, as I recall, in the assassination of Count Bernadotte, the UN mediator in Palestine in 1948. He kills peace mediators!" His critics accuse him of not understanding how much the world has changed after the 9/11 attacks on Washington and New York City.

Other changes in the Otari cabinet include reducing the number of independent ministers, and an alarming increase of Baathists. One notable change was replacing independent Minister of Higher Education Hani Murtada with Giath Barakat, a ranking Baathist. Murtada's appointment two years ago gave Syrians hope that President Al-Assad wanted to de-Baathify the Ministry of Higher Education, which had been held by the Baathists since 1963. Barakat, born 1953, studied education at Texas University and was a professor at Aleppo University, in addition to being in charge of higher education at the National Command of the Baath Party.

Another significant change was the retirement of Information Minister Mehdi Dakhlallah, a ranking Baathist, and his replacement by Mohsen Bilal, Syria's ambassador to Spain, who is also a Baathist. The post has often been given to ambassadors, like Adnan Umran and Ahmed Al-Hassan, who, although hard working, failed in this capacity because they were strangers in the media world. Dakhlallah, former editor of the Baath Party's daily Al-Baath, was an exception but he was also a thundering failure in his job, especially after the murder of Lebanon's Prime Minister Rafik Al-Hariri February 2005. His successor Bilal, born 1944, is a surgeon who was educated in Italy and the United States. He served as a deputy in the People's Assembly in the 1970s and 1980s and became ambassador to Spain in 2001.

Other changes included appointing General Bassam Abdul-Majid as minister of interior. That post has been vacant since General Ghazi Kenaan committed suicide October 2005. Abdul-Majid had served as director of Military Police since 2003 and is the first Circassian to assume senior office since 1963. Riyad Naasan Agha, Syria's ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, replaced minister of culture Mahmoud Al-Sayed. A man of the arts, Naasan Agha was also director of political affairs in the office of late president Hafez Al-Assad.

Two notable newcomers are Joseph Suwayd, a deputy in the People's Assembly who is a member of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), and Al-Assad's adviser Amr Salem. Suwayd, who became minister of state, is the first member of the SSNP to officially assume cabinet office since the party was outlawed in 1954 (and restored in 2005). Salem, an independent who replaced Telecommunications Minister Bashir Al-Munajid, held managerial posts at Microsoft in the US. Baathists replaced two other independents, however: tourism minister Makram Obeid and petroleum minister Ibrahim Haddad.

Those kept in their posts were Baathists: Finance Minister Mohamed Al-Hussein and Economy Minister Amer Lutfi. But independent deputy prime minister for Economic Affairs Abdullah Al-Dardari was also retained, ending speculation that he would be named prime minister. This sends contradictory signals to the Syrians, since economic decision- making is left in the hands of two Baathists -- Lutfi and Hussein -- and a strong independent -- Dardari.

Others to stay onboard are Defence Minister Hassan Turkmani, Expatriate Minister Buthaina Shaaban, Justice Minister Mohamed Al-Ghufary, Tourism Minister Saadallah Agha Al-Kalaa, Presidential Affairs Minister Ghassan Al-Lahham, and Education Minister Ali Al-Saad.

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