Al-Ahram Weekly Online   19 - 25 June 2008
Issue No. 902
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

No internal threats

The Syrian regime doesn't have partners and doesn't allow power sharing, but is willing to listen, writes Basel Oudat

No power struggle exists in Syria, simply because no group is strong enough to challenge the regime. There are no groups within the regime that band together for political purposes or seek to seize power. Although there are differences of opinion on domestic and foreign policy among top aides, those differences are insignificant. The Syrian regime "has no partners, but only groups of allies or advisers or senior functionaries who may offer an opinion when asked, but no one has a right to speak out of turn or take part in decision-making," one observer said.

The Syrian regime depends on three major institutions to stay in power: the Baath Party, the army and the security and intelligence apparatus.

The Baath Party is the sole decision- maker in the country, at least according to the constitution. In real life, however, the party's National Command (NC, qiyada qotriya ) is little more than a rubberstamp committee. The NC approves without much debate the nomination of ministers, parliamentary members, governors and other top officials. It has never been known to oppose the president or make up its mind on public matters, whether political, economic, or cultural. In brief, the NC is a tool rather than a true associate in power. Its main role is bureaucratic and it doesn't venture much into decision-making.

The Syrian army was once known for its tendencies to stage coups. But that was in the 1950s and 1960s. Thanks to regulations introduced by late president Hafez Al-Assad, the army is closely monitored. Its top brass are all decidedly pro-government and have little interest in politics. For at least the two years preceding his accession to power, President Bashar Al-Assad handpicked the army's top echelons, mostly from the younger officers he trusted.

The best trained and armed army unit, the Republican Guard, is based in Damascus and led by Maher Al-Assad, Bashar's brother. With its superior capabilities, the Republican Guard is in a position to quash any potential coup.

The main job of the security forces is to keep the country in an iron grip; it has no interest in politics and poses no challenge to the regime. Lightly armed and structurally diffused, these forces take orders from the president directly. Their job is to hunt down the regime's opponents and carry out routine law enforcement operations.

The man who calls all the shots is President Bashar Al-Assad. The Syrian constitution grants extensive authority to the president, and these powers are endorsed by the Baath Party. Doubtless, the president listens to his top aides, such as Foreign Minister Walid Al-Muallem, but he doesn't have to agree or even to discuss matters with him. Farouq Al-Sharaa, the vice-president, used to have the president's ear while in the Foreign Ministry but not anymore. In economic matters, the president listens attentively to Abdallah Al-Dardiri, the deputy prime minister for foreign affairs, who is known for his enthusiasm for market economics. Key businessmen are also regularly consulted on policy.

In early May, the German newspaper Die Welt claimed that the regime foiled a coup attempt by General Assef Shawkat, chief of the Syrian military intelligence and a brother-in-law of the president. Arab and international media said Shawkat was relieved from all official duties. Intelligence Online spoke of divisions within the regime and quarrels among the president's relatives. Some reports claimed that Shawkat was dismissed because of failed negotiations with Washington.

The fact, however, is that Shawkat has not been relieved from his post as chief of military intelligence. He appeared on Syrian television while attending a military event recently. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a major Syrian opposition figure told Al-Ahram Weekly that Shawkat's appearance on television "was staged to end the rumour of his being under house arrest". Right now, Shawkat goes regularly to his office in Damascus, but it is believed that his second in command is doing all the work. Some observers believe that Shawkat's fall from favour was due to non-political reasons.

Without any military units under his command, it is hard to imagine that Shawkat would even think of staging a coup. And as it turned out, he is not under house arrest despite claims by Abdul-Halim Khaddam. The former vice- president now living in exile maintains that Shawkat "is under house arrest, practically living in prison with guards and all". According to well-informed Syrian sources, Shawkat incurred the ire of the president for reasons unrelated to his relations with America, Israel, Iran or Palestinian organisations.

To sum up, the man who holds all the power in Syria is President Bashar Al-Assad. He listens to aides within the party, the military, or other institutions, but the final decision is all his. Syria has no group or organisation capable of staging a coup, and differences within the ruling class do not amount to a power struggle. Still, everyone within the ruling circles is aware of the many problems facing the country.

The economy is in dire straits, the country is having trouble with several Arab regimes, and its ties with Iran, Hizbullah, and Palestinian organisations are problematic. With the US and Europe on its back and Israel promising to negotiate, Syria can use a change of policy perhaps, but the regime is in no immediate threat. The Syrian opposition, in particular, the Damascus Declaration group, is too weak to pose any real threat for the regime. In its statements, the opposition calls for democratisation and rotation of power, but stops short of calling for a regime change.

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