Friday, October 28, 2005

Inner Circle in Syria Holds Power, and Perhaps Peril

In a revealing report, Washington Post takes its readers through the labyrinth of power and decision-making in Syria and sheds more light on the family that has long ruled Syria with an Iron fist:

The brother is an impetuous officer, who wields control over the praetorian Republican Guard. The sister is nicknamed "the Iron Lady." Her husband is a burly general who rose methodically through the ranks of Syria's feared intelligence services. Presiding over them is Bashar Assad, the Syrian president who runs what some have called "a dictatorship without a dictator."

Diplomats and analysts say that together, the four represent the corporate leadership of Syria, a country facing its greatest crisis in decades following the release of a U.N. investigation that implicates senior officials in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. In this crisis, they say, the Assad family circle is a source of the president's strength. It may also be his weakness. If his relatives are directly linked to the killing, the scandal could bring down his government.

Both Assad's brother Maher and his brother-in-law, Asef Shawkat, were named in earlier versions of the report, although many diplomats here said the evidence was spotty. The Syrian government has repeatedly denied any role in the killing.

"It is about interests at the end of the day," said a Syrian intellectual familiar with members of the government but speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of harassment. "They say, 'We have to protect our own, otherwise we will all go down together.' "

As the U.N. Security Council debates a resolution demanding Syria's cooperation with the investigation, Assad's inner circle is the focus of attention in the country, where reading the Kremlin-like tea leaves is an intellectual pastime. Many here believe any change in the government would come from within. But as long as the circle remains unbroken, many also suspect the government can endure the short-term crisis, even if few can sketch out a scenario that would end Syria's isolation.

The reliance of Syria's leadership on family is not unusual in the Middle East, where an array of authoritarian republics and monarchies have reserved strategic positions for sons, brothers and other relatives.

But interviews with Syrian analysts, diplomats, dissidents and intellectuals paint a picture of a tightknit circle that has dramatically narrowed over the five-year tenure of Assad, who succeeded his father, Hafez, in 2000. Most stalwarts of his father's rule have been forced out, many hailing from the minority Alawite clan that has buttressed the rule of the Baath Party in Syria for 35 years; one of the last, the powerful Interior Minister Ghazi Kanaan, was said to have committed suicide this month in Damascus...