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5 June 2006

False dawn for democracy

Syria - It was hoped that a new, young leader would end a paranoid reliance on the secret service. T

By Nicholas Blanford

For more than four decades, Syria’s numerous intelligence and security services have been a vital prop in bolstering the Ba’athist regime in Damascus, stifling internal dissent and plotting coups, assassinations and bombings in neighbouring states. Under intense international pressure, the Syrian regime is resorting once more to the feared mukhabarat to strengthen its grip on the country and quell mounting domestic criticism. At least a dozen leading democracy campaigners and civil-rights activists were arrested in May, in the largest crackdown for years.

Among those detained were the human-rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni and the writer Michel Kilo, one of Syria’s best-known dissidents. The arrests came days after several Syrian and Lebanese intellectuals had signed the Damascus-Beirut Dec-laration, a petition calling for an improvement in the strained relations between Syria and Lebanon, the exchange of diplomats, and the demarcation of the border between the two countries. Ties between Lebanon and Syria have deteriorated since the assassination last year of Rafiq Hariri, a Lebanese former prime minister, and the subsequent withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon, ending a military presence of 29 years.

The crackdown, which was criticised by international human-rights organisations, harks back to the days of Hafez al-Assad, the formidable and wily president who ruled Syria from 1970 until his death in 2000. Under him, the four main branches of the Syrian intelligence services had overlapping responsibilities and reported directly to the president – a means of preventing the emergence of centres of power that could threaten the regime.

During the 1980s, Assad relied heavily on his internal security services to confront the challenge mounted by his domestic enemies, in particular the Islamist radicals of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which waged a bloody campaign of bombings and shootings against the secular state in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Assad also engaged in “intelligence wars” – a Middle Eastern euphemism for terrorist campaigns – against his neighbours in the turbulent mid-1980s, when he was at odds with Jordan and Saddam Hussein’s rival Ba’athist state in Iraq.

Between 1983 and 1984, war-stricken Lebanon was caught in a regional power struggle between Syria and Israel. When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, Syria’s military intelligence expertly manipulated Lebanon’s warring factions to gain more leverage. Damascus helped radical Shia Muslim groups ensnare Israeli troops in a bloody guerrilla war in southern Lebanon and drive US peacekeepers from Beirut.

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Radical Palestinian groups were granted refuge in Damascus and they, in exchange, placed their resources at the disposal of the Syrian state. Assad’s reliance on hired guns such as Sabri al-Banna, better known as Abu Nidal, occasionally backfired – for instance, in the unauthorised attack on a Pan Am flight at Karachi airport in Pakistan in September 1986 and the attempted bombing of an El Al airliner en route from London to Tel Aviv five months earlier. The latter operation, known as the Hindawi affair after the Syrian air force agent who handed a suitcase bomb to his unwitting Irish girlfriend as she travelled to Israel, led to Britain and the United States severing diplomatic relations with Damascus. Assad, after discovering that the plot was a rogue operation, ordered a purge of his intelligence services.

Syria’s ruthless use of its agents to further foreign-policy goals and suppress internal dissent matched other Arab-world dictatorships that have relied on the mukhabarat for survival. Certainly the strictures of Assad’s regime paled in comparison to the tyranny of Saddam Hussein in neighbouring Iraq. Even King Hussein’s Jordan, long an ally of the US and as such usually spared the west’s moral opprobrium, almost equalled Assad’s regime in violence during their mutual terrorist war in the mid-1980s.

Syria’s clandestine “intelligence wars” ended in the late 1980s, and from 1991 Assad was regarded as a partner of the US in the Middle East peace process with Israel. Assad, however, kept his options open, continuing to provide support for rejectionist Palestinian groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and, most notably, providing political backing for the Shia Hezbollah’s campaign of resistance against Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon.

Assad died in 2000 and was replaced by his son Bashar, then aged 34. Much hope was vested in Bashar al-Assad, an eye doctor who was expected to reform the creaking, ossified Ba’athist state, ending its paranoid reliance on the security services and ushering his nation into the globalised economy of the 21st century.

Bashar flirted with political reforms in the first months of his presidency, but the rigid security structure of the regime and the vested interests of its leaders soon ensured that the so-called Damascus Spring would prove a false dawn for democracy. Support for the Palestinians in their intifada against Israel and staunch opposition to US plans for ousting Saddam Hussein placed Syria at odds with the administration led by George W Bush. Bashar’s increasing isolation was compounded by serious policy blunders, including support for the Iraqi resistance against US-led coalition forces following the invasion in March 2003.

But it was in Lebanon that Syria perhaps made its greatest miscalculation. Although Rafiq Hariri had worked closely with the Syrian authorities while premier in the 1990s, his relationship with Bashar and the new, younger regime from 2000 onwards became increasingly strained, aggravated by the scheming of his political enemies in Lebanon, including the pro-Syrian president Émile Lahoud. Hariri sought to place relations between Beirut and Damascus on a more equitable footing, no longer dominated by the Syrian and Lebanese intelligence agencies. But under the influence of a pernicious whispering campaign by pro-Syrian Lebanese, the regime in Damascus came to regard Hariri as a threat, an immensely wealthy and powerful Sunni who was plotting with the Americans and French against Syria.

After his political nemesis Lahoud was granted a three-year presidential extension in September 2004, Hariri gradually shifted to the ranks of the anti-Syrian opposition, a move that threatened Syria’s hold on Lebanon and, crucially, the millions of dollars earned each year by senior regime figures and intelligence officers through an endemic system of racketeering and corruption.

Hariri was killed in a huge bomb blast in cen-tral Beirut on Valentine’s Day 2005, a murder most Lebanese immediately pinned on Syrian intelligence. If Hariri’s murder was intended to cow the Lebanese opposition, it had the opposite effect, giving rise to a month-long “independence uprising” of anti-Syrian street protests that culminated in Damascus withdrawing its troops at the end of April last year.

A United Nations in-vestigation into Hariri’s assassination has reported “converging evidence” that points to the involvement of senior Syrian intelligence officials and their former Lebanese allies. Four of Lebanon’s former top security chiefs have languished in jail since last summer; there is also intense speculation that the UN commission, which releases a key progress report in mid-June, may name senior Syrian officials as suspects in Hariri’s murder, including Asef Shawkat, the head of military intelligence and Bashar’s brother-in-law.

If the UN commission accuses Syrian officials of Shawkat’s standing, the blow to the regime will be immeasurable, perhaps leaving Bashar to reflect on how the excesses of his mukhabarat in Lebanon, instead of safeguarding his regime, could ultimately prove its undoing.

Nicholas Blanford is a Beirut-based correspondent and the author of Killing Mr Lebanon: the assassination of Rafiq Hariri and its impact on the Middle East, to be published this summer by I B Tauris

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