Exclusive. Analysis. From GIS Station Damascus.
The inner circle of Syrian Pres. Bashar al-Assad began to show the serious signs of real or imagined pressures in June 2007. The predominant concern of the inner circle around the President is Bashar's own growing fear that he will end up like the late Iraqi President, Saddam Hussein.
Bashar al-Assad is convinced that, with Damascus increasingly ensnared in Iran's web of confrontation with the West, it is only a question of time before the US, Israel, or any one of the European allies whose forces are with UNIFIL in Lebanon and whose economies depends on Persian Gulf oil will decide to put an end to the thinly-veiled hostile actions of Damascus.
The key officials involved in these disputes are: Bashar al-Assad; his brother Maher al-Assad; brother-in-law Gen. Assef Shawqat (Director of Military Intelligence); sister Bushra (Mrs Shawqat); and Bashar's cousin Rami Makhlouf.
These are not idle fears. Damascus is presently involved in sponsoring terrorism at the heart of West, in the destabilization of Lebanon, in supporting a myriad of Palestinian terrorist groups and jihadist movements — both Sunni and Shi’ite (HizbAllah) — in Lebanon, and in facilitating the escalation of the anti-US escalation in Iraq and the a web of jihadist groups (again both Sunni and Shi’ite) in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States.
Moreover, Syria markedly increased the flow of weapons, of both Syrian and Iranian origin, to a myriad groups and organizations in Lebanon (mainly Palestinian jihadist groups and the HizbAllah).
Faced with the specter of escalation — mainly US and Israeli retaliation — the inner-circle in Damascus is increasingly concerned by the possible loss of perks and power. At the same time, Bashar and his inner-circle are cognizant that fleeing Damascus would only embolden and encourage their enemies.
Hence, there have developed bitter disputes on how to confront the challenges and whether to offer compromises to the West.
Under the surface, there is a major dispute between Bashar and Rami Makhlouf. For years, Makhlouf has been responsible for smuggling, concealing and investing the personal funds of Bashar al-Assad. His importance grew as other members of the inner-circle were slapped with sanctions and their bank accounts frozen.
However, in recent weeks, Bashar was becoming apprehensive about the loyalty of Makhlouf and ordered the gradual dissolution of their business partnership, the removal of funds from joint accounts and selling of stocks. Most of the funds were invested in a series of special accounts, some in London, in the name of Bashar's wife and her family.
Rami Makhlouf now argues that Bashar removed funds in excess of his share in their joint accounts and investments. Both had bitter quarrels in which Makhlouf threatened Bashar.
The second conflict is strategic-political and its reverberations are affecting the entire political scene in Damascus. This conflict is the deterioration of a long-standing dispute between Bashar, on the one hand, and Maher al-Assad and Assaf Shawqat on the other.
Bushra is wavering, frequently changing sides, and thus adding to the instability at the top. The roots of the conflict lie in the dispute over what should be Damascus' reaction to the implications of both Maher and Assaf being involved in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri on February 14, 2005, (and subsequently several other Lebanese politicians). Although Bashar was also implicated, the international tribunal expressed an interest only in Maher and Assaf.
Needless to say, the two named suspects do not want to be extradited, but Bashar is adamant on remaining in power even if it means placating the West (by, among other ways, floating rumors about willingness to negotiate peace with Israel). Bushra is wavering between loyalty to her brother and her husband.
The position of Maher and Assaf is that there is no way the West would make a deal with Bashar al-Assad, given Syria's sponsorship of terrorism and insurgency throughout the region.
Besides, they argue, the US is on the verge of defeat in, and withdrawal from, Iraq while Iran is the winning power on the ascent. They note, quite correctly, that Damascus is closely allied with Tehran and would thus benefit from Tehran's victory.
Moreover, the Arab world — led by the pro-US Riyadh and Cairo — wants a Sunni administration in Damascus, and is pushing former Syrian Vice-President Abdul Halim Khaddam and the Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood), so that Bashar had no hope there, either.
Hence, only the major contribution of the ascent of Iran — that is, actively expediting and contributing to Iranian victory — would increase Tehran's regional posture and commitment to Damascus.
Presently, Maher and Assaf both convinced Bashar that theirs' is the only way out of the current crisis, as well as markedly increased the Syrian sponsorship of, and involvement in, terrorism and insurgency throughout the region, thus making it virtually impossible for Bashar to extricate himself even if he wanted to.
The United Nations Security Council on May 30, 2007, authorized the formation of an international tribunal to try suspects in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. The International Court came into force on June 10, 2007, although Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said in early June 2007 that Damascus would not co-operate with the tribunal.