Across the Bay

Thursday, February 17, 2005

All in the Family

Joshua Landis put up a very important post today that validates much of what I wrote about the Syrian ruling elite:

    “The decision to extend President Emile Lahoud’s term was taken by the Asad family itself.”

    So said a smart diplomat when we met yesterday to discuss the crisis. “We know that,” he said.” Vice President Khaddam and Interior Minister Canaan – Syria’s most knowledgeable Lebanon hands who long handled the Lebanon portfolio – recommended against extending Lahoud’s term and manipulating the Lebanese constitution as if it were the Syrian constitution. “They were over-ruled by the Asad family itself,” the diplomat said. The decision turned out to be a fateful one, for it set Syria on its recent collision course with Lebanon.
    The diplomat I spoke with believes the reason the Asad family overruled the older generation of experienced Lebanon hands was that family members such as Bashar’s brother Maher and his cousin Rami Makhlouf had important business dealings in Lebanon which depended on Lahoud. “They needed Lahoud to stay for their own interests,” he said. “The family members were pushing for his retention. Perhaps they were trying to create their own Lebanon policy and side-line the ‘old guard,’” he added. “Maybe Bashar went along because he is trying to create his own base of power?”

If you remember, I mentioned my talk with a knowledgeable source in Lebanon when I was there who told me the exact same thing on Bashar and his immediate family making all the decisions on Lebanon, not just the extension of Lahoud's term, but also the attempt on MP Hamade (which has nothing to do with just business deals), and now with Hariri. Like I said, the decisions were made at the very top, and that means Bashar and his family (people tend to forget that that country, like Iraq under Saddam, is a family owned business. Their methods also are "family" type methods: the Corleone family that is. Walid Jumblat, referring to how Bashar cowed Hariri to go along with the Lahoud extension, said that Assad made him "an offer he couldn't refuse." Other reports claim that Bashar made a hand gesture to Hariri which made him understand what it meant if he refused to go along. A similar account involving Assad senior and Walid Jumblat can be found in Tom Friedman's From Beirut to Jerusalem.)

In fact, from Josh's post you realize that it's not Bashar who's out of the loop, but the "Old Guard!" It's the opposite of the commonly held belief! Take a look at what he writes about Khaddam and the Lahoud extension:

    Undoubtedly, Hariri’s friends in Damascus, such as Khaddam, had not prepared him for the Asad meeting. Hariri was understandably incensed to be taken so off-guard and cut out of the decision-making process. From what the diplomat explained to me, we can conclude that the reason Khaddam could not warn him or bring him into the decision-making process was because Khaddam himself did not believe that Lahoud would be kept on. Perhaps he and other “old guard” advisors had assured Hariri that Syria would do no such thing. The Syrian government had, after all, announced only weeks before the elections were to take place that it would not interfere. In all likelihood, Hariri had been assured by his “old guard” Syrian friends that the presidential election would go forward without Lahoud. Clearly, Hariri was used to knowing and being consulted about such momentous decisions before the fact. The Asad overrule and disarray within the Syrian chain of command drove Hariri into the opposition. Eventual[ly], it led to his death.

I heard a similar theory in the aftermath of the attempt on Hamade, when Khaddam was the first to fly down to Lebanon and run to Hamade's bedside, where he was almost shredded by the Druze masses who were barely restrained by Jumblat. An informed friend in Lebanon told me that he believed that Khaddam wanted to make sure to let the Druze and his Lebanese connections know that he had nothing to do with the hit! I.e., this was Bashar's (or his inner family's) decision. Again, it goes all the way to the top. Bashar is in full control of the Lebanese dossier, as Josh himself wrote a couple of days ago.

Josh continues, also echoing my reading of the lack of a long term strategy on the part of the Syrian regime:

    This is where the speculation within the diplomatic community begins to veer off into a number of directions. The diplomat, then concluded, “There doesn’t seem to be anyone at the top with a real sense of long-term strategy for Syria’s foreign policy. It is being patched together for reasons which are hard to figure. In the past, Hafiz al-Asad was the strategist. He had a clear vision of what Syria’s ultimate goals should be. Today, it is not clear where Syria is headed or why decisions are being made.”

As such, Josh's conclusion is rather inconsistent with his analysis, and I wonder if he's restraining himself because he's currently in Damascus and doesn't want to get into trouble. If not, then he seems to contradict what he himself had said in this post and his previous posts. In the end he falls back on a variation of the "Syro-Lebanese mafia" theory, but he had just shown that it was Bashar's inner circle (his brother and cousin) who comprise that mafia! That's why I think he left the door open in his final rhetorical question: "Could Bashar not know about this?" Based on what Josh said, the answer is obviously "no!"

The idea that the Lebanese cronies would do something of this magnitude without the Syrians' knowledge and ok is simply laughable. Bashar, if not in complete control -- which is what I and my sources in Lebanon think -- is fully knowledgeable of what has been taking place. It's not he who is not in control. The opposite is true, only he and his inner circle are running the show. The disastrous results point to a mediocre strategist and a poor politician, a novice along with corrupt family members, all interested in maintaining their wealth and status, with no regard for long term strategy.