Across the Bay

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Family Affair

Bashar has appointed his brother-in-law Asef Shawkat as head Military Intelligence, replacing Hasan Khalil. Syrian journalist Ibrahim Hamidi doesn't think that the move is related to recent events, and that might be true since, as my sources tell me, Asef "was more or less running the MI operation anyway." In fact, "there were a number of new appointments to be made in the security services." At the same time, however, this move does seem to confirm what I've written here that Bashar's inner-most circle is really in charge of the whole scene. My source seems to agree that "it does symbolically reveal how the Assads are circling wagons in the family--the first circle of power." My source went even further: "I do lend credence to reports that the Hariri hit was a family affair, and that Assef was the person tasked with carrying it out (probably with [chief of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon, Rustum] Ghazaleh on the ground here)."

My source is not alone on this one. The Kuwaiti daily Al-Seyassah ran a fiery front page (Arabic) today with a provocative headline: "Three Officers Organized Hariri's Assassination: Asef Shawkat and Bahjat Sleiman of the Syrian intelligence, and Jamil As-Sayyed of the Lebanese Sureté Générale." The story goes on to claim that the decision to execute the hit was taken at the highest echelons of power in Damascus right before the Eid al-Adha. Unfortunately, the story doesn't name any sources. However, Walid Jumblat recently made a different accusation. He not only called for the UN to investigate Rustum Ghazale as a suspect in the plot, but in an interview on Hariri's Future TV (see last post), Jumblat made some revealing statements (Arabic) regarding Ghazaleh: "Today, our immunity is lifted. We are condemned to die, and the execution is in the hands of Rustum Ghazaleh or some other officer."

However, Ghazaleh is not named in the reports. As-Sayed would be in on it as his loyalty to Syria is not in doubt, having been hand-picked by the Syrians. Sleiman is the head of the Syrian State Security Services, and he was instrumental in bringing Bashar to power, as the Kuwaiti paper notes. As for Shawkat, he is indeed a shadowy character who's very close to Bashar, beside being married to his sister Bushra. As a source in Lebanon wrote to me, "the idea of tasking both Asef and Suleiman is a trifle odd, given that they are, I presume, rivals, unless it is designed to taint them and therefore make them more loyal." My source added that "Sayyed's inclusion might suggest (if accurate) that locals did the actual legwork, circumventing Ghazaleh and straight to the top." So if this story is true, the trail leads all the way to the top, as we speculated before. I've just heard that Rustum Ghazaleh has been sacked. My source's reaction was "If he was sacked, you can be sure he was innocent." (This last bit of information came after the first about Ghazaleh's possible involvement.)

Which brings us to what that regime is trying to do and how the international community is reacting. Al-Seyassah reports that according to a story on Dutch TV, Bashar pleaded with the Saudis to act as intermediaries with the Hariri family, and was turned down, at least until all investigations are conducted and the perpetrators are brought to justice, and that the Syrians shouldn't interfere in that process. The Syrians were also shunned by the French. According to the story, Bashar extended an offer to Chirac to withdraw Syrian trrops gradually within 6 months, the first redeployment being in two weeks. Chirac reportedly refused to discuss any Syrian offer and insisted that it implement UNR 1559 immediately, fully withdrawing its troops and all its security services permanently, leaving the Lebanese to run their own affairs without any intereference. The Syrians must also concede to an international investigation. In fact, the paper quotes Lebanese Minister of Defense as saying that "the French position was the most extreme of all." It also said that French were prepared to take any measure, keeping all options open, including the military one. Chirac reportedly urged Saud al-Faysal to carry a strong message to Bashar on the need to withdraw immediately and completely. The paper said that Faysal and Chirac met for 45 mins and discussed several points that Chirac will discuss with President Bush in Belgium. Apparently, the French President is extremely concerned about possible escalation and retaliation on the part of the Lebanese and Syrian authorities in Lebanon, perhaps the targeting of other figures or further harrassment. So he has ordered the French embassy to keep a close eye on the situation. Furthermore, the paper reports that the possibility of a direct intervention in case of continued government harrassment, will be at the top of the agenda of the Brussels summit. It also relates that some European sources claim that Chirac is convinced that Bashar will not coply with 1559 except by (military) force. The paper also relates that high-ranking Egyptian officials have also for the first time called on Bashar to withdraw from Lebanon, although it blamed the bad policies on "the Old Guard" which is a theory that no longer convinces me.

So from the looks of it, a broad consensus is in the making. Let's wait and see what happens. It will be rather ironic, as Ajami hinted (see below), if Hafez joined such a coalition against Saddam's Baath, and now his son finds himself on the other end of a similar coalition. Al-Seyassah's editor Ahmad al-Jarallah wrote an editorial making a similar point: "With Saddam's crisis with the international community, we witnessed political divisions in the West, and when war was declared, Germany, France and Arab countries were against it. Whereas in Bashar Asad's case, the international community has reached a consensus on the necessity of the pull-out of Syrian troops from Lebanon, and the need for him to stop supporting terrorists in Iraq. ... No one is with the Syrian regime now, for this regime has become on its own, and will face the punishment of isolation that was faced by Yasser Arafat who remained captive until he died, and Saddam Hussein, until he broke."