Across the Bay

Friday, May 27, 2005

Ignatius Gets it Wrong

David Ignatius has a piece on Syria in today's WaPo. Half of it is good and the other half is not so good (even if it's meant to be a look into Bashar's head). Here's a paragraph that exemplifies the not so good part:

What has brought Assad to this crossroads, of course, is the debacle of the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon. Assad insists to intimates that he wasn't responsible for the murder of Lebanese opposition leader Rafiq Hariri. But he realizes that he blundered by accepting the advice of Syria's old guard (bolstered by its Lebanese clients) to impose an additional term for pro-Syrian president Emile Lahoud last year. When Lebanese rose up by the hundreds of thousands to protest Syria's continuing occupation after Hariri's murder, Assad concluded that keeping his army in Lebanon was a loser and decided to withdraw the troops. Some Syrians believe Assad is quietly purging the senior intelligence and foreign policy officials who managed the old Lebanon policy; others aren't sure he has the political clout.

I've noted before how people have totally bought into Bashar's Old Guard myth. It's total garbage. I don't know if Ignatius does buy it, but that paragraph comes close.

Reality is the exact opposite. Fact of the matter is that the Old Guard were all sidelined from way back, especially on the Lebanon file. Khaddam was removed, Ghazi Kanaan was called back, and the intelligence services were effectively being run by Bashar's in-law even before he was officially named as their head.

So when Marwan Hamade was almost blown up to pieces, the first person to fly in to Beirut was Khaddam. Why? To make sure his "clients" knew that he had nothing to do with it! Recently, Hariri's top aide in an interview in Al-Hayat pointed the finger directly at Bashar (so did Johnny Abdo, who was also close to Hariri), not the Old Guard, and gave reasons as to why. It turns out Hariri's personal relationship with Bashar was horrible from the start. He relates a very telling story way before the latest stormy meeting with Bashar. He said that Kanaan and other security chiefs were present at the meeting and so was Bashar. The one who was barking and insulting Hariri was Bashar, accusing him of all kinds of "treasonous" activities (the same paranoia led Bashar to believe that Hariri was behind 1559, which led him to liquidate him). After the meeting was over he said that Kanaan and Hariri met together in the former's house in order to have a "calm conversation." I also have written here, based on excellent sources in Lebanon that the Hariri hit, just like Hamade's, goes straight up to Bashar himself, and his crew (Shawkat, his brother, and his cousin).

But beside those views, he actually made a factual error by suggesting that the Old Guard had business interests in keeping Lahoud on. Actually, it was Bashar and his crew (named above) who had interests with Lahoud. It's the Assad family, period.

The fact is that the errors in Lebanon were made because Bashar removed the Old Guard and didn't take their advice which was against extending Lahoud's mandate. Hariri's top aide claimed in that interview that Ayad Allawi told him that Allawi told Bashar that the extension was suicide. Bashar reportedly told Allawi that "suicide with extension is better than suicide without extension."

Bashar is running the show with the "New Guard." The Old Guard myth is made for PR purposes to be spread around, to show that Bashar is this besieged reformer in a hostile milieu. Rubbish. This is the kind of nonsense that Flynt Leverett likes to propagate, but it bares no relation to reality.

Finally, on a related note, I'm surprised that when he talked about the wealthy urban Sunnis he didn't make the connection to Hariri! I would keep my eye on those Syrian Sunnis... and the Saudis, who are now backing the Sunnis in Lebanon, and their new leader, Hariri's son.

But Ignatius's final statement is very true: "The danger for Assad is that if he takes only half-measures on political reform, he will lose what support he has left on the Syrian street. This may be one of those situations where being too cautious is the riskiest course of all."

That's why having a mythical "Old Guard" scapegoat is very useful, and has proven very effective.