Across the Bay

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Consolidation and Scapegoating

You've already heard about the leaks about Mustapha Hamdan (head of the presidential guard) and his interrogation by the UN investigative team. Hamdan is likely to be assassinated soon, and he's being dangled as a threat to Bashar, telling him that this can go higher.

As if on cue, Ghazi Kanaan is now said to be leaving the Ministry of the Interior. This move may well be sold to the Americans as a sign that Bashar is cooperating. In fact, I had a feeling this was going to happen (not necessarily with Ghazi) when Patrick Seale wrote a few weeks ago in the Daily Star counseling Bashar to punish anyone in his intelligence apparatus that turns out to have had a hand in the Hariri assassination. Bashar also blamed the assassination on his intelligence apparatus in his meeting with Prince Abdullah. The move with Ghazi is likely not linked to this, but it may be sold as such, given that he was at one point responsible for Lebanon. Yet, as we all know, Rustum was the one running the show, with Bashar's backing. That he's not being removed is indicative, and this is where the investigation (and potentially, Hamdan's testimony) can be valuable. The move to remove Ghazi is set to further empower Asef Shawkat, Bashar's in-law, who has been in charge for a while now anyway.

Farouq Sharaa is also leaving, as well as the head of Bashar's personal guard. These are also part of Bashar's consolidation campaign, which has so far slashed Khaddam and Bahjat Suleiman. Khaddam is rumored to have left the country, and so has Tlass. It's likely that the Hawi assassination is linked to this purge because of his ties with Khaddam and people in the interior, although I've heard a rumor that Hawi was sent by Jumblat to the Syrians to reopen channels. The Syrians responded bluntly.

Josh also remarked that a friend in Washington told him the Pentagon may be preparing for a punitive strike. I think this is long overdue. Bashar has been carrying out a proxy war in defiance of both the EU and the US. He killed Hariri and has practically paid no price for it, so he's quite emboldened. He needs to be hurt and cut down to size. The EU can hurt him economically, and they have been making statements to that effect and freezing the signing of the trade deals. But apparently he doesn't care much. This is not the price. Therefore, the EU has to decide whether to back a punitive strike or not, because this cannot be used by Bashar to split the EU and the US. This split is looking less likely now after the border fiasco. Ali Hamade in a column a couple of days ago said that the EU is mighty pissed with Syria. Therefore, they may end up supporting a limited strike.

This is the only thing that Bashar will understand. You cannot cut a deal with him now. It would be disastrous. You hit him hard first. Hurt him. Make him understand that such behavior will result in a painful hit. See a tangible reaction, then start talking with him on the strict basis of aide for reform and a change in foreign policy. This phrasing is almost identical to the EU line on Syria lately, including change in the regional policy (and not just internal reforms).

If Bashar is smart, he'll use the scapegoating wisely and toe that line (the scapegoating alone won't be enough to convince the EU and the US). However, it is imperative that he not be let off the hook so easily by simply scapegoating Ghazi or even Rustum. This is very important, because if not, he'll be emboldened to keep killing people with virtually no or little consequence. That would be disastrous. He should be hit hard. Then, should he make the decision to change policies, internally and externally, they can talk to him.

Update: The Lebanese Bloggers pick up on this topic and the related topic of the UN investigation. I posted a comment to their post, where I elaborated on and explained this post further.