Bashar Assad under Siege; Syrian Ba'athism Starts to Crumble

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), October 13, 2005 | Go to article overview

Bashar Assad under Siege; Syrian Ba'athism Starts to Crumble


Byline: Nir Boms, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Facing additional pressures at home and abroad, the schedule of Bashar Assad, Syria's president, is particularly busy these days. There is much to do and time is of the essence. Timing, however, does not seem to work.

For example, Mr. Assad had planned to head his country's delegation to the United Nations summit last month. While restlessness was growing in Damascus, Mr. Assad could have benefited from a visit that was designed to ease Syria's international isolation and show the 40-year-old president as a young reformist Arab ruler. But timing did not work. Following unwelcoming signals from Washington and increasing turmoil at home, Mr. Assad was forced to stay behind.

The February assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri appeared to have come closer to Mr. Assad's own door. Detlev Mehlis, the chief U.N. investigator who was appointed to investigate the murder, had already pointed fingers at four pro-Syrian Lebanese security officials as suspects. Now, with the help of the French and other secret services, he is pointing another finger straight to Damascus and possibly to the presidential palace itself.

Meanwhile, on the domestic front, Syria saw the publication of a poverty study conducted by the Syrian Central Bureau of Statistics and the United Nations Development Program. The study categorized 30 percent of Syria's 18.3 million people as poor and said that 2.2 million were unable to ensure their own basic needs. It was joined by an International Monetary Fund report released last week. The IMF warned that unless significant reform is introduced, Syria may get "locked in a cycle of financial volatility, fiscal deterioration, low growth, and rising unemployment."

Since the beginning of his tenure in June 2000, Mr. Assad has little to show to his credit. Following the collapse of Iraq, Syria lost not only its remaining Ba'athist ally, but also a significant source of income that came, partly, due to its involvement with the oil-for-food scheme. Mr. Assad's perceived lack of ability to curb international pressures has caused Syria to unilaterally withdraw and lose much of his grip over Lebanon, creating a severe financial and prestige crisis in the ranks of the Syrian army. But that withdrawal, unlike the Israeli withdrawal of Ariel Sharon from Gaza, has brought little international credit to Mr. Assad. On the contrary, Syria's lack of ability (or will) to control its border with Iraq has not only showed its weakness but also further heightened the level of American frustration with Syria. Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, said recently that the United States's "patience [with Syria] is running out" and that other options will be considered should Syria fail to take matters into its own hands. …

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