With increasing international pressure over the U.N. investigation into the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, Syria’s young president, Bashar al-Assad, has taken the identification of his country with the Assad name to new levels. In a recent speech he defiantly stated: “It will not be President Assad who will bow his head nor the head of his country. We only bow to God almighty.” As he desperately calls for an emergency meeting of the Arab league that might help alleviate the growing international pressures, Assad is trying to reassert control in a troubled country that now must handle parallel attacks from the United Nations, United States, and, increasingly, the Syrian opposition
Just hours before the reported suicide of Syrian interior minister Ghazi Kanaan in his Damascus office, President al-Assad vehemently denied that his administration was linked to the February assassination of Rafik Hariri. “Any Syrian involved in the killing,” said Assad, “would be guilty of treason.” Kanaan, who ran the powerful network of Syrian agents that dominated Lebanese politics for most of the past 25 years, reportedly shot himself in his office following the release of Lebanese reports implicating him in fraud and corruption, and three weeks after he was questioned by a U.N. team investigating the Hariri assassination. It may be the case that Kanaan independently understood that treason in Syria is punishable by death. But recent evidence seems to indicate that somebody else in Syria understood this for him.
Kanaan had information that could have reached the wrong ears. One of his key rivals was none other than Assef Shawkat, the head of the Syrian military intelligence and a brother-in-law of the Syrian president. Shawkat is now considered one of the key suspects in the Hariri plot, according to a recently released U.N. report. Syrian sources noted that Kanaan’s liquidation was possibly a direct result of fears amongst Shawkat and his subordinates that the U.N. indictment would lead to Kanaan’s trying to remove Shawkat and his followers from power.
The U.N. report implicating Damascus in the Hariri murder is clearly disrupting Syrian domestic politics, stating as it does that “many leads point directly towards Syrian security officials as being involved with the assassination.” “In Damascus, fear is now in the camp of power, the camp of Bashar,” a senior official told the Washington Post. All this has not escaped notice by the Syrian opposition.
The Syrian opposition, a term that was a misnomer just two years ago, now has over 20 visible outlets with an increasing number of political activists who meet regularly inside and outside Syria. The Syrian Democratic Coalition–a dynamic group of ten Syrian opposition organizations led by Farid Ghadry–held a recent conference in Paris with representatives from political parties, human-rights organizations, tribes, and religious groups. The conference unveiled a registry for Syrians who are interested in voting and establishing a parliament-in-exile. The next conference–scheduled for mid-December–is expected to be the largest gathering of liberal Syrian activists, most of whom are under the age of 40. Ghadry is not the only one. Riyad al-Turk, a leading opposition politician publicly called on President Assad and his government to resign, and Rifaat al-Assad, the exiled uncle of Syria’s current leader, is also positioning himself as possible successor to his nephew.
Inside Syria, a coalition of oppositions groups issued the “Damascus declaration.” The declaration, signed by a number of opposition groups, including the extremist Islamic Brotherhood, calls for an end to Syria’s emergency laws and other forms of political repression, and for a national conference on democratic change. The Brotherhood, however, was quick to release other statements against the participation of Kurds, Alawaites, and Syrian exiles in the process. The Syrian police responded with a series of raids on the opposition and by disrupting a campaign launching meeting in the office of 72-year-old lawyer and activist Hassan Abdul Azim. The Syrian police also arrested Kamal Labwani, a Syrian human-rights activist who had just returned from a trip to the U.S. Labwani, who is also the chairman of the Democratic Liberal Gathering in Syria was charged with spreading news outside the country that “threatened national unity.”
But the opposition grows and the Assad regime is losing its grip on power. The United States should sit tight as President Assad, caught in a trap of his own making, will struggle to give answers to the U.N. prosecutor on the one hand, and to his growing circle of critics on the other. In the meantime Europe and the United States should pay attention and listen to the new Syrian voices. Unlike Assad, they belong to the future.
–Nir Boms is the vice president of the Center for Freedom in the Middle East.