• March 18, 2006

Regime Change Syria: Khaddam’s Alliance and Assad’s Missing Base

The Clock Ticks as Syrian Revolt is Uttered Anew
Regime Change Syria: Khaddam’s Alliance and Assad’s Missing Base
There is again a spike in talk of regime change in Syria, with Syria’s former vice president, Abdel-Halim Khaddam, leading the chorus. He has organized the major opposition movements within Syria after his (supposed) democratic epiphany.

The irony – and the serious challenge to continuity after any successful dethroning of Assad and the Syrian Ba’athists – is that two of the largest contingents joining him in the room are decidedly not democratic. At least not beyond any first election, one which each would seek to win and keep, such as is the current elections schedule in the Palestinian Territories. Khaddam’s partners in his quest are largely communists and Islamists from the outlawed Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.

The Muslim Brotherhood may pose the greatest threat to any potential of coexistent continuity, if they chose to resist power sharing, because of the influx of funds, weapons and men from around the Middle East and its various groups who would seek to extend the border of what they perceive as their developing caliphate. There would be no room for a secularist leader or a powerful communist faction.

The chief of U.S. Central Command, Army Gen. John Abizaid, said in a Senate hearing that the current Assad regime had suddenly become helpful in stemming the tide of foreign terrorists streaming across the Syrian border with Iraq. But he rightly pointed out that this was not a reaction to US diplomatic pressure or the fear of US Marines poised at his doorstep.

“Why have they? Because the foreign fighters represent a threat to Syria, and they certainly don’t want to have these organizations and groups operating within their own country that are ultimately going to be a threat to their own government,” Abizaid continued. “So, out of self-interest, the Syrians have reacted in a way that has slowed the flow of foreign fighters.”

This Islamist threat that Assad currently senses will be the same threat that any potential President Khaddam would quickly identify in the form of an unsatisfied Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, urged and prodded, if needed, by outside Islamist forces.

But the Iraqi border frontier is not the only place Assad has begun to dance a new tune. He also has suddenly become quite helpful (insofar as his public showing) to the UN’s Hariri investigation. Among other things, he has actually agreed to be personally interviewed by the investigative team, a move unthinkable just a couple short months ago. Assad realizes that he needs to minimize his enemies, or at least minimize their aggression towards his regime. What better place to start than with the internationally high-profile Hariri investigation?

But Abdel-Halim Khaddam has made his own countermoves, cozying up to the same anti-Syrian Lebanese leaders he had no use or affection for while he held Syria’s vice presidency. Khaddam recently met with Lebanese opposition leader Walid Jumblatt and assured him that Lebanon and Syria will be friendly neighbors under his leadership. Said Khaddam, “Demarcating the border is natural and necessary to serve the interests of both countries; this situation is existent between Syria and its neighboring countries and therefore it is natural to say that diplomatic representation is normal in relations between countries.”

But, for whatever a Khaddam presidency may or may not bring – or how long it would or would not last – the tide is clearly shifting in his short-term favor. For, as he is gathering and growing his allies, Bashar Assad is left with little more than minimizing his enemies.

Nibras Kazimi illustrates this masterfully in The New York Sun, pointing out that, unlike Saddam Hussein and his staunchly loyal minority base of Sunni Iraqis, Assad clearly has no such base to bolster and protect himself with.

The regime survives by dint of their political lethargy.

The Syrian regime seems brittle, and after all this time, there may be too few people who can make sense of why it should continue. Syria under Bashar is a land of co-existing contradictions that allow embassies to burn, while wanting to be part of the world community, or whose stilted bureaucracy would thwart an effort as simple as recalibrating taxi meters. It is adrift and characterless: this dictatorship does not seem to inspire a base that would defend it. This is good news for the handful of local democrats pushing back at the regime to gauge the limitations of freedom, but also for shadowy jihadists, who may be preparing for a blitz of terror. The current regime will not sustain a challenge from either, and it is now a question of who rises to the challenge first.

Assad will soon be left struggling in vain to hold back the tide with few hands assisting. The tide is being gathered and will be loosed from a Parisian ball room, as all coups and revolts seem to be these days.

What takes the Assad regime’s place is the type of speculation that shapes careers in foreign policy circles. But one thing is for certain: The fall of Assad will mark the beginning of the struggle, not its close. And hanging one’s hat on the hopes of Khaddam’s democratic epiphany is a gamble at the very least and a huge risk at best.