Assad wins street victory but not the war

Assad wins street victory but not the war

As Syria's leader faces renewed pressure to withdraw from Lebanon, even allies admit he will have to acquiesce

Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president who took over on the death of his father, Hafez, five years ago, is known as the Young Leader. He is also seen as the Weak Leader, an image reinforced by last month's events and the impending loss of Lebanon.

He has faced intense US-led pressure to end Syria's 29-year-old occupation of Lebanon since the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri, on February 14. He regained some ground this week, orchestrating huge shows of support on the streets of Beirut and Damascus.

But his success is unlikely to last. He will come under renewed pressure today when he meets the UN envoy, Terje Roed-Larsen, who will demand full withdrawal from Lebanon, in Damascus.

Syrian officials admitted this week that Mr Assad would have to acquiesce. He is not strong enough militarily, economically or politically to be able to resist.

"This is a dictatorship without a dictator," a Damascus-based Western diplomat said. Ammar Abdulhamid, a human rights activist, agreed: "It's a mafia. The capo di tutti capi has died but Michael Corleone [the tough son in the Godfather] is missing and Fredo [the weak son] is in charge."

The second corps of the Syrian army, with 14,000 troops in Lebanon, began pulling its troops from the hills of Beirut and other cities to positions in Lebanon's eastern Beka'a Valley this week. According to a Syrian official, 4,000 of these soldiers will be back in Syria by the end of the month while 10,000 will remain in the valley.

The issue between Syria and the US, backed by most of the UN security council, is over the next phase. The US wants all Syrian troops out of Lebanon before Lebanese elections in May. Mr Assad promised to withdraw, but he failed to set a timetable.

Buthaina Shaaban, the Syrian minister for expatriate affairs, said Mr Assad's message had been clear and that confusion over Syrian intentions was muddled by poor translation.

"The army will be in the Beka'a Valley by the end of March and ... could be back [in Syria] by the end of April."

Walid Mouallem, the Syrian vice-minister for foreign affairs, said a decision on the retreat from the valley would be a military one, not a political one, to be made later this month. He stressed that Syria's eventual intention was to leave.

Another point of contention is whether the Syrian government withdraws thousands of intelligence officers in Lebanon, a point reinforced yesterday by the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, after meeting the Lebanese opposition.

Mr Moallem predicted that when Syria did withdraw, the US would present Syria with more demands. "I imagine that the American pressure on Syria will not end, because every time you fulfil a demand, they bring you another three. It is an open-ended list. What next? We want you to change the colour of your eyes?"

Washington says it will keep up the pressure, not because it is seeking regime change, but to "change the regime's attitude". It will not push Syria to disband the Lebanese-based militia Hizbullah, but will demand that the country stop offering a haven to militant Palestinian leaders, end its chemical weapons programme, liberalise its institutions and - the end game - agree to a peace deal with Israel.

Mr Assad is to hold a Ba'ath party congress this summer and Ms Shaaban predicted there would be "a big jump" that would introduce sweeping reforms.

But there is much scepticism about whether he will deliver, and whether he is ready to tackle the networks of corruption that effectively run Syria and will fight to protect their interests.

Although the number of political prisoners has dropped from several thousand to between 250 and 500 over the past five years, there is little press freedom and political opponents are still being jailed.

Abdulhamid, who has avoided prison so far, said: "It [the regime] is going to come crashing down. They are wishful dreamers if they think they can carry on. They are relics. They have lost their survival skills."

Ewen MacAskill in Damascus Saturday March 12, 2005 Guardian
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005.

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