Assad and the enemy within

“One day, it will be an Alawite who finally kills Assad.” This rather startling prediction – that the Syrian president’s own community will eventually turn against him – comes in a blog post from Aboud Dandachi, an activist now living in Turkey.

Dandachi, it should be noted, used to live in Homs and has some strong views on military intervention. “Assad’s airforce must be obliterated down to the last aircraft and helicopter,” he wrote in an earlier post. But setting that aside, is there any credibility in his idea that large numbers of the regime's supporters would happily see Assad gone?

Dandachi relates an incident in June last year when regime forces entered the town of Telkelakh, “ransacking homes and arresting people pretty much at random”:

“A relative of mine in the town at the time, whose son had for years enjoyed close ties to very senior regime officials, thought that his family’s well known relations with the regime would protect him.

“When regime shabihas burst into his home, this relative immediately held up a picture of his son shaking hands with none other than El Presidente, the Eye Doctor himself. ‘Look, look!’ he said, ‘my son with el-doktor Bashar’.

“The shabihas took one look at the picture, and broke my relative’s jaw. ‘Kess emak ‘ala em el doktor Bashar!’ “

It may seem hard to believe that pro-regime forces would curse their president, but Dandachi has ideas about what may lie behind it. While living in Homs he had never distinguished between the president, the regime and the state:

“To a Homsi whose city had suffered the worst of the conflict up to that point, all three were one and the same, inseparable. The revolution was about getting rid of the president, to cause the downfall of the regime, and create a new state.”

Later, having moved to the relative safety of Tartous (a mixed city of Christians, Alawites, and Sunnis) he began to see a different picture:

“To a Tartousian, these [president, regime and state] were three very distinct and separate entities, a fact that took me a very long time to understand. Being a ‘loyalist’ meant different things to different people ... 

“Very few people had a kind word to say about the president, Bashar Assad. Explicit criticism of his person was never voiced openly, of course, but there were plenty of criticisms of the ‘strategy’ of the war, of its ‘handling’, and many wistful nostalgic yearnings for the ‘wisdom and experience’ of Hafiz Assad [the president’s late father]. I lost count of the number of times I heard it said that Hafiz would never have allowed things to reach the point they did.”

But this lack of faith in Bashar’s abilities did not translate into support for the opposition:

“I met no one who expressed much love for the president. The vast majority however, felt that the regime was a necessity, and would have gladly been happy to see the current regime headed by a new president.”

The irony of this is that it’s a result of the regime’s propaganda success in persuading its supporters that the conflict is all about foreign-sponsored terrorism and has nothing to do with Syria’s internal politics. For those who buy this line, the problem is that the regime, under Assad’s leadership, has not been tough enough. They have spent almost three years fighting “the terrorists” with no prospect of finally crushing them.

Worse still (in their eyes), Assad has even sent his officials to talk to “the terrorists” in Geneva and, in a concession to the UN, is allowing some of them to escape from Homs while others receive food and medicines.

This, rather than orders from the regime, may explain mortar and sniper fire directed at the UN convoys. Reporting from Homs for the Wall Street Journal, Sam Dagher writes:

Members of Mr Assad's Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam and a minority in Syria that dominates the regime, accused the UN of being far more concerned about taking in food and medicine for rebels and civilians than determining the whereabouts of some 740 missing people from their community.

They say the missing are believed to have been kidnapped by rebels since the start of the conflict almost three years ago and held in the besieged quarter …

"Where are our children?" said an Alawite woman in Homs, referring to those allegedly abducted by rebels who include many young soldiers and conscripts. "People are bursting with anger as they see food being delivered to the armed men."

Dandachi, in his latest blog post, suggests that the death of Dr Abbas Khan, the British surgeon, just before he was about to be released from prison may also be attributable to the regime’s ultras rather than the regime itself:

“The mukhabarat, who have no illusions as to what awaits them should the regime fall, do not want to see high profile prisoners such as Dr Khan released just to make Assad look good. 

“Dr Khan’s savage and brutal murder a mere hours before his scheduled release was as much an F-U to Assad as it was an act of revenge against the British. Galloway? Who is George Galloway? If it is Galloway’s dream to become the world’s first Scottish Ayatollah, the mukhabarat, who have also died in their thousands during the war, apparently don’t feel obliged to give up anything to grant him any PR points.”

None of this augurs well for the resumed Geneva peace talks. Assad may not face an immediate threat to his presidency but, sandwiched between the UN and his own hardliners, he has a shrinking space in which to manoeuvre.

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Wednesday, 12 February 2014