Inner Circle in Syria Holds Power, and Perhaps Peril

By Anthony Shadid and Robin Wright
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, October 28, 2005

DAMASCUS, Syria -- The brother is an impetuous officer, who wields control over the praetorian Republican Guard. The sister is nicknamed "the Iron Lady." Her husband is a burly general who rose methodically through the ranks of Syria's feared intelligence services. Presiding over them is Bashar Assad, the Syrian president who runs what some have called "a dictatorship without a dictator."

Diplomats and analysts say that together, the four represent the corporate leadership of Syria, a country facing its greatest crisis in decades following the release of a U.N. investigation that implicates senior officials in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. In this crisis, they say, the Assad family circle is a source of the president's strength. It may also be his weakness. If his relatives are directly linked to the killing, the scandal could bring down his government.

Both Assad's brother Maher and his brother-in-law, Asef Shawkat, were named in earlier versions of the report, although many diplomats here said the evidence was spotty. The Syrian government has repeatedly denied any role in the killing.

"It is about interests at the end of the day," said a Syrian intellectual familiar with members of the government but speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of harassment. "They say, 'We have to protect our own, otherwise we will all go down together.' "

As the U.N. Security Council debates a resolution demanding Syria's cooperation with the investigation, Assad's inner circle is the focus of attention in the country, where reading the Kremlin-like tea leaves is an intellectual pastime. Many here believe any change in the government would come from within. But as long as the circle remains unbroken, many also suspect the government can endure the short-term crisis, even if few can sketch out a scenario that would end Syria's isolation.

"As long as [the family members] are not trying to act against him, it will be hard to pull off a successful coup," said Flynt Leverett, a former National Security Council staffer in the Bush administration who is now at the Brookings Institution. "That doesn't mean people may not try, but it'd be hard to pull off as long as they're in his corner."

The reliance of Syria's leadership on family is not unusual in the Middle East, where an array of authoritarian republics and monarchies have reserved strategic positions for sons, brothers and other relatives.

But interviews with Syrian analysts, diplomats, dissidents and intellectuals paint a picture of a tightknit circle that has dramatically narrowed over the five-year tenure of Assad, who succeeded his father, Hafez, in 2000. Most stalwarts of his father's rule have been forced out, many hailing from the minority Alawite clan that has buttressed the rule of the Baath Party in Syria for 35 years; one of the last, the powerful Interior Minister Ghazi Kanaan, was said to have committed suicide this month in Damascus.

Divisions are said to abound. But many analysts say those differences were set aside this spring, after Hariri's assassination forced Syria to end its 29-year military presence in Lebanon and prompted the U.N. investigation. But some Syrians blame the circle's small size for a string of foreign policy decisions in Lebanon and Iraq that have left Syria as isolated as at any time in its history.

"Nobody listens, nobody reads," said Marwan Kabalan, a professor at Damascus University and analyst at its Center for Strategic Studies. "You have a very small circle of decision-makers in charge of decisions in the country. What do you expect?"

In style and structure, the Syrian government is distinctly the product of one man, Assad's father, whose cult of personality presided over an elaborate overlay of institutions and alliances built across a 30-year reign. While Assad's leadership today relies on an inner circle, it has inherited some of the durability of that past era: The government has cultivated support within the public sector, the military, the Baath Party and a merchant class, some of whose powerful members are sons of government officials.

For key security and military positions, Assad's father relied on his Alawite community, a long-underprivileged minority along Syria's northwest coast, and in particular his own Qalbiyya tribe. But some Alawites grumble that the younger Assad has shown less of an inclination to patronize the community, even families that long represented pillars of the government.

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