April 17, 2004

TO DAMASCUS ON JULY 1:

King Abdullah: Al Qaeda WMDs Came From Syria (Newsmax, 4/17/04)

Jordan's King Abdullah revealed on Saturday that vehicles reportedly containing chemical weapons and poison gas that were part of a deadly al Qaeda bomb plot came from Syria, the country named by U.S. weapons inspector David Kay last year as a likely repository for Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

"It was a major, major operation. It would have decapitated the government," King Abdullah told the San Francisco Chronicle. Jordanian officials estimated that the death count could have been as high as 20,000 - seven times greater than the Sept. 11 attacks.


MORE:
Syria Under Bashar (II): Domestic Policy Challenges (Middle East Report, 11 February 2004, International Crisis Group)

Bashar al-Assad’s presidency has failed to live up to the hopes for far-reaching domestic reform that greeted it in 2000. After a brief opening, Syria clamped down on dissent, and economic change remains painfully slow. Many who once viewed Bashar as a potential partner, open-minded, and Western-oriented, now perceive him as, if anything, more ideological than and just as tied to the Baathist regime as his father. Both assessments are overly simplistic and poor guides to dealing with a Syria that is at a crossroads. Syrian officials hint at significant steps in mid-2004, including possible changes in the Baath Party hierarchy and doctrine and moves toward a more open and inclusive political system. Scepticism is in order, as such pledges have repeatedly been made in the past only to be ignored. But with reform now a strategic imperative, Syria should turn hints into reality and the international community should find ways to encourage and to assist it.

There is good evidence that Bashar came to office aware that bold economic measures were needed to rationalise public administration, curb corruption and otherwise modernise the country. But his legitimacy and power base are closely tied to the Baathist system. However much he may understand that his plans cannot succeed with the current regime, he fears that he may not long survive without it. It is not a question of merely ridding the system of remnants of his father’s rule. The system has been shaped by powerful constituents – a political/economic elite entrenched in the public sector, the army, security services and a vast, lethargic bureaucracy accustomed to benefit from the status quo. Far more than his father, Bashar has to share authority with multiple power centres, as Syria’s “pluralistic authoritarianism” becomes less authoritarian, more pluralistic. An aspiring reformist, the President realised that his longevity was tied to the stability of the regime he sought to reform.

In the past, foreign policy dividends – income generated by aid from Iran in the 1980s, from the Gulf in the early 1990s, and from illicit trade with Iraq since then – made up for domestic shortfalls. Those days are gone. Syria urgently needs domestic change. Its economy is plagued by corruption, ageing state industries, a volatile and under-performing agricultural sector, rapidly depleting oil resources, an anachronistic educational system, capital flight and lack of foreign investment.

The image of a regime that owes its durability solely to repression and a narrow, sectarian base is wide of the mark; the Baathists built support from a cross-section of Syria’s socio-economic and religious groups. Still, the regime is by no means immune to internal challenge should the economy continue to deteriorate. At the least, a flagging economy will gradually undercut its legitimacy and undermine its support, and shrinking economic resources will reduce the availability of rents and economic privileges that have been used to ensure backing from key groups.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 17, 2004 8:30 PM
Comments for this post are closed.