By Michael Petrou - Thursday, August 16, 2012 - 0 Comments
The defection of Assad’s prime minister is more than just a tactical problem for Syria’s dictator
There is little in Riad Hijab’s past that hints at personal or moral courage. He was a long-time member of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s Baath Party, serving it as minister of agriculture and before that as governor of two provinces. In official photographs he glares at the camera wearing a sober suit and sporting the same toothbrush moustache as Assad: a company man. Which may be why Assad appointed him prime minster in June. He needed a safe pair of hands as the rebellion against his rule raged ever hotter.
And yet this month Hijab risked his life and those of more than 30 family members when he defected to the opposition, fleeing the country for Jordan in a daring and complex operation that struck a blow against the Assad regime and emboldened Syria’s opposition after 17 months of war.
In his ﬁrst public appearance since defecting, Hijab said the Syrian government is collapsing and urged the army to join the revolution. He said he had no desire to hold political ofﬁce. “In a free Syria, which I will see coming soon, I consider myself as a soldier in the path of righteousness.”
Hijab is the highest-ranking politician to defect. In July, Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass, a former commander of an elite Republican Guard unit and longtime ally of Assad, also defected, signalling deep fissures even within the upper ranks of Syria’s armed forces.
But Hijab’s defection is different, says David Schenker, director of the program on Arab politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Operationally, it will have little impact on the course of the war and the repression of political opponents, which is carried out by military, security and intelligence forces. But Hijab’s defection will shake another pillar of support for the Assad regime: the Sunni civilian elite.
Bashar al-Assad and many of the most powerful men in his regime are Alawites, members of an offshoot sect of Shia Islam who make up about 10 per cent of Syria’s population. Though Sunni Muslims form the majority of the opposition, Assad has traditionally been able to count on the loyalty of powerful Sunnis, especially businessmen.
“Even until pretty recently, this business elite has been seen to be on the fence. They had been totally co-opted into this system, corrupt as it was,” says Schenker. “If Hijab leaves, this will likely encourage other Sunni elites to reconsider their support for the al-Assad regime.”
For Syrians who have already thrown themselves behind the uprising, Hijab’s defection is another sign that Assad’s end draws near. “It’s one more step that shows we are on the way to break this regime and take power soon in Damascus,” says Basel Alchikh-Sulaiman, an opposition activist who left Syria in 2005 and is now based in Toronto.
Alchikh-Sulaiman says Syrians opposed to Assad will excuse Hijab’s long association with the dictator’s regime. “He might have done some mistakes before, but right now we appreciate his sacrifice. Personally I’m very proud of the prime minister. I think he’s done the best thing in his life.”
By Barbara Amiel - Tuesday, August 14, 2012 at 11:25 AM - 0 Comments
A cautionary tale for those who move in the world of fashionable ideas—with Syria as its setting.
This is a cautionary tale for those who move in the world of fashionable ideas. They speak out and raise funds for their causes. Though they tend to work under the spotlight, especially the flashbulb, their little mistakes are generally overlooked. But on very rare occasions they pay the price of adhering to the fickle winds of fashion’s politically correct currents and get splattered. I give you Joan Juliet Buck.
If you have seen the film Julie & Julia, you will remember Madame Brassart, the horrid little Parisian in her constipated 1950s suit and pillbox hat who tries to prevent Meryl Streep’s Julia Child from taking Cordon Bleu courses. That role was played very competently by Joan Juliet Buck in her incarnation as an actress. She was also editor-in-chief of Paris Vogue magazine from 1994 to 2001, wrote a couple of books and had a long association with Condé Nast. In December 2010 she got a telephone call from a features editor at U.S. Vogue asking her to go to Damascus to interview Syria’s first lady, Asma al-Assad.
“Absolutely not,” replied Joan Juliet Buck, or JJB because space is limited. “I don’t want to meet the Assads, and they don’t want to meet a Jew.” Besides, she felt unqualified for the job. “Send a political journalist,” she said. But she went anyway and wrote a 3,600-word article about Mrs. Assad published in the March 2011 Vogue. The writing was glossy mag prose, so predictable it was practically prefabricated: “Asma al-Assad is glamorous, young and very chic—the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies” is the beginning and you can pretty much guess the rest.
By Nancy Macdonald - Wednesday, August 8, 2012 at 3:17 PM - 0 Comments
The instability that follows Assad’s fall will be felt far beyond Syria
The brazen, mid-morning bombing that struck Syria’s military command on July 18, taking the lives of several of Bashar al-Assad’s top advisers, may not have killed the Syrian president himself, but it is hard to believe he will survive the fallout. That stunning blow was quickly followed by a massive rebel assault on the capital, Damascus, the defections of several key generals and, this week, even the prime minister.
If Assad is toppled, his demise will be roundly cheered. But the consequences will be profound, and will echo beyond Syria, affecting the region’s volatile conflicts, those involving al-Qaeda—whose jihadists are now converging on Damascus—Lebanon, Palestine and Iran.
Sectarian bloodletting is possible in Syria. Lebanon and Iraq, with their complex divides—which know no borders—could easily be sucked in. Violence could drag in Israel.
That makes this Arab Spring revolt so different from Tunisia, Libya, even Egypt. The fight is not playing out in some corner of North Africa but in the heart of the Middle East. Syria’s revolt could be a game-changer. Syria, for decades a key player in the region’s geopolitical games, now finds itself a staging point for the ancient struggle between Sunni and Shia Islam, a fight currently playing out in Aleppo in northwestern Syria between Assad’s Shia loyalists and the Saudi-backed Sunni opposition.
Syria may be on the brink—Assad can no longer trust even his closest advisers. But the real fight has only just begun.
Here’s our nifty infographic that illustrates the ripple effects of instability in Syria in the Middle East and beyond. Click on the image below to open up the full-size graphic: