Signs of doubt on Assad rule
Party stalwarts distance selves amid uprising
BEIRUT - As Syria continues its most relentless assault yet on a five-month uprising, killing more than a dozen protesters yesterday, cracks have begun to emerge in a tight-knit leadership that has until now managed to rally its base of support and maintain a unified front, officials, dissidents, and analysts said.
Though there are no signs of imminent collapse, flagging support of the business elite in Damascus, divisions among senior officials, and moves by former stalwarts to distance themselves from the leadership come at a time when Syria also faces what may be its greatest isolation in more than four decades of rule by the Assad family.
“They’re starting to be divided, and you have people in the government who are really getting frustrated with Assad and his security circles,’’ an Obama administration official in Washington said. “It’s almost like watching a dysfunctional marriage.’’
The shifting constellation of power in Damascus has underscored the perils of the months ahead. American and European officials acknowledge that they have limited tools to influence events in Syria, and a deeply divided opposition has so far failed to provide an alternative to the leadership of President Bashar Assad. Activists in Syria warn that the government crackdown may also push largely peaceful protesters to violence.
“We are stuck right now,’’ said Louay Hussein, a leading opposition figure who has had conversations with government officials on trying to open the political system. “The government is counting on its military, and it could take a very long time before it uses up all its resources.’’
A US diplomatic official said it seemed increasingly unlikely that Assad could remain in power. As a result, he said, the United States has begun making plans for a post-Assad era out of concern for the chaos that many expect to follow if he falls. The Obama administration, he said, does not rule out a civil war. “It’s going to be messy,’’ the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the topic involved internal deliberations.
In Washington, the Obama administration has continued to ratchet up pressure on Syria. The Treasury Department announced yesterday that it had sanctioned the state-owned
Officials said European countries might take a decisive step to sanction Syria’s oil and gas industry this month, which would cripple one of Syria’s few remaining sources of revenue as its economy reels under the strain of the uprising. In Washington, officials say President Obama may soon declare that Assad must step down.
In Damascus this week, 41 former Ba’athists and government officials took a step that would have been unthinkable for party stalwarts not long ago: They announced an initiative for a political transition. Led by Mohammed Salman, a former information minister with deep connections to the leadership closest to Assad, the group urged an end to the crackdown, the deployment of the military, and the relentless arrest campaign.
Some opposition figures dismissed the initiative as trying “to whiten its black page in the past.’’ But to others it represented a remarkable fissure, coming as it did from former ministers and senior party officials who at the very least acknowledged that change was inevitable.
Through much of his reign, Assad had managed to conceal the ferocity of the police state his father, Hafez, built after taking power in 1970. Since the uprising, the military and, in particular, the security forces have returned to the forefront, and they have remained unified despite occasional defections in carrying out a crackdown that some activists say has killed more than 2,000 people. Unless armed forces turn against Assad, analysts and diplomats say, there is no immediate threat to his rule.