Assad’s Egypt Playbook Risks Lebanon-Style Sectarian Split

By: Donna Abu-Nasr and Massoud A. Derhally

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is following step-by-step a playbook that couldn’t protect Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak.

From replacing ministers, to pledging reforms and an end to emergency rule, to expressing sympathy for protesters after police were sent out to shoot them, Assad has echoed the efforts of Mubarak to appease a popular uprising that eventually forced him from office. Yesterday, after two weeks of protest and a security crackdown that left dozens dead, Assad said he was saddened by the killings while demanding an end to “sedition.”

Assad predicted two months ago that Syria would be spared the unrest roiling other Arab countries because its regime is closer to the people. Whether his pledges can succeed where Mubarak’s failed will have impact beyond Syria’s borders. Even after pulling troops out of Lebanon in 2005 amid accusations it supported the killing of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, Syria is still a power broker there and supports the Shiite Hezbollah group that’s set to dominate the next government. In Gaza, Syrian ally Hamas is involved in escalating clashes with Israel.

“The greatest danger at the moment is of sectarian conflict” in Syria and Lebanon, said Patrick Seale, a biographer of Bashar’s father, Hafez Al-Assad. When Assad’s security forces “act brutally, as we have seen recently, this exacerbates sectarian feelings,” he said.

Assad, who inherited power from his father in 2000, has moved to ease Syria’s economic isolation and encourage foreign investment.

Investment, Oil

In December the government named Mitsui & Co. of Japan among 16 approved bidders for a contract to build and operate the country’s first private power plant. Turkcell Iletisim Hizmetleri AS, Turkey’s biggest mobile-phone company, and France Telecom SA were among companies selected in November to compete for the right to run a third cellular service, competing with two government-run companies. Final bids were due by tomorrow.

The country needs investment to offset declining oil output which left it a net importer by 2009, according to a United Nations report. Crude production, which peaked at 583,000 barrels a day in 1996, probably dropped to about 380,000 barrels a day last year, according to government estimates.

Assad’s economic measures haven’t been matched by political changes or the easing of security restrictions, one of the causes of the recent protests.

More Protesters Killed

Clashes between police and demonstrators in several Syrian cities, including Daraa in the south and the Mediterranean port of Latakia, may have led to the deaths of more than 90 people, according to London-based Amnesty International.

Protesters surged into the streets of Latakia after Assad’s speech to express anger at his failure to announce reforms, and several were killed when security forces opened fire, Agence France-Presse reported citing an activist in the city. The Syrian Human Rights Committee, a London-based group, said on its website that 25 people had died.

Sectarian divisions in Syria, where the Alawite minority has ruled over a Sunni Muslim majority since the Assad dynasty took power in 1970, underlie political tensions in the country.

In 1982, Assad’s father crushed a rebellion led by Sunni militants in the city of Hama, killing as many as 10,000 people according to estimates cited by Human Rights Watch.

The current outbreak of unrest is the most serious since then, and Assad won’t apply violence on that scale, said Azzedine Layachi, professor of International and Middle East Affairs at St. John’s University.

“Bashar cannot do what his father did in the early 1980s when he flattened an entire town,” Layachi said in comments e- mailed on March 28. “He is trying to deal with the events with extra care so as not to lose control.”

‘Stability Under Assad’

Since the Hama revolt, Syria has largely avoided the kind of internal conflict that racked its neighbors Lebanon and Iraq.

“Many Syrians have serious grievances which they want addressed, but many others appreciate the peace and stability they have enjoyed under the Assad regimes,” said Seale

In Lebanon, sectarian divisions led to a 15-year civil war that ended in 1990, and frequent outbreaks of violence since then. The killing of Rafiq Hariri in February 2005, which many Lebanese blamed on Syria, sparked mass protests and forced Assad to end a three-decade Syrian military presence in the country.

He also agreed to cooperate with an international tribunal investigating the murder, in which Assad’s regime and its Hezbollah ally have denied involvement.

“The regime in Syria was quite surprised by the size of the public outcry in Lebanon,” said Abdel Halim Khaddam, who was vice-president of Syria at the time. “It thought its allies and loyalists inside Lebanon were in control and that the issue of Hariri wouldn’t have much of an impact,” Khaddam, now an opponent of Assad, said in a phone interview from Paris.

Hezbollah Ascendant

Syria still has supporters in Lebanon, though. With the tribunal poised to name suspects, and widespread expectations that Hezbollah members may be indicted, the Shiite group quit the national unity government it entered with Rafiq Hariri’s son Saad, and won support from enough lawmakers to topple it.

Hezbollah opposes the inquiry, saying it’s part of a U.S. and Israeli-backed plan. The politician mandated to form a new administration, billionaire Najib Mikati, is a Hezbollah nominee.

The political vacuum in Lebanon has raised concern that sectarian violence could flare up again. Since his ouster, Saad Hariri has resumed calls for Hezbollah — which is classified as a terrorist group by the U.S. and Israel — to disarm its militias. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has praised popular protest movements against Sunni Muslim leaders such as Mubarak, Jordan’s King Abdullah and Bahrain’s King Hamad.

Antagonism Inflamed

The unrest in Syria and its echoes in Lebanon come as sectarian tensions “are spreading right across the region,” partly as a result of the internal conflict in Iraq after the U.S. invasion in 2003, Seale said.

Bahrain’s rulers have cracked down on mostly Shiite protesters who represent a majority in the kingdom and are demanding democracy. King Hamad invited troops from Saudi Arabia and other Sunni monarchies in the Gulf to help restore order. Iran, accused by Bahrain of encouraging the unrest, condemned the intervention, and Shiites in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq staged rallies in sympathy with their co-religionists.

That’s one reason even enemies of Assad’s regime — including Israel, which is technically at war with it, and the U.S., which classifies Syria as a sponsor of terrorism — have been cautious about calling for its downfall.

“Syria is ethnically and religiously diverse and, with the precipitous removal of central authority, it could very well implode like Iraq,” David W. Lesch, author of a biography of Assad, wrote in an op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times.

‘Reformer’ Assad

A U.S. intervention in Syria like the one targeting Muammar Qaddafi in Libya is out of the question partly because members of Congress from both main parties see Assad as a “reformer,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said March 27.

Israel blames Syria for supporting Hezbollah and Hamas, the militant group that controls the Gaza Strip. Israel and Syria are also in dispute over the Golan Heights, a Syrian territory occupied by Israel since 1967.

Yet Syria’s border with Israel has been calm since the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, with militants barred from carrying out the kinds of attacks seen across borders controlled by Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in south Lebanon.

That probably trumps any Israeli desire for Assad’s fall, said Yoram Meital, director of Ben Gurion University’s Herzog Center for Middle East Studies in Beersheva, Israel.

“For today’s Israeli decision-makers, keeping the status quo in Syria with Bashar Assad in power is vastly preferable to getting into a period of political struggle,” he said. “Since 1973 Israel has had a peaceful border with Syria and it’s been able to hold onto the Golan Heights. Why change?” BW