US embassy cable - 99DAMASCUS2528

SYRIAN SUCCESSION: AFTER ASAD THE STRUGGLE FOR SYRIA MAY RESUME

Identifier: 99DAMASCUS2528
Wikileaks: View 99DAMASCUS2528 at Wikileaks.org
Origin: Embassy Damascus
Created: 1999-05-24 11:33:00
Classification: CONFIDENTIAL
Tags: PGOV PREL ECON PHUM PTER SY
Redacted: This cable was not redacted by Wikileaks.
P 241133Z MAY 99
FM AMEMBASSY DAMASCUS
TO SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 6517
INFO ARAB ISRAELI COLLECTIVE
AMEMBASSY NICOSIA 
C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 05 DAMASCUS 002528 
 
NICOSIA FOR ILMG, LONDON FOR SUTPHIN, PARIS FOR LEAF 
 
E.O. 12958: DECL: 12/31/06 
TAGS:  PGOV, PREL, ECON, PHUM, PTER, SY 
SUBJECT:  SYRIAN SUCCESSION:  AFTER ASAD THE STRUGGLE 
          FOR SYRIA MAY RESUME 
 
REFS:  A) STATE 68334, B) DAMASCUS 1806, 
       C) DAMASCUS 1186 
 
CLASSIFIED BY AMBASSADOR RYAN C. CROCKER; REASONS 1.5 
(B AND D). 
 
------- 
SUMMARY 
------- 
 
1. (C) HAFIZ AL-ASAD'S EFFORT TO PREPARE SON BASHAR TO 
ASSUME EVENTUALLY THE PRESIDENCY IS INCREASINGLY THE 
PRISM THROUGH WHICH POLITICAL DEVELOPMENTS ARE VIEWED 
AND INTERPRETED.  THE PROSPECTS FOR A SMOOTH 
SUCCESSION ARE A DIRECT FUNCTION OF HOW MUCH TIME ASAD 
HAS -- AND HOW MUCH APTITUDE BASHAR SHOWS.  GIVEN HIS 
AGE AND HEALTH, PRESIDENT ASAD COULD DIE AT ANY TIME; 
HIS EARLY DEPARTURE WOULD LIKELY REVIVE THE LONG- 
DORMANT STRUGGLE FOR POWER IN SYRIA.  ELDEST SON 
BASHAR IS FAR FROM A SURE BET TO FOLLOW IN HIS 
FATHER'S FOOTSTEPS, AND, IN ANY CASE, WOULD NEVER 
ENJOY HIS FATHER'S ABSOLUTE GRIP ON POWER.  VICE- 
PRESIDENT KHADDAM WOULD LIKELY HAVE A KEY ROLE IN 
SUCCESSION.  ULTIMATELY, HOWEVER, MULTIPLE POWER 
CENTERS ARE LIKELY TO EMERGE.  AS THE INTERNAL POWER 
STRUGGLE DEVELOPS, THE SYRIAN LEADERSHIP'S PRIMARY 
FOCUS WILL BE ON CONSOLIDATING POWER.  WHILE THE 
STRUGGLE WILL NOT NECESSARILY BE VIOLENT, THE 
TRANSITION FROM ASAD'S RULE COULD HAVE NEGATIVE 
RAMIFICATIONS FOR U.S. INTERESTS IN A COMPREHENSIVE 
REGIONAL PEACE, WMD, COUNTER-TERRORISM AND IRAQ.  ON 
THE OTHER HAND, THE U.S. COULD FIND SOME OPPORTUNITIES 
TO ADVANCE ITS OBJECTIVES IN THE COMING MONTHS, AS 
ASAD FOCUSES INCREASINGLY ON THE LEGACY HE WILL LEAVE 
HIS SON BASHAR -- INCLUDING POSSIBLE RESUMPTION OF 
PEACE TALKS WITH ISRAEL AND IMPROVED RELATIONS WITH 
HIS NEIGHBORS.  END SUMMARY. 
 
2. (C) THIS MESSAGE RESPONDS TO REF A TASKING, WHICH 
SOUGHT POST'S VIEWS ON HOST COUNTRY SUCCESSION ISSUES. 
THE HEADERS BELOW TRACK WITH THOSE IN THE TASKING. 
 
---------------------------- 
TRANSITION LIKELIHOOD/TIMING 
---------------------------- 
 
3. (C) GIVEN PRESIDENT HAFIZ AL-ASAD'S AGE (I.E., 
OFFICIALLY 69 AND POSSIBLY OLDER, REF B) AND HEALTH 
CONCERNS (I.E., HEART DISEASE AND DIABETES) A 
SUCCESSION COULD REALISTICALLY TAKE PLACE AT ANY TIME 
AND POSSIBLY WITHIN THE TIMEFRAME OF HIS JUST-STARTED 
SEVEN-YEAR TERM OF OFFICE.  THERE ARE ALSO INDICATIONS 
THAT ASAD'S MENTAL ACUITY AND ATTENTIVENESS ARE BEING 
GRADUALLY ERODED BY THE COMBINED EFFECTS OF AGE AND 
DISEASE.  PERVASIVE SECURITY IN SYRIA HAS MADE IT 
DIFFICULT IF NOT IMPOSSIBLE TO ESTABLISH INDEPENDENT 
POWERBASES.  THEREFORE, IN THE SHORT AND MEDIUM TERMS, 
A CONSTITUTIONAL TRANSITION, BY PROVIDING 
ORGANIZATIONAL TIME, WOULD LIKELY SERVE THE INTERESTS 
OF THOSE WHO MAY BE INCLINED TO OR BE POSITIONED FOR A 
GRAB FOR POWER.  WHILE IT IS POSSIBLE AND PERHAPS 
LIKELY THAT THE SUCCESSION WILL PLAY OUT INITIALLY IN 
CONSTITUTIONAL CHANNELS, EXTRA-CONSTITUTIONAL 
SCENARIOS, INCLUDING COUPS AND COUNTER-COUPS, CANNOT 
BE RULED OUT. 
 
--------------------- 
POTENTIAL NEW LEADERS 
--------------------- 
 
4. (C) SYRIAN SUCCESSION IS CURRENTLY CLOUDED BY THE 
PASSING FROM THE SCENE OF MANY ASAD-GENERATION 
POWERBROKERS AND THE EMERGENCE OF NEW LEADERS FROM 
WITHIN A POWER STRUCTURE WITH WHICH WESTERNERS HAVE 
LITTLE OR NO CONTACT.  IN THE NEARER TERM AT LEAST, IF 
ASAD DIES IN OFFICE OR BECOMES PERMANENTLY 
INCAPACITATED, THE FIRST VICE-PRESIDENT WILL PLAY A 
KEY ROLE.  ACCORDING TO THE CONSTITUTION, IN SUCH 
CIRCUMSTANCES, THE FIRST VICE PRESIDENT ABD AL-HALIM 
KHADDAM, HOLDS FULL PRESIDENTIAL POWERS FOR UP TO 90 
DAYS, DURING WHICH TIME A PRESIDENTIAL REFERENDUM MUST 
TAKE PLACE.  IN THIS PERIOD, THE BA'TH PARTY WOULD 
RECOMMEND A CANDIDATE TO THE PARLIAMENT WHICH 
"DEBATES" THE CANDIDACY AND THEN VOTES ON WHETHER THE 
CANDIDATE'S NAME WILL MOVE FORWARD TO THE FINAL STEP 
OF A NATIONAL REFERENDUM.  (NB:  UNDER THE 
CONSTITUTION, ASAD CAN DESIGNATE A NEW FIRST VICE- 
PRESIDENT AT ANY TIME.) 
 
5. (C) BEHIND THE CONSTITUTIONAL PROCESS, HOWEVER, THE 
ALAWI-DOMINATED MILITARY AND SECURITY SERVICES WILL 
PLAY THE KEY ROLE AND LIKELY DETERMINE THE OUTCOME OF 
SUCCESSION IN CONJUNCTION WITH THE SENIOR BA'TH PARTY 
LEADERSHIP (I.E., THE 20-MEMBER REGIONAL COMMAND, 
WHICH HAS MILITARY REPRESENTATION).  THE SERVICES ARE 
THE PRIMARY PILLAR OF THE ASAD REGIME, FOLLOWED IN 
DESCENDING ORDER OF IMPORTANCE BY THE BA'TH PARTY, 
GOVERNMENT, PARLIAMENT, GOVERNMENT-CONTROLLED 
PROFESSIONAL ORGANIZATIONS AND THE SUNNI MERCHANT 
CLASS. 
 
6. (C) COLONEL BASHAR AL-ASAD:  PRESIDENT ASAD APPEARS 
TO BE BETTING THAT HIS FINAL TERM IN OFFICE WILL ALLOW 
SUFFICIENT TIME FOR AN ORDERLY TRANSITION TO POWER FOR 
HIS SON BASHAR.  IF ASAD MAKES IT THROUGH HIS SEVEN 
YEAR TERM, BASHAR WILL HAVE REACHED THE 
CONSTITUTIONALLY MANDATED PRESIDENTIAL AGE OF 40.  THE 
TRANSITION EFFORT BEGAN IN EARNEST OVER THE LAST YEAR, 
AS WITNESSED MOST DRAMATICALLY IN THE MILITARY- 
SECURITY SERVICES, THROUGH A DECISION TO MINIMIZE 
CAREER EXTENSIONS AT RANK, THUS ALLOWING FOR INCREASED 
MILITARY RETIREMENTS.  RETIRED OFFICERS, INCLUDING 
SOME REGIME HEAVYWEIGHTS, ARE BEING REPLACED WITH 
YOUNGER ONES BELIEVED TO BE LOYAL OR AT LEAST NOT A 
THREAT TO BASHAR.  BASHAR IS ALSO INCREASINGLY BEING 
POSITIONED AS A SYRIAN STATESMAN, HOLDING SEPARATE 
HIGH-PROFILE MEETINGS WITH LEBANESE OFFICIALS, 
JORDANIAN KING 'ABDULLAH AND, MOST RECENTLY, IRANIAN 
PRESIDENT KHATAMI. 
 
7. (C) ASSUMING THE MILITARY TRANSITION IS MOVING 
REASONABLY WELL, ASAD WILL EVENTUALLY MAKE PARALLEL 
CHANGES IN THE SENIOR BA'TH PARTY MEMBERSHIP.  ONLY 
AFTER THESE TWO STEPS ARE SUCCESSFULLY UNDERWAY WOULD 
ASAD MOVE TO CONSIDER CONSTITUTIONAL AND OTHER CHANGES 
TO ALLOW FOR BASHAR TO ASSUME A VICE-PRESIDENCY OR AN 
OUTRIGHT EARLY ASSUMPTION OF POWER.  THE SUCCESS OF 
THIS SCENARIO IS PREDICATED UPON ASAD HAVING THE TIME 
AND HEALTH TO COMPLETE THE PREPARATIONS AND ON 
BASHAR'S ABILITY TO SEIZE ON THE HEAD START HIS FATHER 
IS ATTEMPTING TO PROVIDE. 
 
8. (C) FIRST VICE-PRESIDENT ABD AL-HALIM KHADDAM: 
WITH THE DEPARTURE OF CHIEF-OF-STAFF HIKMAT AL- 
SHIHABI, VP KHADDAM (67) REMAINS ARGUABLY THE MOST 
TRUSTED SUNNI IN THE ASAD REGIME.  THERE IS MUCH TALK 
AND SOME EVIDENCE THAT SOME OF KHADDAM'S PORTFOLIOS -- 
E.G. LEBANON -- ARE GRADUALLY BEING TRANSFERRED TO 
BASHAR.  AT THE SAME TIME, WE BELIEVE KHADDAM STILL 
HOLDS A SPECIAL PLACE IN THE CLOSED CIRCLE AROUND THE 
PRESIDENT.  AS LONG AS KHADDAM REMAINS FIRST VICE- 
PRESIDENT, HE ENJOYS PRIDE OF PLACE IN ANY 
CONSTITUTIONAL SUCCESSION SCENARIO.  KHADDAM HAS NO 
INDEPENDENT POWER BASE, AND HIS THINKING PROBABLY 
ALIGNS VERY CLOSELY WITH ASAD'S AND WITH THE MILITARY- 
SECURITY LEADERSHIP.  VARIOUS SOURCES INDICATE KHADDAM 
MIGHT BE OPEN TO ECONOMIC REFORM BUT, ON THE OTHER 
HAND, HE IS CONSIDERED TO BE VERY HARD-LINE ON THE 
PEACE PROCESS. 
 
9. (C) KHADDAM, THEREFORE, COULD FULFILL SEVERAL ROLES 
FROM A 90-DAY OVERSEER OF TRANSITION TO A TRANSITIONAL 
PRESIDENT IN A QUASI-COLLECTIVE LEADERSHIP SCENARIO. 
COLLECTIVE LEADERSHIP IN POST-INDEPENDENCE SYRIA HAS 
USUALLY SERVED AS A PERIOD FOR THE EMERGENCE OF 
MULTIPLE POWER CENTERS VYING FOR DOMINANCE.  HISTORY 
MAY WELL REPEAT ITSELF.  IF ASAD'S DEATH TAKES PLACE 
FOUR OR FIVE YEARS FROM NOW, KHADDAM MIGHT BE ABLE TO 
FINISH OUT ASAD'S SUCCESSION PLANS FOR BASHAR, 
ASSUMING BASHAR HAD RISEN TO THE OCCASION.  IF NOT, 
ALAWI POWERBROKERS MAY ALREADY HAVE BEGUN LOOKING AT 
ALTERNATIVES IN WHOM TO ENTRUST THEIR FUTURE. 
 
10. (C) BG 'ASIF SHAWQAT:  ONE OF THOSE ALTERNATIVES 
MAY BE PRESIDENTIAL SON-IN-LAW SHAWQAT (53).  AN 
ALAWI, SHAWQAT MIGHT WELL BE CALLED THE COMEBACK 
PLAYER OF THE REGIME.  HE WAS ONCE ONE OF SMI CHIEF 
LTG 'ALI DUBA'S MOST TRUSTED SUBORDINATES, BUT FELL 
FROM GRACE AND WAS ACTUALLY RETIRED AND IMPRISONED 
(1993), SUPPOSEDLY BECAUSE OF REPORTED DEALINGS IN 
SMUGGLING AND NARCOTICS, BUT MORE LIKELY BECAUSE ASAD 
DID NOT APPROVE OF SHAWQAT'S PLANS TO MARRY HIS ONLY 
DAUGHTER BUSHRA.  THE SHAWQATS HAVE SINCE PROVIDED 
PRESIDENT ASAD WITH HIS ONLY GRANDCHILDREN AND ALL 
APPEARS TO BE FORGIVEN.  SHAWQAT HOLDS A SHADOWY BUT 
POWERFUL POSITION AS HEAD OF AN INDEPENDENT SECURITY 
SERVICE THAT CAN INVESTIGATE ANYONE, "FROM CIVILIANS 
TO MILITARY OFFICERS TO THE PRIME MINISTER."  OUR SLIM 
HOLDINGS ON THIS POTENTIALLY IMPORTANT PLAYER INDICATE 
THAT SHAWQAT IS TOUGH, EXTREMELY INTELLIGENT, WELL- 
READ, QUIET AND A SELF-STARTER.  HE OBVIOUSLY ALSO HAD 
THE MOXIE TO STAND UP TO ASAD HIMSELF AND FOLLOW 
THROUGH ON HIS MARRIAGE TO BUSHRA.  IF HE CAN ALSO 
STILL COUNT ON 'ALI DUBA'S SUPPORT, IT WOULD BE 
ANOTHER PLUS, BUT THIS MAY BE DOUBTFUL SINCE HE HAS 
EMERGED AS A RIVAL TO DUBA'S LONG-TIME DOMINANCE OF 
SMI.  HE IS ALSO REPORTED TO COME FROM A RELATIVELY 
MINOR 'ALAWI FAMILY/CLAN, WHICH MEANS HE CANNOT 
AUTOMATICALLY COMMAND A STRONG 'ALAWI SUPPORT BASE. 
 
11. (C) RIF'AT AL-ASAD:  BLACK SHEEP PRESIDENTIAL 
BROTHER RIF'AT HAS TO BE CONSIDERED A LONG SHOT, BUT 
HIS NAME AND TOUGH-GUY REPUTATION STILL RESONATE WITH 
MANY ALAWIS.  HE IS ALSO AMBITIOUS, NOT ONLY FOR 
HIMSELF BUT FOR HIS SONS.  MANY OF OUR CONTACTS, WHILE 
DISCOUNTING HIS CURRENT INFLUENCE IN SYRIA AND IN THE 
'ALAWITE COMMUNITY, NEVERTHELESS WILL SAY THAT HE 
CANNOT BE COMPLETELY COUNTED OUT IN ANY SUCCESSION 
SCENARIO.  SUNNIS, HOWEVER, REVILE HIM FOR HIS ROLE IN 
THE HAMA/ALEPPO MASSACRES OF THE EARLY 80'S.  HE IS A 
SYMBOL OF DIVISIVENESS, ETHNIC CONFLICT AND 
REPRESSION.  RIF'AT'S FORTUNES COULD NEVERTHELESS 
IMPROVE IF ALAWI SUPREMACY APPEARED THREATENED AND THE 
NEED FOR A HEAVY HAND WAS FELT AND, PARTICULARLY, IF 
SUCCESSION OCCURRED EARLIER RATHER THAN LATER AND 
BASHAR WAS NOT DEEMED READY.  RIF'AT HIMSELF IS 
PLAINLY STILL INTERESTED IN LEADING SYRIA AFTER ASAD'S 
DEMISE.  HE REPORTEDLY MADE THE HAJJ THIS YEAR, WHICH 
WAS SEEN AS A MOCKERY BY SUNNIS HERE, AND HE IS AN IN- 
LAW OF SAUDI CROWN PRINCE 'ABDULLAH. 
 
12. (C) MAJOR MAHIR AL-ASAD (33):  WE SHOULD ALSO NOTE FOR 
THE RECORD THAT THE NAME OF ASAD'S PENULTIMATE SON IS BEING 
HEARD INCREASINGLY AROUND DAMASCUS.  HE IS DESCRIBED 
ALTERNATELY AS MORE LIKE HIS FATHER (THAN BASHAR) OR LIKE 
HIS UNCLE RIF'AT.  THE BANDYING ABOUT OF MAHIR'S NAME MAY 
BE AN INDICATION OF DISSATISFACTION WITH BASHAR'S PROGRESS 
TO DATE. 
 
-------------------------------------------- 
U.S. INTERACTION/BACKGROUND ON U.S. CONTACTS 
-------------------------------------------- 
 
13. (C) WE HAVE MADE ANY NUMBER OF ULTIMATELY 
UNSUCCESSFUL EFFORTS, INCLUDING DIRECT REQUESTS BY 
DIPLOMATIC NOTE, TO MEET WITH THE MILITARY/SECURITY 
AND BA'TH PARTY PERSONALITIES THAT ARE LIKELY TO 
DETERMINE AND BE A PART OF SYRIA'S SUCCESSION, 
INCLUDING BASHAR.  IT IS CLEAR TO US THAT THESE KEY 
PERSONALITIES ARE OFF LIMITS TO OFFICIAL USG CONTACTS 
AND, CONSEQUENTLY, OUR INFORMATION TENDS TO COME FROM 
SECONDARY SOURCES.  FOR THEIR PART, OTHER THAN 
OCCASIONAL PRIVATE VISITS TO THE U.S., THESE 
INDIVIDUALS ALSO AVOID OFFICIAL CONTACTS WITH U.S. 
REPRESENTATIVES EXCEPT IN EXCEPTIONAL CIRCUMSTANCES. 
MOREOVER, THOSE IN THE MILITARY/SECURITY HIERARCHY 
LIKELY VIEW U.S. MOTIVES WITH SUSPICION AND AS A 
POTENTIAL THREAT.  AS WE HAVE SEEN, THE SECURITY 
APPARATUS HAS BEEN THE PRIMARY OBSTACLE TO SYRIA'S 
ACQUISITION OF CELL PHONE AND INTERNET TECHNOLOGY.  IT 
IS INSTRUCTIVE THAT WHILE THE PRESIDENT'S SON MAY BE 
THE MOST WESTERN-EDUCATED OF SUCCESSOR CANDIDATES, 
THIS FACT MAY ACTUALLY WORK AGAINST HIS SUCCESS IN THE 
SYRIAN CONTEXT. 
 
-------------------- 
THREATS TO STABILITY 
-------------------- 
 
14. (C) INTERNAL:  THE PRIMARY THREAT TO STABILITY IS 
INTERNAL, WITH A BREAKDOWN OF 'ALAWI COHESION AND THE 
ABILITY TO WORK THROUGH AND WITH SUPPORTIVE SUNNIS 
BEING PERHAPS THE MOST SERIOUS POSSIBILITY.  HISTORY 
SUGGESTS THAT A POWER STRUGGLE COULD DEVELOP AMONG 
SENIOR ELEMENTS OF THE SARG, INCLUDING THE PRESIDENT'S 
FAMILY.  HAFIZ AL-ASAD HAS RULED IN DAMASCUS LONGER 
THAN ANY LEADER SINCE MU'AWIYAH FOUNDED THE UMMAYAD 
DYNASTY IN 661, BUT HE IS VERY MUCH THE EXCEPTION IN 
SYRIAN POLITICS.  ACCORDING TO ONE HISTORIAN, THE 
PERIOD FROM SYRIA'S INDEPENDENCE IN 1946 UNTIL ASAD 
SEIZED POWER IN 1970 WAS MARKED BY "ONE OF THE WORLD'S 
HIGHEST RECORDS FOR MILITARY PUTSCHES AND COUPS." 
WHILE DESTABILIZING, MOST OF THESE COUPS WERE, 
FORTUNATELY, RELATIVELY BLOODLESS WITH VIOLENCE 
CONFINED TO THE PLAYERS AND THEIR IMMEDIATE 
SUPPORTERS. 
 
15. (C) IF AMBITION AND SELF-INTEREST CAN BE BALANCED 
AND CONTAINED THROUGH BACKROOM NEGOTIATIONS, 
COLLECTIVE SUPPORT OF A SUITABLE CANDIDATE AND 
CONSTITUTIONAL CHANNELS, STABILITY WILL BE LARGELY 
PRESERVED.  INDEED, THE QUICK ATTAINMENT OF A NEW 
POLITICAL EQUILIBRIUM WILL PROBABLY BE THE KEY TO 
SYRIA'S INTERNAL STABILITY.  IF SYRIA'S TRANSITION 
LEADERS FAIL IN THIS REGARD, THE POST INDEPENDENCE 
HISTORY OUTLINED ABOVE SUGGESTS THAT ANY EXTRA- 
CONSTITUTIONAL POWER STRUGGLE OR COUP WOULD BE 
RELATIVELY QUICK AND CONFINED BUT PRONE TO REPETITION 
UNTIL A NEW POLITICAL EQUILIBRIUM WERE REACHED. 
 
16. (C) MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD AND SUNNI-'ALAWI FRICTION: 
A SUCCESSION THAT IS NOT SETTLED QUICKLY COULD BE SEEN 
BY THE MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD (MB) (REF C) OR OTHER 
INTERNAL ACTORS AS AN OPPORTUNITY TO TEST THE REGIME, 
FURTHER COMPLICATING THE SUCCESSION.  THE SARG-MUSLIM 
BROTHERHOOD ENCOUNTERS OF THE 70S-80S PROVIDED THE 
ONLY WIDESPREAD CIVIL CONFLICT IN RECENT SYRIAN 
HISTORY.  ASAD BIOGRAPHER PATRICK SEALE HAS POINTED 
OUT THIS STRUGGLE WAS MORE THAN A SECULAR-ISLAMIST 
CONFRONTATION, "BEHIND THE IMMEDIATE CONTEST LAY THE 
OLD MULTI-LAYERED HOSTILITY BETWEEN ISLAM AND THE 
BA'TH, BETWEEN SUNNI AND 'ALAWI, BETWEEN TOWN AND 
COUNTRY."  WHILE THE MB UPRISING WAS UTTERLY CRUSHED, 
THE CAUSATIVE ISSUES ARE STILL PRESENT AND THE MB 
ITSELF LIKELY HAS MANY CLOSET SYMPATHIZERS IN SYRIA. 
MOREOVER, THE BRUTAL 1982 EXTERMINATION OF UP TO 
25,000 SUNNIS AT HAMA BY (MAINLY) 'ALAWIS IS FOREVER 
SEARED IN THE MEMORY OF MOST SUNNIS AND IS A 
CONTINUING OBSTACLE TO RECONCILIATION BETWEEN THE 
MAJORITY SUNNIS AND THE 'ALAWI-CONTROLLED GOVERNMENT. 
BEYOND THE MB, OTHER INTERNAL THREATS COULD APPEAR IN 
A POWER VACUUM SUCH AS A RISE IN SYRIAN KURDISH 
NATIONALISM OR THE FRACTURE OF SOCIETY ALONG ECONOMIC- 
SOCIAL LINES. 
 
17. (C) THE STATE OF THE ECONOMY COULD BE ANOTHER 
ISSUE COMPLICATING SUCCESSION.  THE SARG HAS BEEN ABLE 
TO MAINTAIN AN OVERALL STANDARD OF LIVING THAT, WHILE 
ERODING, KEEPS THE POPULACE PACIFIED IF NOT HAPPY.  IF 
THE SARG CANNOT MAINTAIN THE MINIMUM STANDARD OF 
LIVING FOR SYRIANS, POPULAR DISCONTENT COULD PROVIDE A 
MORE VOLATILE ATMOSPHERE FOR SUCCESSION.  IT IS NOT 
HARD TO ENVISION A SCENARIO IN WHICH ISLAMISTS TAKE 
ADVANTAGE OF A DISTRACTED SARG AND ECONOMIC UNREST TO 
PROMOTE VIOLENT CHANGE.  IN THIS SITUATION 'ALAWIS AND 
SECULARIST SUNNI'S WOULD FIND ALLIES AMONG BOTH THE 
DRUZE AND VARIOUS CHRISTIAN GROUPS WHO WOULD ALL FEEL 
THEIR INTERESTS THREATENED BY AN MB RESURGENCE. 
LONGER-TERM STABILITY IS THREATENED BY THE FACT THAT 
MOST SYRIANS FEEL LITTLE CONNECTION WITH THEIR 
GOVERNMENT.  IF THERE IS RESIDUAL SUPPORT FOR THE 
REGIME THAT ACTS AS A STABILIZING FACTOR, IT IS 
THROUGH THE PERSONALITY AND RECOGNIZED STATURE OF 
HAFIZ AL-ASAD.  NEITHER BASHAR NOR OTHER CONTENDERS 
WILL HAVE THIS SUPPORT. 
 
18. (C) EXTERNAL:  IF HISTORY IS ANY GUIDE, A DRAWN- 
OUT SUCCESSION ALSO RAISES THE POSSIBILITY OF MOVES BY 
EXTERNAL ACTORS, ESPECIALLY WHEN COMBINED WITH 
INTERNAL UNREST.  THE PERIOD FROM SYRIA'S INDEPENDENCE 
UNTIL ASAD TOOK POWER WAS ALSO NOTABLE FOR THE 
PERVASIVENESS OF EXTERNAL INFLUENCES ON THE 
PERENNIALLY STRUGGLING GOVERNMENT.  IN THE 50S, IRAQ, 
EGYPT, LEBANON, JORDAN AND SAUDI ARABIA ALL MEDDLED 
ACTIVELY IN SYRIAN AFFAIRS.  NURI SAID'S IRAQ SOUGHT 
UNION; EGYPT AND SAUDI ARABIA SOUGHT INFLUENCE; AND 
KING 'ABDULLAH OF JORDAN ENVISIONED A HASHEMITE- 
DOMINATED GREATER SYRIA, EVEN LEBANON HAD A HAND, 
THROUGH THE MACHINATIONS OF THE LEBANESE-BASED 
LEADERSHIP OF THE SYRIAN SOCIALIST NATIONALIST PARTY 
(SSNP) -- THE MAIN RIVAL FOR INFLUENCE TO THE BA'TH 
PARTY AMONG SECULAR NATIONALISTS IN SYRIA UNTIL 1955. 
BRITAIN, FRANCE, THE UNITED STATES AND THE SOVIET 
UNION ALSO COMPETED FOR INFLUENCE AS SYRIAN 
GOVERNMENTS CAME AND WENT IN RAPID SUCCESSION. 
WESTERN PRESSURE TO JOIN THE BAGHDAD PACT BACKFIRED, 
DESTABILIZING THE COUNTRY AND EVENTUALLY CATALYZING A 
HASTY UNION WITH EGYPT, WHICH IN TURN OPENED THE DOOR 
TO INCREASED SOVIET INFLUENCE. 
 
19. (C) BECAUSE OF SYRIA'S STRATEGIC GEOPOLITICAL 
POSITION, IT IS NOT INCONCEIVABLE THAT SUCH A 
TURBULENT STATE OF AFFAIRS COULD RECUR.  IN A 
PROLONGED SUCCESSION STRUGGLE, SYRIAN ISLAMISTS MIGHT 
BE EMBOLDENED BY ASSISTANCE FROM EXTERNAL SOURCES 
RANGING FROM SAUDI ARABIA TO USAMA BIN LADIN; IRAQ 
MIGHT SEEK INFLUENCE THROUGH ITS BA'THIST CONNECTIONS 
OR SEEK TO DESTABILIZE THROUGH INTELLIGENCE OPERATIONS 
AND SABOTAGE; AND SOME LEBANESE ACTORS COULD ALSO SEE 
A WEAKENED AND DESTABILIZED SYRIA AS THE KEY TO 
REVERSING DECADES OF STRONG INFLUENCE IN LEBANESE 
AFFAIRS BY DAMASCUS.  MOREOVER, SYRIA'S OPEN DOOR TO 
FELLOW ARABS -- NO ARAB NEEDS A VISA TO SYRIA -- COULD 
BECOME A LIABILITY.  OFTEN DESCRIBED AS "CARDS" TO BE 
PLAYED, THE PRESENCE OF 366,000 PALESTINIANS 
(INCLUDING MANY REJECTIONIST GROUPS), IRAQI KURDS, AND 
OTHER ELEMENTS COULD BECOME SOURCES OF INSTABILITY 
INSTEAD, ESPECIALLY AS LINKS TO OUTSIDE AGENTS OF 
INFLUENCE.  NOT LEAST, THE THREE NON-ARAB REGIONAL 
POWERS -- TURKEY, ISRAEL AND IRAN -- ALL CONSIDER THAT 
THEY HAVE IMPORTANT POLICY EQUITIES IN SYRIA, AND ALL 
HAVE SOME CAPACITY FOR AFFECTING SYRIAN AFFAIRS. 
 
-------------- 
U.S. INTERESTS 
-------------- 
 
20. (C) IN A SUCCESSION/TRANSITION PERIOD (AS WE HAVE 
BEGUN TO SEE) SYRIAN LEADERS' FIRST PRIORITY WILL BE 
REGIME SURVIVAL AND CONSOLIDATION OF POWER.  IN THE 
SYRIAN CONTEXT, THIS WILL NOT BE A PERIOD FOR NEW 
THINKING OR TAKING RISKS, BUT FOR CONSERVATIVE 
ADHERENCE TO LONG-STANDING PRINCIPLES AND POLICIES. 
CONSEQUENTLY, SUCCESSION PARTICULARLY, IN THE SHORT 
AND MEDIUM TERM, IS NOT LIKELY TO BRING POSITIVE 
SYRIAN MOVEMENT ON KEY U.S. INTERESTS SUCH AS 
CONCLUDING A COMPREHENSIVE REGIONAL PEACE; CONTROLLING 
WMD; COUNTERING TERRORISM OR ADVANCING HUMAN RIGHTS. 
 
--------------------------------------------- ---- 
WHAT CAN THE U.S. DO NOW?:  U.S. ACTIONS/TIMELINE 
--------------------------------------------- ---- 
 
21. (C) IF SUCCESSION IS UNLIKELY TO PRODUCE A SYRIAN 
GOVERNMENT READY TO UNDERTAKE BOLD INITIATIVES, IT MAY 
BE THAT THE PERIOD PRIOR TO TRANSITION OFFERS 
IMPORTANT OPPORTUNITIES.  SOME OBSERVERS BELIEVE THAT 
ASAD DOES NOT WANT TO HAND OVER A COUNTRY WHICH HAS 
ADVERSARIAL RELATIONS WITH ALL OF ITS NEIGHBORS.  WITH 
THIS POSSIBILITY AND THE NEW GOVERNMENT IN ISRAEL IN 
MIND, THE U.S. MAY FIND OPPORTUNITIES TO ADVANCE ITS 
OBJECTIVES OVER THE COMING MONTHS, AS HAFIZ AL-ASAD 
FOCUSES ON PREPARING FOR THE SUCCESSION IN SYRIA.  THE 
PEACE PROCESS IS ONE OBVIOUS AREA.  IT MAY BE SOME 
TIME BEFORE ANOTHER SYRIAN LEADER WOULD BE ABLE TO 
CONSOLIDATE HIS POSITION SUFFICIENTLY TO CONCLUDE AND 
IMPLEMENT A PEACE AGREEMENT.  CONCLUDING A 
COMPREHENSIVE PEACE WOULD OPEN ALSO OPPORTUNITIES TO 
ADVANCE OUR INTERESTS ON COUNTER-TERRORISM AND WMD. 
ON IRAQ, SYRIAN SUPPORT FOR CURRENT UN POLICIES IS 
MAINTAINED PRIMARILY DUE TO THE FELT NEED TO INSIST ON 
IMPLEMENTATION OF UN RESOLUTIONS SO THAT SYRIA CAN 
SIMILARLY INSIST THAT ISRAEL RESPECT UN RESOLUTIONS. 
A NEW REGIME MAY BE LESS DISCIPLINED IN THIS REGARD 
THAN ASAD'S SYRIA, AND THUS MORE LIKELY TO BE SWAYED 
BY THE MOOD OF THE ARAB STREET AND THE PERCEIVED 
SUFFERING OF IRAQIS UNDER UN SANCTIONS. 
 
CROCKER 

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