US embassy cable - 94DAMASCUS660

THE INSCRUTABLE ASAD REGIME

Identifier: 94DAMASCUS660
Wikileaks: View 94DAMASCUS660 at Wikileaks.org
Origin: Embassy Damascus
Created: 1994-02-07 11:38:00
Classification: CONFIDENTIAL
Tags: PGOV PINR SY
Redacted: This cable was not redacted by Wikileaks.
P 071138Z FEB 94
FM AMEMBASSY DAMASCUS
TO SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 1268
INFO ARAB ISRAELI COLLECTIVE
C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 DAMASCUS 000660 
 
 
E.O. 12356:  DECL:  OADR 
TAGS:  PGOV, PINR, SY 
SUBJECT:  THE INSCRUTABLE ASAD REGIME 
 
1.  CONFIDENTIAL - ENTIRE TEXT. 
 
2.  SUMMARY:  RUSSIAN EMBASSY OFFICIALS, ALTHOUGH 
ENJOYING TIES OF LONG STANDING TO THE SYRIAN 
MILITARY/SECURITY ELITE, ARE, LIKE US, FINDING IT 
DIFFICULT TO SORT FACT FROM FICTION REGARDING THE 
AFTERMATH OF BASIL AL-ASAD'S DEATH.  RUSSIAN DCM 
MIKHAIL BOGDANOV RELATED THEIR BELIEF THAT BASHAR 
AL-ASAD WAS THRUST TO THE FORE AFTER HIS FATHER 
LEARNED THAT TWO SENIOR COMMANDERS HAD INCREASED 
THE ALERT STATUS OF THEIR TROOPS IMMEDIATELY 
FOLLOWING BASIL'S DEATH.  THEY ALLEGEDLY DID SO IN 
ORDER TO ENSURE THAT RIF'AT DID NOT MOUNT A 
COMEBACK.  BOGDANOV ALSO BELIEVED THAT MAJOR 
GENERAL KHALID HUSAYN, THE LONG-TIME COMMANDER OF 
ASAD'S BODYGUARDS, HAD BEEN RELIEVED OF HIS 
COMMAND FOR CHALLENGING THE AUTHORITY OF 
REPUBLICAN GUARD COMMANDER ADNAN MAKHLUF, THE 
PRESIDENT'S BROTHER-IN-LAW.  AS FOR SUCCESSION 
SCENARIOS, THE RUSSIANS SEEM AS PUZZLED AS MOST, 
ALTHOUGH THEY CLEARLY HAVE BEEN DOING SOME 
SPECULATING OF THEIR OWN.  THEY BELIEVE IN 
TENTATIVE FASHION THAT THE CLIQUE OF SENIOR 
ALAWITES AROUND ASAD WILL BE WARY ABOUT ALLOWING A 
SUNNI TO BECOME EVEN A FIGUREHEAD PRESIDENT, BUT 
NEITHER DO THEY SEE THE ALAWITE INNER CIRCLE AS 
HAVING ANYONE POSSESSING THE REQUISITE ATTRIBUTES 
TO LEAD A POST-ASAD SYRIA.  THEY ARE NOW LOOKING 
AT SENIOR ALAWITE CIVILIANS ON THE REGIONAL 
COMMAND OF THE BA'TH PARTY.  WE CONTINUE TO 
BELIEVE THAT IT IS FAR TOO EARLY TO FORECAST A 
LIKELY REPLACEMENT FOR PRESIDENT ASAD.  END 
SUMMARY. 
 
3.  THE INTERNAL DYNAMICS OF THE MILITARY AND 
SECURITY ELITE AROUND PRESIDENT ASAD CONTINUE TO 
CHALLENGE SOME OF THE BEST POSITIONED DIPLOMATIC 
MISSIONS HERE, DESPITE THE REGIME'S 24 YEARS IN 
POWER.  AMONG THOSE CONFIRMING THIS FACT (IN A 
MEETING WITH THE DCM FEBRUARY 2) IS RUSSIAN DCM 
MIKHAIL BOGDANOV, WHO HAS SPENT TWO LENGTHY TOURS 
HERE AND WHO HAS HAD ACCESS AT ONE TIME OR ANOTHER 
TO MANY SENIOR REGIME FIGURES.  (BOGDANOV 
ACCOMPANIED RIF'AT AL-ASAD ON THE PLANE THAT TOOK 
HIM TO MOSCOW IN 1984 TO BEGIN HIS FIRST PERIOD OF 
EXILE.  GENERALS ALI HAYDAR AND SHAFIQ FAYYAD WERE 
ALSO ON THAT FLIGHT, ALTHOUGH THEY, OF COURSE, 
WERE NOT EXILED.) 
 
4.  NEVERTHELESS, BOGDANOV ADMITTED THAT HIS 
EMBASSY REMAINED HARD PRESSED TO SORT OUT THE 
AFTERMATH OF BASIL AL-ASAD'S DEATH, PARTICULARLY 
AS IT AFFECTS REGIME SUCCESSION SCENARIOS.  HE, 
TOO, BELIEVES THAT IT IS PREMATURE TO ASSUME THAT 
THE NEXT ELDEST SON, BASHAR, WILL BECOME AN 
IMPORTANT PLAYER, DESPITE THE RECENT PROMINENCE 
ACCORDED HIM AND HIS ASSUMPTION OF BASIL'S FORMER 
COMMAND AS HEAD OF A BRIGADE WITHIN THE REPUBLICAN 
GUARDS (SEE DAMASCUS 558).  BOGDANOV BELIEVES, AS 
DO WE, THAT BASHAR'S ROLE MAY INITIALLY BE 
INTENDED TO KEEP REGIME RIVALRIES IN CHECK. 
 
5.  TO BUTTRESS HIS THESIS, BOGDANOV RELATED A 
STORY THAT WE HAVE NOT BEEN ABLE TO CONFIRM, TO 
THE EFFECT THAT THE NEW THIRD CORPS COMMANDER 
SHAFIQ FAYYAD AND SPECIAL FORCES COMMANDER ALI 
HAYDAR RAISED THE ALERT STATUS OF THEIR TROOPS 
IMMEDIATELY AFTER LEARNING OF BASIL'S DEATH IN AN 
AUTO ACCIDENT.  THE PRESIDENT, HEARING OF THEIR 
ACTION, ALLEGEDLY QUESTIONED THE REASONS FOR IT 
AND WAS TOLD THAT THEY FEARED RIF'AT MIGHT SOMEHOW 
TRY TO EXPLOIT THE SITUATION.  IT WAS AT THIS 
POINT, THE RUSSIAN CONTENDED, THAT PRESIDENT ASAD 
MADE THE DECISION TO PUSH BASHAR TO THE FORE. 
 
6.  CONTINUING IN THIS VEIN, BOGDANOV ALSO RELATED 
TWO DIFFERENT RUMORS CONCERNING THE HEAD OF ASAD'S 
PERSONAL BODYGUARDS, KHALID HUSAYN, WHO HAS NOT 
BEEN SEEN SINCE SHORTLY AFTER THE ACCIDENT.  ONE 
RUMOR WAS THAT HE SUFFERED A HEART ATTACK (WE HAD 
ALREADY HEARD THIS ONE); THE SECOND VERSION WAS 
THAT HE HAD ASSERTED FOR HIMSELF A POSITION 
SUPERIOR TO REPUBLICAN GUARD COMMANDER (AND ASAD 
BROTHER-IN-LAW) ADNAN MAKHLUF AND BEEN RELIEVED OF 
HIS DUTIES AS A RESULT.  (COMMENT: WHATEVER THE 
FACTS, KHALID HUSAYN APPEARS TO HAVE BEEN GUARDING 
PRESIDENT ASAD AGAIN ON FEBRUARY 6, DURING KING 
HUSSAYN'S VISIT TO DAMASCUS.) 
 
7.  ALTHOUGH THE RUSSIANS WERE NOT AT QARDAHA FOR 
THE FUNERAL SERVICE, UPON HEARING FROM US THAT 
GENERAL ADNAN AL-ASAD, A NEPHEW OF THE PRESIDENT 
HAD BEEN IN CHARGE OF THE ARRANGEMENTS (SUCH AS 
THEY WERE), BOGDANOV CLAIMED THAT ADNAN'S ONCE 
BRIGHT STAR AS HEAD OF THE "STRUGGLE COMPANIES" 
WAS IN ECLIPSE.  HE FINGERED HIM AND GHAZI KAN'AN, 
THE SYRIAN INTELLIGENCE CZAR IN LEBANON, AS BOTH 
DISAPPOINTED AT HAVING BEEN PASSED OVER ON THE 
LATEST PROMOTION LIST.  (COMMENT: WE DO NOT 
BELIEVE THAT THESE TWO FARED ANY WORSE THAN MOST 
OF THEIR PEERS IN THE LATEST PROMOTION CYCLE.) 
 
8.  IN SPEAKING OF CLOSE FAMILY MEMBERS OF 
PRESIDENT ASAD, BOGDANOV RELATED ANOTHER RUMOR 
THAT HAS BEEN CIRCULATING: THE REASON THE YOUNGEST 
ASAD CHILD, MAJID, HAD NOT BEEN AT THE FUNERAL WAS 
THAT HE, HIMSELF, HAD BEEN IN A CAR ACCIDENT A 
COUPLE OF WEEKS EARLIER AND HAD REQUIRED 
HOSPITALIZATION IN GERMANY.  PRESIDENT ASAD HAD 
ASKED BASIL TO LOOK AFTER MAJID'S NEEDS, HENCE 
THAT IS WHY BASIL WAS SPEEDING TO CATCH THE FRIDAY 
MORNING LUFTHANSA FLIGHT TO FRANKFURT.  (COMMENT: 
WE, TOO, HEARD THE STORY OF MAJID'S ACCIDENT, BUT 
SEEMINGLY MORE RELIABLE INFORMATION SUGGESTS THAT 
THIS STORY WAS INTENDED TO COVER MAJID'S DRUG 
REHABILITATION TREATMENT IN GERMANY.) 
 
9.  AS FOR SUCCESSION, BOGDANOV ADMITTED THAT HIS 
EMBASSY WAS AS BEREFT OF RELIABLE INFORMATION AS 
MOST OTHERS.  HE THOUGHT THAT THE CLIQUE OF 
ALAWITE SENIOR OFFICERS WOULD SEE IT AS TOO 
THREATENING TO ALLOW A PROMINENT REGIME SUNNI, 
SUCH AS VICE PRESIDENT KHADDAM OR ARMED FORCES 
CHIEF OF STAFF SHIHABI, TO ASCEND TO THE 
PRESIDENCY.  EVEN A FRONT MAN COULD GET IDEAS. 
YET, BOGDANOV CLAIMED, HE WAS HARD PRESSED TO 
IDENTIFY A SENIOR ALAWITE OFFICER WITH THE 
STATURE, POLITICAL EXPERIENCE, AND REPUTATION TO 
SUCCEED ASAD.  GENERAL MAKHLUF LACKED THE DIRECT 
COMBAT EXPERIENCE OF HIS PEERS.  RIF'AT REMAINED A 
DIVISIVE FIGURE.  WHEN ASKED ABOUT DEPUTY CHIEF OF 
STAFF ALI ASLAN, BOGDANOV SAID THAT HE MAY HAVE 
BEEN "RETIRED" BUT ALLOWED TO STAY ON AN EXTRA 
YEAR.  AT THE MOMENT BOGDANOV UNDERSTOOD ASLAN WAS 
PREOCCUPIED WITH THE HEALTH OF A SON WHO WAS IN 
DANGER OF DYING FROM A LONG-TERM ILLNESS 
(UNSPECIFIED). 
 
10.  BOGDANOV SAID THAT IN HIS EMBASSY'S MUSINGS 
ON A POSSIBLE SUCCESSOR IZZ AL-DIN NASIR WAS 
TOUTED AS A REAL CONTENDER.  WHEN ASKED WHY NASIR, 
THE LONG-TIME PRESIDENT OF THE GENERAL 
CONFEDERATION OF TRADE UNIONS, WAS SEEN AS A 
CONTENDER, BOGDANOV REPLIED THAT HE MET THE 
CONSTITUTIONAL REQUIREMENT OF MEMBERSHIP ON THE 
REGIONAL COMMAND OF THE BA'TH PARTY; ENJOYED THE 
SUPPORT OF SEVERAL SENIOR ALAWITE OFFICERS, MOST 
IMPORTANTLY SMI CHIEF ALI DUBA; WAS POPULAR AMONG 
THE PARTY RANK AND FILE; AND, OF COURSE, WAS AN 
ALAWITE. 
 
11.  COMMENT:  WE REPORT BOGDANOV'S OBSERVATIONS 
PRECISELY BECAUSE THEY ARE RATHER UNREMARKABLE, 
PARTICULARLY COMING FROM A VETERAN SYRIA WATCHER 
WHO HAS HAD DIRECT ACCESS OVER THE YEARS TO SENIOR 
MILITARY OFFICIALS AND TO THE REPORTS OF THE LARGE 
SOVIET ADVISORY GROUP THAT HAS WORKED WITH THE 
SYRIAN ARMED FORCES.  BOGDANOV CLEARLY WAS HAVING 
THE SAME PROBLEMS MOST OF HIS DIPLOMATIC 
COLLEAGUES HAVE ENCOUNTERED IN SIFTING FACT FROM 
FICTION IN A SOCIETY WHERE INFORMATION IS AS 
TIGHTLY CONTROLLED AS WAS FORMERLY THE CASE IN 
SOME OF THE MORE REPRESSIVE EASTERN EUROPEAN 
STATES.  THE RUSSIAN EMBASSY APPEARS GENUINELY 
UNABLE TO LAY ODDS ON POSSIBLE SUCCESSORS IN THE 
WAKE OF BASIL'S UNTIMELY DEMISE.  ALL OF THE 
FOREGOING SUGGESTS TO US THAT A HEALTHY DOSE OF 
HUMILITY, CAUTION, AND SKEPTICISM IS CALLED FOR IN 
HANDICAPPING THE SUCCESSION SWEEPSTAKES. 
 
12.  AMBASSADOR'S COMMENT:  AT A FEBRUARY 1 DINNER 
MEETING OF THE RUSSIAN, FRENCH, BRITISH, EGYPTIAN, 
AND US AMBASSADORS, RUSSIAN AMBASSADOR ZOTOV 
SHARED MOST OF BOGDANOV'S INFORMATION AND MUSINGS 
AS HIS OWN, AGAIN WITH LITTLE SENSE OF HOW ANY 
SUCCESSION SCENARIO MIGHT PLAY OUT.  WITH THE 
EXCEPTION OF BRITISH AMBASSADOR GREEN, WHO 
BELIEVES THAT RIF'AT AL-ASAD COULD PROVE TO BE THE 
ALAWITES' RALLYING-POINT WHEN HAFIZ AL-ASAD PASSES 
AWAY, NONE OF THE AMBASSADORS PRESENT WAS PREPARED 
TO PUT FORTH ANYTHING APPROACHING A DEFINITIVE 
VIEW OF THE SUCCESSION. 
 
 
ROSS 

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