US embassy cable - 97DAMASCUS2809

ASAD FAMILY UPDATE

Identifier: 97DAMASCUS2809
Wikileaks: View 97DAMASCUS2809 at Wikileaks.org
Origin: Embassy Damascus
Created: 1997-05-21 06:10:00
Classification: CONFIDENTIAL
Tags: PGOV PINR SY
Redacted: This cable was not redacted by Wikileaks.
P 210610Z MAY 97
FM AMEMBASSY DAMASCUS
TO SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 7215
INFO AMEMBASSY RIYADH 
AMEMBASSY TEL AVIV 
AMEMBASSY ANKARA 
AMEMBASSY LONDON 
AMEMBASSY PARIS 
AMEMBASSY BEIRUT 
AMEMBASSY AMMAN 
AMEMBASSY CAIRO 
AMCONSUL JERUSALEM 
C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 03 DAMASCUS 002809 
 
DEPARTMENT FOR NEA, SMEC 
LONDON FOR TUELLER, PARIS FOR LEAF 
 
E.O.:  12958:  DECL: 05/19/07 
TAGS: PGOV, PINR, SY 
SUBJECT:  ASAD FAMILY UPDATE 
 
REF:  A) DAMASCUS 2466, B) DAMASCUS 2065, C) DAMASCUS 826 
 
1.  (U) CLASSIFIED BY AMBASSADOR CHRISTOPHER W.S. ROSS, 
REASON:  1.5 (B) AND (D). 
 
2.  (C) SUMMARY:  THE LATEST STORIES ON THE DAMASCUS 
RUMOR MILL SUGGEST A CLOSING OF THE RANKS WITHIN THE 
ASAD FAMILY, WITH MIXED SPECULATION THAT THE STANDING 
OF THE PRESIDENT'S BROTHER RIF'AT MAY BE IMPROVING, AND 
A SEPARATE STORY THAT THE PRESIDENT HAS APPOINTED HIS 
SON-IN-LAW, 'ASIF SHAWQAT, TO AN IMPORTANT NEW POSTING 
IN THE SECURITY SERVICES.  END SUMMARY. 
 
---------------------------------- 
MIXED REVIEWS ON RIF'AT'S STANDING 
---------------------------------- 
 
3.  (C) ACCORDING TO SYRIAN CONTACTS IN THE BUSINESS 
AND ACADEMIC COMMUNITIES, THE PRESIDENT'S BROTHER 
RIF'AT IS BACK AT WORK AT HIS OFFICE AND SEEMS TO BE 
CLOSE TO THE PRESIDENT'S SONS, BASHAR AND MAHIR. 
THESE CONTACTS INSIST THAT REPORTS THAT RIF'AT HAS BEEN 
OUT OF FAVOR WITH THE PRESIDENT ARE GROSSLY 
EXAGGERATED, AND THAT RIF'AT WAS NEVER FULLY OUT OF 
GRACE SINCE HE WAS NOT STRIPPED OF HIS TITLE AS VICE 
PRESIDENT.  IN THE EVENT THE PRESIDENT PASSES AWAY, 
THESE CONTACTS MAINTAIN THAT RIF'AT, BOTH AS VICE 
PRESIDENT AND THE PRESIDENT'S BROTHER, STANDS A GOOD 
CHANCE OF RALLYING THE ALAWIS AND THEIR SUNNI ALLIES 
AND ASSUMING THE PRESIDENCY. 
 
4.  (C) MEANWHILE A CONTACT IN THE SOCIALIST UNITY 
PARTY (PROTECT) TOLD US THAT PRESIDENT ASAD AND RIF'AT 
MET MAY 10 IN QARDAHA FOR A RECONCILIATION MEETING 
("MUSAALAMA").  OUR CONTACT SAID THAT THE 
RECONCILIATION WAS FOR SHOW ONLY, AND BECAUSE PRESIDENT 
ASAD WANTS RIF'AT'S SUPPORT TO CONVENE A NEW CONFERENCE 
OF THE B'ATH PARTY REGIONAL COMMAND (SEE REF B) AND 
APPOINT HIS SON BASHAR TO THE COMMAND.  OUR CONTACT 
CLAIMED THAT EVEN THOUGH RIF'AT HAS BEEN COMPLETELY 
MARGINALIZED IN THE GOVERNMENT SINCE RETURNING TO SYRIA 
FROM EXILE, PRESIDENT ASAD RECOGNIZES THAT RIF'AT IS 
STRONGER THAN BASHAR.  ACCORDING TO THE SYRIAN 
CONSTITUTION, ANY SUCCESSOR TO THE PRESIDENT MUST COME 
FROM THE REGIONAL COMMAND. 
 
5.  (C) IN CONTRAST TO SOME OF THE VIEWS EXPRESSED 
ABOVE, OUR SOCIALIST UNITY PARTY CONTACT SAID PRESIDENT 
ASAD STILL DISTRUSTS RIF'AT IMMENSELY, AND HAS 
FORBIDDEN MAHIR AND BASHAR EVEN TO SPEAK WITH RIF'AT 
BEYOND SOCIAL NICETIES.  HE COMPLETELY DISCOUNTED 
RUMORS THAT RIF'AT IS CULTIVATING MAHIR OR MAINTAINS 
GOOD TIES WITH MAHIR AND BASHAR.  HE ADDED THAT ONE OF 
THE REASONS WHY RIF'AT'S SON SAWMAR LEFT SYRIA SUDDENLY 
LAST YEAR (SEE REF C) IS THAT SAWMAR PULLED A GUN AND 
POINTED IT AT MAHIR DURING A DISPUTE OVER MONEY.  ONCE 
BASHAR HEARD OF THIS, HE HIT THE ROOF, SHUT DOWN 
SAWMAR'S RESTAURANT AND RAN HIM OUT OF THE COUNTRY. 
 
6.  (C) IN A RECENT CONVERSATION WITH US, AN ALAWI 
FORMER DEPUTY PM AND IN-LAW OF RIF'AT'S (PROTECT) 
DISMISSED RUMORS THAT RIF'AT IS BACK AT WORK IN HIS 
OFFICE.  ACCORDING TO THIS CONTACT, RIF'AT'S 
OFFICE IS PRIVATE, AND THUS WAS NEVER SHUT DOWN BY THE 
GOVERNMENT; AS OF NOW, RIFA'T HAS NOT DECIDED TO RETURN 
TO THIS OFFICE.  OUR CONTACT SAID HE COULD NOT IMAGINE 
THAT RIF'AT WILL EVER RESUME HIS DUTIES WHILE THE 
PRESIDENT IS STILL ACTIVE.  ONLY IF THE PRESIDENT WERE 
INCAPACITATED COULD HE IMAGINE RIF'AT RESUMING ANY 
GOVERNMENT RESPONSIBILITIES.  EVEN IN SUCH A SCENARIO, 
HE ADDED, NO ONE WOULD COME FORWARD AND EXPRESS SUPPORT 
FOR RIF'AT UNLESS THE DECISION TO BRING HIM BACK INTO 
THE GOVERNMENT CAME FROM THE TOP, I.E., THE PRESIDENT 
HIMSELF. 
 
7.  (C) THE SAME CONTACT CITED IN PARA 6 DESCRIBED THE 
RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN PRESIDENT ASAD AND RIF'AT AS 
"NORMAL," BUT HE DID NOT SUGGEST ANY RECENT 
RECONCILIATION OR IMPROVEMENT IN TIES BETWEEN THE TWO. 
ON THE CONTRARY, HE MENTIONED THAT THE SARG IS 
DISPLEASED WITH THE RECENT ACTIVITIES OF RIF'AT'S SONS, 
MANY OF WHOM ARE NOW TRAVELING IN EUROPE AND ARE 
RUMORED TO BE STARTING A MAGAZINE, SUSPECTED OF BEING 
"PRO-DEMOCRACY" IN TILT AND U.S.-BACKED.  ADDING TO THE 
GOVERNMENT'S CONSTERNATION, SAWMAR AL-ASAD RECENTLY 
PUBLISHED AN ARTICLE IN THE EGYPTIAN NEWSPAPER "AL- 
AHRAM" ABOUT DEMOCRACY.  WHILE THE ARTICLE DID NOT 
MENTION SYRIA, OUR CONTCT SAID THE SARG CONFISCATED 
THE "AL-AHRAM" ISSUES CARRYING SAWMAR'S ARTICLE.  OUR 
CONTACT ADDED THAT SAWMAR IS STILL OFFICIALLY BANNED 
FROM RETURNING TO SYRIA. 
 
------------------------------------ 
THE PRESIDENT'S SON-IN-LAW MOVING UP 
------------------------------------ 
 
8.  (C) WHILE SPECULATION ABOUT RIF'AT CONTINUES TO 
VARY, A NUMBER OF EMBASSY CONTACTS HAVE REPORTED THAT 
PRESIDENT ASAD RECENTLY APPOINTED HIS SON-IN-LAW, 'ASIF 
SHAWQAT, TO AN IMPORTANT NEW POSITION IN THE SYRIAN 
MILITARY SECURITY APPARATUS.  (COMMENT: SHAWQAT, A 
BRIGADIER GENERAL IN SYRIAN MILITARY INTELLIGENCE 
(SMI), IS MARRIED TO THE PRESIDENT'S ONLY DAUGHTER 
BUSHRA, WHO GAVE BIRTH LAST YEAR TO TRIPLETS.  BUSHRA'S 
LATE BROTHER BASIL REPORTEDLY WAS STRONGLY AGAINST HER 
INVOLVEMENT WITH SHAWQAT, AN OLDER DIVORCEE WITH 
CHILDREN.  IN 1993, BASIL REPORTEDLY HAD SHAWQAT PLACED 
UNDER HOUSE ARREST AND SHAWQAT SUBSEQUENTLY WAS OUSTED 
FROM A SENIOR POSITION IN SYRIAN MILITARY INTELLIGENCE 
(SMI) AND FORCIBLY RETIRED FROM THE MILITARY.  SHORTLY 
AFTER BASIL'S DEATH, BUSHRA MARRIED SHAWQAT.  WHILE THE 
PRESIDENT CONSENTED TO THE MATCH, IT IS BELIEVED THAT 
HE WAS DISPLEASED WITH HIS DAUGHTER'S DECISION. END 
COMMENT.) 
 
9. (C) LOCAL SPECULATION REMAINS SOMEWHAT VAGUE ON THE 
EXACT SCOPE OF SHAWQAT'S NEW JOB. ACCORDING TO SOME 
CONTACTS, SHAWQAT IS IN CHARGE OF SUPERVISING ARMED 
FORCES SECURITY AND COUNTER-INTELLIGENCE. ACCORDING TO 
OUR SOCIALIST UNITY PARTY CONTACT, SHAWQAT HAS BEEN 
APPOINTED DIRECTOR OF A NEW BRANCH OF THE 
INTELLIGENCE/SECURITY SERVICES, "AL-AMN AL-QUWAT," 
WHICH IS INDEPENDENT OF THE OTHER SECURITY SERVICES 
BRANCHES (SMI, STATE SECURITY, POLITICAL SECURITY, 
ETC...)  HE COULD NOT GIVE SPECIFICS ON THE MISSION OF 
THIS NEW SECURITY SERVICE, BEYOND SAYING THAT IT CAN 
INVESTIGATE ANYONE, "FROM CIVILIANS, TO MILITARY 
OFFICERS, TO THE PRIME MINISTER."  OUR CONTACT 
MAINTAINED THAT THIS IS AN IMPORTANT PROMOTION FOR 
SHAWQAT, WHO HOLDS THE RANK OF BRIGADIER GENERAL 
(AMID), BECAUSE ALL OF THE DIRECTORS OF OTHER SECURITY 
SERVICES HAVE THE HIGHER RANK OF MAJOR GENERAL (LIWA), 
OR IN THE CASE OF SMI CHIEF ALI DUBA, THE SUPERIOR RANK 
LIEUTENANT GENERAL (IMAD). OUR CONTACT PREDICTED THAT 
SHAWQAT WILL BE PROMOTED TO THE RANK OF MAJOR GENERAL 
WHEN THE NEXT MILITARY PROMOTION LIST COMES OUT ON 
JULY 1. 
 
------- 
COMMENT 
------- 
 
10. (C) LOCAL SPECULATION ON RIF'AT'S STANDING REMAINS 
CONSTANTLY IN FLUX, WITH THE GENERAL CONSENSUS THAT, 
DESPITE HIS MARGINAL STATUS WITHIN THE GOVERNMENT, 
RIF'AT REMAINS A KEY PLAYER IN THE SUCCESSION PICTURE, 
PARTICULARLY AS A POTENTIAL LEADER OF THE ALAWI 
COMMUNITY.  NEVERTHELESS, PRESIDENT ASAD, MORE THAN 
ANYONE ELSE, SHOULD BE AWARE OF THE NEED TO KEEP A 
TIGHT LID ON RIF'AT, AND SEEMS UNLIKELY TO MAKE ANY 
CONCILIATORY GESTURES TO RIF'AT WHICH WOULD UNDERMINE 
THE DELICATE POSITION OF HIS SON BASHAR. AT THE SAME 
TIME HOWEVER, FURTHER ESTRANGING RIF'AT FROM THE CLAN 
OR TAKING PUNITIVE MEASURES AGAINST RIF'AT'S SONS ALSO 
SEEMS UNLIKELY, AS THIS COULD ENCOURAGE DIVISIONS 
WITHIN THE ALAWI COMMUNITY AND FUEL SPECULATION ON 
REGIME INSTABILITY. 
 
11.  (C) THE REHABILITATION OF 'ASIF SHAWQAT, 
MEANWHILE, SEEMS TO REFLECT A CLOSING OF THE RANKS 
WITHIN THE ASAD FAMILY AND INNER CIRCLE. THE VERY 
AMBIGUITY OF SHAWQAT'S MISSION PUTS THE ENTIRE SYRIAN 
SECURITY SERVICES ON NOTICE, IN THAT THE PRESIDENT HAS 
OPENED UP A NEW CHANNEL OF INFORMATION AND ENTRUSTED A 
ONCE-DISGRACED FAMILY MEMBER TO OVERSEE THE JOB. 
PREVIOUS EMBASSY REPORTING ON SHAWQAT INDICATES THAT HE 
IS AN ALAWI FROM THE TARTUS AREA, AROUND 50 YEARS OLD, 
AND HAS FOUR CHILDREN FROM HIS PREVIOUS MARRIAGE.  IN 
HIS PREVIOUS POSITION AT SMI, HE WAS REGARDED AS A 
PROTEGE OF SMI CHIEF ALI DUBA AND REPORTEDLY LED A SMI 
UNIT WHICH HAD RESPONSIBILITY FOR SUPPRESSING THE 
MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD.  HIS APRIL 1993 RETIREMENT WAS 
ALLEGEDLY LINKED TO CORRUPTION CHARGES AND INVOLVEMENT 
IN SMUGGLING AND NARCOTICS, ALTHOUGH THIS WAS NOT 
CONFIRMED.  END COMMENT. 
 
ROSS 

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