The Assads of Syria have a great deal to learn from Jordan’s Hashemite family about the arrangement of a peaceful succession. When, early this year, the dying king Husain dismissed his younger brother and crown-prince of 33 years, the 53-year-old prince Hassan, to clear the way for his son to succeed him, the matter ended there; Abdullah succeeded to the throne smoothly after his father’s death on February 8. But when, in neighbouring Syria, president Hafiz al-Assad stripped his younger brother and vice-president, Rifaat, of power in order to groom his own son, Bashar, to succeed him, the result has been a messy confrontation culminating in armed clashes.
Rifaat, unlike Jordan’s Hassan, has resorted to extreme measures to thwart his brother’s plans, to the extent of attempting to recruit British mercenaries to defend his stronghold in Latakia, in northwestern Syria, against attack by army units. A newspaper reported on October 24 that “the mercenaries were approached in London and asked if they would intervene to protect the military power-base of Rifaat al-Assad at the port of Latakia, where he maintains a luxurious seaside home.”
According to the Sunday Times, the first contact was made on October 10, when a certain “Mr Richard, acting for an Arab” telephoned the home of Dean Shelley, a British mercenary, who had fought in Rhodesia and Angola, and had trained militias for drug-barons in Columbia. (Rifaat is one of ten senior Syrian figures accused by US congressmen of using his private port at Latakia to ship drugs from Lebanon and Afghanistan to Europe.) Now a “substantial figure in the murky would of security”, Shelley runs a company called Grey Areas International.
Shelley demanded UK10,000 immediately to cover his travel costs, and proposed the payment of UK7,500 to UK10,000 for each mercenary, according to the Sunday Times report. Clinching a deal through ‘Mr Richard’, Shelley agreed to launch the operation by October 26, the report said. According to Shelley, the deal was modified later to include an offensive aspect. “Not only did they want us to defend Rifaat’s residence, they also wanted us to go on the offensive,” he said. The idea was apparently to kill the officers, who were loyal to Hafiz al-Assad, but not the soldiers, whom Rifaat expected to side with him.
But government forces attacked the Latakia port to pre-empt Rifaat’s planned operation; his private port was closed, and his bodyguards ordered to return to their original units. The government denies allegations made by Rifaat’s son, Summar, on his London-based satellite television-station, that many civilians and guards were killed in the raid.
The Syrian authorities have now begun to round up hundreds of suspected sympathisers of Rifaat’s in order to finish his challenge to Bashar’s right to succeed his father. The issue is increasingly urgent, as Assad is 70 years old and suffers from both diabetes and heart-disease. The 35-year-old Bashar, who is a colonel in the army, although he trained as an ophthalmologist in Britain, led the assault on Latakia himself and must feel that he has cleared a formidable hurdle on his road to Syria’s presidency.
The French certainly appear to believe that he has done so, giving him the sort of red-carpet treatment that is usually reserved for heads of state when he visited Paris on November 7. The French president, Jacques Chirac, discussed with Bashar the Middle East ‘peace process’ and held a dinner in his honour, treating him as Syria’s most important official after Assad.
Bashar’s Paris visit is his first to a western or European country and visits to other capitals are certain to follow, especially now that he is seen as having gained in stature as a result of his French trip - at least in Arab states, where a good reception by a western leader is perceived as a singular honour.
The French, who are determined to carve out a role for themselves in the Middle East ‘peace-process’ (particularly because Syria and Lebanon are both former French colonies), are wooing Damascus, and Bashar’s succession prospects have gained as a result. They are also likely to profit from US president Clinton’s keen interest in arranging a settlement between Syria and Israel before he bows out of office in January 2001.
According to reports in the Arabic press, Clinton is keen to meet Assad as early as possible and is even prepared to travel to Damascus to do so. The reports quoted an Arab diplomat as saying that Clinton was set to meet the Syrian leader either in Geneva or in Damascus between November 20 and 25.
The Americans and the Israelis are bound to try to exploit the question of Bashar’s succession in the expected negotiations. Assad, who will be keen to recover the Golan Heights to help his son to inherit a stable country, is unlikely to make any concessions over Syrian territory. But in order to recover such territory he may be tempted to capitulate where security issues in southern Lebanon are concerned. The Hizbullah, which has defeated the Israelis in southern Lebanon, is aware of the risk of losing Syrian co-operation, and has been making contingency plans for that eventuality.
But even if Syria gets its way and recovers all the territories that it lost to Israel in 1967, it still cuts a sorry figure. Both Assad and Rifaat are ruthless bloodstained operators guilty of genocide. In 1982 Assad ordered the assault on the city of Hama to destroy his country’s Islamic movement. And Rifaat oversaw the implementation of the order in which thousands of lives were lost. And Bashar is apparently set to follow in the same tradition, which can only be reassuring for the French, the Americans and others concerned to ensure a firm, anti-Islamic hand at Syria’s rudder.
Muslimedia: November 16-30, 1999