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March 4, 2005

Will Assad Maintain His Hold In Syria: High stakes at Upcoming Speech

Topics: Middle East News and Perspectives

On Feb 22 Lebanon Wire wrote that President Bashar al-Assad is faced with  Syria's worst crisis since he was hoisted to power in July 2000 after the death of his father Hafez al-Assad. Unlike his father who was a "a shrewd operator on the Middle East stage," Basher al-Assad rates, in comparison, is a rank amateur, and is now being faced with even Arab isolation.

Saudi officials have told Reuters and The Associated Press that Crown Prince Abdullah delivered an unusually blunt rebuff when the two met on Thursday, telling Assad to withdraw Syrian troops from Lebanon. Egypt, the other key Arab player, has also called for the withdrawal of Syria from Lebanon.

Until last month's assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister, the Saudis served as a buffer for the already cooling U.S.-Syrian relations. According to Hazem el-Amine, a columnist with Al Hayat, the Saudis had backed efforts by Hariri to mend relations between the two countries while helping to maintain Arab support for Syria with the Arab league. Amine has said that "As long as the Saudis had organized to protect Syria, Syria could survive this,"  and "That's what makes this so important." But Assad is going to continue to attempt a face-saving solution which could include withdrawing most of the Syrian military  while maintaining a low-level presence in Lebanon. This brings him to his upcoming speech:

Tomorrow, President Bashar Al Assad of Syria is going to make a speech to the Syrian parliament about "The Situation in Lebanon". He has a very tough job to do, and I personally can't imagine how he's planning to thread that minefield.

While writing this speech (I wonder if he's the one who writes it), he will have to keep 4 audiences in mind: The International Community, The Lebanese Opposition, The Lebanese Loyalists and most importantly, the Syrian people.

He has to convince an increasingly hardlined international community that Syria is bending with their demands, namely withdrawing troops and intelligence honchos from Lebanon, effectively neutralizing Syria's grip on Lebanon's political process.

At the same time, he has to carefully keep Syria's aura of invincibility to both the Lebanese opposition and the Lebanese loyalists. A perception of weakness will further embolden the former and weaken the latter, which will, in panic, either switch sides or behave irrationally (destabllizing armed riots)

The most important audience, in my opinion, is the Syrian people. Can he possibly convince them that he is not withdrawing because the Lebanese people took to the streets? Could he possibly hide from their view the liberating capacity of people democracy?

The very existence of the regime is at stakes here, the speech tomorrow is the hardest the young Assad will ever have to make.

With France, Russia, the U.S., and the Saudis all calling for Syria's full withdrawal from Lebanon, Assad is left with very little wiggle room, and is going to be faced with a very tough decision that may signal weakness to the Syrian opposition, and ultimately, problems that could make it very difficult for him to maintain his hold on power. In a further complication for Assad, a senior US official is reported to have warned Assad that he had to choose whether to follow in the path of reformed Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi or that of Saddam Hussein, toppled in the US-led invasion of Iraq in April 2003. Time for President Bashar al-Assad as leader of Syria, could be limited, unless he finds someway to balance the loss of his tenuous hold in Lebanon with the need to maintain an image of strength at home and the continued isolation of the world community.

Posted by Hyscience at March 4, 2005 11:58 AM

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