Jan Weatherhead writes from Washington: Syria’s Prime Minister Riyad Farid Hijab has defected. Bloody hell, some people are saying, that’s the head of government doing a runner. It must signify something big.
The Syrian version is that he’s been sacked. His version is that it was simply time to go. What does it all mean? According to White House spokesman Jay Carney, it’s ‘a sign that Assad’s grip on power is loosening.’ Paul Salem, the much respected director of the Carnegie Centre for the Middle East remarked: ‘This is someone who was very, very close and they couldn’t keep him. It’s a sign of advanced decrepitude.’
This does not mean the regime is about to collapse. If the Prime Minister had jumped ship at the start of the conflict, then we could imagine wringing hands in Damascus. At this stage there is a simple question to be asked: did he resign because he thinks the al Assads are about to collapse and therefore he and his family would go down with them – probably executed by the rebels – or was he told to take a hike because he blew it?
This was no sudden decision, make no mistake about it. Riyad Farid Hijab has the nature of one whose indecision is final. He has been planning this for weeks while quietly getting his extended family out of the country. Then on Monday, before light, he took his wife and four children towards the Jordanian-Syrian border and crossed into Ramtha.
This is the act of a man getting out before the massacre. I’m told that his view is that he went, with his family and his family’s family, before the rebels took him out. The rebels remember, are mostly Sunni. The military operation is exactly where it was. The circumstances of how to defend Damascus, attack Aleppo and besiege Homs do not change with the PM’s going.
Let us put one more thought in perspective: about 18 months ago the rebels started to attack the very fabric of Syria. The Syrian government did what every government in the world would do, it defended its authority. For example, when the IRA tried to bring down British rule in a part of the United Kingdom, the UK government sent in the army. There is no way in which we would see the al Assad regime like the Wilson government of 1969, nor the Heath government that followed. But in cold constitutional terms, should not the ruling authority have every right to defend its realm?
The difference, of course, is the very nature of the al Assad dynasty and from the West’s point of view – and that of much of the Middle East as well – it is the seemingly uncompromising association of Iran and Syria. That is the axis outsiders wish to crush by supporting the ragtag of militias and differing interests that collectively are seen as an opposition inspired by the Arab Spring with that occasion’s doubtful assumption that a more humane regime and certainly a constitutional democracy would replace Bashar al Assad and his largely Alawi cohort.
Moreover, contrary to the encouragement of (again) largely Western punditry the Syrian government has not yet fallen.
True, it is committing its own country to rubble, its surviving people to unforgettable trauma and creating a mass migration of refugees that in itself is causing stresses and therefore precursors of regional instability. But the al Assads are still in power. Maybe that’s a day-by-day situation, but as of this day that desperately overused phrase, the beginning of the end, appears wobbly.
Aleppo is a hard fight because the rebel forces are in ghetto-type enclaves that make heavy weaponry hard to use to any advantage. Damascus remains an example of a relatively lightly armed guerrilla force being able to take good positions but not able to hold them. The rebels made crucial mistakes at the last attempt (to do with points of attack, ammunition supply and sealing the wrong bits of town including communications). Maybe they’ve learned, but so far, not yet. In the rest of the country, the Syrian army holds out and even has rebels on the run.
If you want to work out what may eventually happen, maybe we should think more about the lessons of the Boer War. Hit and run exhausts a force under central command. Read your General Roberts for the solution!
More than anything else, both sides conform to a pattern of ruthless low level warfare. It matters not who is Prime Minister for practical reasons. No PM will be taking any policy decision that will swing the war and defeat the rebellion. Only the military force of Maher al Assad’s army could do that – but not for long.
Civil war divides ambitions and therefore families and when, as in Syria’s case, people are marked by their religious denomination and senses of rule as well as oppression, then the personality of leadership is wiped with the grim rag of determination. Both sides know that whoever eventually sits in the palace of Damascus there will be no process of peace and reconciliation, only revenge.
The recent Prime Minister of Syria ran with his family to save their skins. And why not? But instead of looking at the military and political significance, the Intelligence community is gathering to ask the simple question: why has he run now? Did he believe the end was in sight? So what does he think he knows that we don’t?