Assad Nudges Syria Closer To Peace Deal With Israel

Purge of security chiefs among moves seen as preparation for change

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

SYRIAN President Hafez al-Assad has sacked four of his top military and intelligence commanders amid signs that he is preparing his people for a peace deal with Israel.

Gen. Ali Haidar was formally removed as head of Syria's Special Units and has been imprisoned, while three other prominent security and military chiefs ``were retired,'' according to well-informed Arab sources here.

The purge, which took place last month, is seen as paving the way for a peace agreement with Israel that will involve two declared Israeli demands: the ``restructuring of the Syrian armed forces and of the huge security apparatus,'' officials and analysts say.

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Syria is demanding a total Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in 1967, while Tel Aviv is asking for a full normalization of relations.

Arabs who have visited Syria's capital, Damascus, in the past two weeks report that there are serious indications that Mr. Assad is preparing Syrians for a peace treaty after decades of mobilization against the Jewish state.

Banners describing Assad as ``the hero of war and peace'' have suddenly appeared in Damascus. And Syrian television has eased its jamming of Jordanian television, enabling Syrians to watch the signing ceremony in Washington on July 25 of Jordan's peace deal with Israel.

The sources say that the partial purge does not necessarily indicate that a Syrian-Israeli peace treaty is immediately in the offing, but that Assad may be slowly ridding himself of the centers of power that could resist the restructuring of the Army in the post-peace era.

It could also be seen as a move to undercut the centers of power that could challenge Assad's attempts to ensure de facto hereditary succession to the presidency. Last January, Basil al-Assad, the president's oldest son, was killed in a car accident, and his younger son, Bashar, is said to be preparing to take over.

Assad's reshufflings are of special significance because they involve the removal of influential commanders who belong to the ruling minority Alawite sect of Islam to which Assad belongs.

The purge also includes security chiefs accused by the West of coordinating with Arab and international terrorist organizations. Gen. Mohammed al-Khouli, head of Air Force Intelligence, who is said to have controlled some dissident extremist Palestinian groups, has been retired and moved to another civilian job, different Arab sources said.The ``retirements'' also include Gen. Shafiq Fayadh, head of the Army Strong Third Division, and Lt. Gen. Ali Aslan, assistant chief of staff, who was the first commander of Syrian troops in Lebanon in 1976.

Generals Haidar, Khouli, and Aslan are three of those known in Syria as ``the Great 10'' - Assad's narrow, powerful circle.

But if the purge was meant to pave the way for restructuring the Army and security, it also brought to the surface a power struggle between Assad and some of his strongest Alawite allies over his efforts to confine the succession to his family.

The London-based al-Hayat newspaper quoted Syrian sources as saying last week that Haidar had been imprisoned for failing to implement military orders.

According to at least four sources, however, Haidar was imprisoned on Aug. 3 after criticizing Assad for turning his family into a ruling Syrian dynasty.

Some sources even say that Haidar's imprisonment was accompanied by group arrests among top-ranking Alawite officers who either were believed to support Haidar or shared his criticism of Assad. The crackdown on other Alawite officers was not confirmed, although all Arab sources interviewed by the Monitor quoted members of the ruling Baath Party in Damascus.

Quoting Baathist officials, Arab sources in Amman say Assad has stripped his controversial brother, Col. Rifaat Assad, of his military post partly in an attempt to allay fears that restructuring the Army is aimed at keeping the power in Assad's family.

But various sources believe that Assad remains the only strongman, and his ``partial crackdown'' will not necessarily spark a serious rebellion within his Alawite power base.

``The reorganization of the Army started one year ago. It was then mainly designed to pave the way for the late Basil al-Assad,'' one Arab source says.

Last year, changes involved Gen. Ali al-Douba, who was moved from his position as head of the military intelligence for the Army's General Command. ``But Douba proved to be very powerful. He practically continued running the intelligence from his new post and quickly formed a power base among Army officers,'' one source says.

Analysts in Damascus believe that General Douba was able to work out a deal with Assad to restore his former position. The deal is believed to include Douba's tacit support for Assad's succession plans and the restructuring of the Army.

Political analysts describe the purge as a calculated risk that Assad has taken to consolidate his grip as he prepares the country for radical change. He is said to have replaced the strong commanders with lesser-known officers who do not muster the same influence and are less likely to protest a peace deal with Israel.

Gen. Ali Habib, who led the Syrian units in the Gulf war against Iraq, has replaced Haidar. ``The Gulf war was an important indicator that Assad controlled the Army to the point that it would follow orders that contradicted its long-standing indoctrination against Western imperialism. Consequently a peace deal with Israel will not provoke unrest,'' says a Jordanian analyst. ``But once Assad passes away, the power struggle will erupt.''

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