Hafez Assad, back in control in Syria, takes measures to cut power of rivals
Beirut — Despite the arcane secrecy of Syrian politics, the message coming out of Damascus these days is loud and clear: President Hafez Assad is alive and well and firmly back in control.
After a period when he seemed to be losing his grip, prompting a power struggle among contenders for his job, the issue of succession appears for now to be on hold. And for the past two months, say Western diplomats and Arab sources, President Assad has been working to eliminate the centers of power that had grown up in the Syrian armed forces - including that of his brother Rifaat.
But tensions remain, these sources say, pointing to a recent attempt to assassinate Vice-President Abdel Halim Khaddam as evidence.
President Assad's resurgence has been keenly felt in neighboring Lebanon, whose national-unity government is strongly supported by Syria.
Sources in Lebanon's rival Muslim and Christian camps have been impressed by the strength and unity of Syria's determination to see Lebanese state control extend throughout the country. Just a few months ago, there were signs that various Syrian factions were siding with different groups in Lebanon. Rifaat Assad, for example, was regarded as sympathetic to the right-wing Christians.
It was President Assad's sudden hospitalization last November that sparked the Syrian power struggle. At the height of the tension this spring, Rifaat Assad's elite Defense Companies were involved in a standoff in and around Damascus with the Special Forces commando units, commanded by Gen. Ali Haidar.
When the situation threatened to get out of hand in late May, the President sent Rifaat, General Haidar, and another contender, the Army's Third Division commander Shafik Fayyad, on an extended mission to Moscow. While the latter two languished there, Rifaat and his entourage ended up in Switzerland. The tension in Damascus relaxed as the rival forces pulled out of the city.
Most of those involved - but not yet Rifaat - have since returned to Damascus and are even back in their old jobs. But they came back to a very different situation.
There have been small but significant changes in the military hierarchy and in the political arena, dominated by the Baath Party. More changes are expected soon.
The President also initiated a crackdown on the massive Army-run contraband rackets that had helped the military bosses carve out private empires of privilege and patronage. The black-marketeering had reached spectacular levels, running into billions of Syrian pounds (1 pound equals almost $4) and involving everything from video recorders to toilet paper.
The clampdown, though not total, has also affected ordinary Damascus residents who report acute shortages of various consumer goods.
A market in central Damascus where Army trucks had openly delivered smuggled goods has been closed down. Madaya, a border village which boomed as one of the main transit centers for goods smuggled from Lebanon, is now reported by recent visitors to be a ghost town.
Across the border, rows of contraband shops that sprang up along the 12-mile stretch of road across eastern Lebanon's Bekaa Valley have largely been closed down.
Although the big fish who were sent abroad are reported to have been deeply involved in the rackets, a number of less prominent officers whose profiteering had become too blatant are reported to have ''been retired'' in early July. Others who had taken sides during the power struggle are said to have been quietly moved to administrative positions.
But the wide-ranging shake-up of the Army command, which at one point was believed imminent, has yet to materialize. The status of Rifaat Assad's Defense Companies remains obscure, but military observers say they have been reduced by having their reserves sent home and various ancillary units - a missile battalion and an intelligence bureau - removed.
In the political field, the reported changes have also been limited but telling. Much of the emphasis has been on discreetly reducing the stature of supporters of Rifaat, while boosting that of presidential and party loyalists.
While undoubtedly cut down to size, Rifaat's present status and future prospects remain unclear and in all likelihood undecided. Despite the moves to clip his wings, military observers report that his status as an Army brigadier was confirmed in early July. And he is one of the three new vice-presidents named in March.
Some observers say he will be rehabilitated and may even emerge as heir apparent - provided he toes the party line - despite his widespread unpopularity in military and political circles. A clearer picture of the pecking order may emerge from the Baath Party's long-delayed congress, which may be held in mid-September.
Meanwhile, Western diplomats and Arab sources confirm that the assassination attempt on Vice-President Khaddam - a presidential loyalist - occurred July 9. A Volvo packed with explosives was detonated at the roadside as he returned to Damascus from Bludan, a town near the Lebanese border.
The incident came as a reminder that Mr. Khaddam and other party functionaries hold little real power, and that Syria's stability depends largely on the survival of President Assad - the state of whose health, although apparently restored, remains shrouded in speculation.