Syria's Assad orchestrates end to feud among potential successors
Syria's succession crisis is over - for now. The struggle over who should eventually replace the ailing President Hafez Assad had turned Damascus into an armed camp as three rival armies vied for position around government installations.
The three-month crisis had a dramatic ending: Long processions of Soviet-made T-72 tanks on flat-bed trucks rolled along the boulevards of Damascus suburbs as escorting jeeploads of cheering troops fired into the air. The withdrawal back to respective barracks ended as dawn broke on June 1, the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
President Assad appears to have defused the struggle by convincing the various contenders that the job would be won by rising through the ruling Baath Party and not by military might, according to diplomats who closely monitored the pullback of thousands of troops.
Like the deployment in late February, the withdrawal was never mentioned in the Syrian press. More telling was the heavy coverage of a visit to Moscow by the President's younger brother, Rifaat, head of the 25,000-man Defense Forces.
With Rifaat were the two men most opposed to the possibility of his succeeding his brother: Ali Haidar, leader of 20,000 Special Forces commandos, and Shafik Fayyad, who leads the Army's Third Division. As the three men flew off to the Soviet Union - each with a bevy of bodyguards that diplomats joked were to provide the three men with protection from one another - their troops back home were disengaging. President Assad had planned these events to occur simultaneously to end the squabbling.
His ambitious brother sparked the struggle when he dispatched his highly efficient if somewhat ruthless troops to key points in and around the Syrian capital. His opponents followed suit. In some sectors, the rival units actually had machine-gun and artillery emplacements across the street from each other.
''Rifaat really upset the apple cart by attempting to get more than the President and others wanted him to have, at least at this stage,'' a foreign envoy explained. ''In Hafez's eyes, he (Rifaat) showed very bad judgment and it became time to put Rifaat in his place.''
Still, the general consensus in Damascus is that the President wants his family, which belongs to the minority Alawite tribe, to keep ruling Syria. But he does not want rule through the kind of muscle that has led to friction among the nation's military and political chiefs that had diverted attention from Assad's regional schemes.
''Assad's team was beginning to fall apart, squabbling among themselves,'' an insider explained. Indeed, the rivalry was visible as intelligence agents - usually conspicuous in their high-heeled boots with pistols packed at the hip under beige, green, or brown safari suits - began following each other around rather than searching for dissidents and government opponents.
As the President regained some of his physical strength, he slowly put the squeeze on Rifaat, bringing in Alawite tribal leaders, religious sheikhs from the Assad home town of Lattakia, and even the Assads' mother to sort out the succession war, diplomats in Damascus said.
''Hafez, as usual these days, won out,'' an Arab envoy explained. ''He convinced Rifaat to change his image, to use the vice-presidency (to which he was appointed in April) as a vehicle to eventually take over. . . .''
In effect, the President is now stage-managing his brother's rehabilitation. The mission to Moscow, which the President reportedly ''suggested' to the Soviets, was an effective start. The television coverage showed a beaming Rifaat , considered one of the most pro-Western figures in Syria, warmly embracing the Soviet delegation. He made ''suitably'' critical remarks about the United States where he maintains a home.
For Syrians, the visit portrayed Rifaat Assad as more than just a soldier, but an envoy sufficiently skilled to take on Syria's most important ally and arms supplier. Diplomats predict he will take on an increasing number of foreign assignments to build up his new image.
And to the Soviets, it was an effort to calm their suspicions about the course Syria could take under Rifaat Assad. Just a few weeks earlier there had been reports among East-bloc sources that the Soviets would prefer to back an alliance of Sunni Muslims, the Syrian majority, centered on another vice-president and former foreign minister, Abdel Kalim Khaddam, who is seen as the other main contender for the presidency.
Despite his preferences, the President is still reportedly keeping his options open. A leading Baath Party official explained that he was fully prepared to withdraw support for his brother if he did not eventually gain the backing of the majority of the party. He does not want Syria to revert to a period of coups and instability, like the one that dominated politics between independence in 1946 and Hafez Assad's takeover in 1971.