Bashar Assad’s Moment of Truth is Now

November 2, 2005

On Monday, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 1636 calling on the Syrian authorities to cooperate more fully with the UN probe into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Although the final version of the resolution failed to include sanctions, the possibility of “further action” and of sanctions being imposed against particular individuals in the regime was left open.

The resolution also gives UN investigator Detlev Mehlis the ability to call for the detention of Syrian suspects pending further inquiry. As such, the recent move by Syrian President Bashar Assad to form a Syrian investigative committee seems to have come too late. The international community has chosen to once again empower Mehlis.

These developments, however, have been all too predictable. Indeed, for years now political analysts, Syrian opposition figures, dissidents and international observers have been telling Assad that the best way for Syria to normalize its strained relations with the international community is through implementation of widespread and genuine political reform. They have argued that the current structure of the regime and the balance of power within it are major obstacles to effective change. Without a major shakeup, they warned, the crisis confronting the regime since the United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2003 was bound to deepen.

To no avail. Assad has had a tin ear whenever faced with such advice, despite the fact that events continue to justify how sound it is. What does this tell us about the president? Is he really a closet reformer waiting for just the right moment, as some portray him? Is he a helpless figurehead with powers too limited to make any difference in resolving his country’s deepening crisis? Or is he a part of the problem, part of that very circle of corruption and ineptness that is ruling Syria, and has been all along?

If it is the first, then the president’s now has a chance to prove his reformist tendencies. He will never be presented with a better opportunity than by implementing the UN resolution, which gives Assad ample justification and legitimacy to thoroughly rework the structure of contemporary power in Syria, bringing the country at last into the fold of modernizing and democratizing states. The president could emerge as the hero of the hour for both the Syrians and the international community.

If, on the other hand, the president is simply a hapless figurehead, then the best service he can do at this stage is to resign and wash his hands of leadership. Without him, the regime will collapse as a result of the inability of the ruling junta to agree on a new figurehead acceptable to the international community as well as to the Syrian people. Indeed, even if the inner circle of power manages to agree on a new figurehead, according to the Syrian Constitution this person would still have to be approved by the Syrian people in a popular referendum. And, no matter how oppressive the regime is, no such referendum can possibly take place at this stage without a credible candidate standing for office, offering an equally credible agenda for reform, one appealing to a majority of Syrians.

Similarly, no such move is likely to be accepted and legitimized by the international community, unless a few high-ranking officials are offered up in the investigation of Syria’s involvement in Hariri’s assassination.

Finally, if Assad is part of the problem and refuses to cooperate with the demands of the international community, even at the cost of international isolation and sanctions, then the world is facing a major crisis that could easily develop into a repeat of the Iraqi scenario. Indeed, many high-ranking figures in the Syrian regime, including those named in the Mehlis report, seem to favor this option. Already they have called their loyalists into the streets to protest against the UN document and reject international interference in Syrian affairs. Should Assad go along with this, he could damage the presumption of innocence still surrounding his own involvement in the Hariri murder. This would compel the international community to act against him personally as well.

In making up his mind on the next steps, Assad needs to consider that the Mehlis report was only a preliminary document prepared for the sake of getting an extension of the UN probe and securing Syrian cooperation. Mehlis did not put everything he had in the report and did not divulge all the pieces of evidence. This includes more taped conversations with Syrian officials, both alive and recently dead, as well as testimony by more credible witnesses whose identity still needs to be protected.

Therefore, the extension that Detlev Mehlis has acquired and the fact that the UN resolution avoided imposing sanctions against the Syrian regime, at least for the moment, will serve as convenient devices allowing Assad one final opportunity to show everyone his real face and colors. Neither Syria nor its ruler can afford to waste another opportunity.