Syria’s Baathist regime is among the most opaque on earth, and an abiding uncertainty is just how much the young and inexperienced president, Bashar al-Assad, has ever really controlled the despotic apparatus he inherited from his father, Hafez. So there is inherent plausibility in the story current among diplomats in Damascus: When Bashar picked up the phone on February 14 and was told that former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri had been blown up, he went ashen with shock. It was witnessed by the Western visitor he was receiving at the time.
Of course, there had always been the strongest suspicions that Syria masterminded this most fateful political assassination, and the report of UN prosecutor Detlev Mehlis has now all but confirmed them. In doing so, he has also added critical weight to the longstanding expectation that this most damaging of self-inflicted injuries would eventually confront the regime with an existential crisis–one that, thanks to the legacy of its long misrule, could easily degenerate into a national crisis, even civil war.
Among the suspects Mehlis names are those two pillars of Assad family rule, Bashar’s brother Maher and his brother-in-law Asef Shawkat. Mehlis also strongly implies Bashar’s own complicity, with the account of a meeting with Hariri during which Bashar reportedly threatened to “break Lebanon on your head.” Yet the diplomat’s tale suggests that though Bashar must have been aware of the ways his father’s old guard dealt with defiers of Baathist power (Lebanese politicians conspicuous among them) and of the likelihood that the old guard would apply those methods to the troublesome Hariri, he was genuinely aghast when they actually did. And the tale coincides with what a lot of Syrians still desperately want to believe: that Bashar is fundamentally different from that old guard and its new guard successors; that he is a reformist at heart; and that reforms emanating from the apex of the system would be the best and perhaps the only way of achieving an orderly transition from despotism to democracy.
Only five days before Mehlis released his report, but partly in response to hopes for change that his inquiry had already aroused, the still weak but growing opposition promulgated a platform for reform and invited “people of the regime” to join it. They pledged to “work together to put an end to despotism…and do whatever is necessary to launch a process of democratic change in the country.” The well-known writer Yassin al-Haj Saleh, a former seventeen-year inmate of Baathist jails, hailed this “Damascus Declaration” as “historic.” He did so not only because of its aims but because for the first time since the Baathists seized power in 1963, such a comprehensive range of signatories–including secularists, Islamists, Kurds and prominent personalities–were joining forces. It offers an alternative, he said, to the only choices the regime is offering: its own perpetuation on the one hand, or chaos or Islamist extremism on the other.