“Rather than focus on the socio-economic problems behind the unrest and offer ways to address them, [Bashar Al-Assad] blamed terrorists, conspirators and external enemies for instigating the protests” – David W. Lesch
In recent years, Bashar Al-Assad has garnered quite the reputation for being a paranoid delusional crank in the media. Western outlets repeatedly refer to the President as unhinged, always watching his back, and struggling to consolidate power in his loosely tied regime. He is painted as a leader under siege not only by corrupt family members within government, but also by his own military and intelligence figures, and above all a man whose troubled mind contributed to the current civil war.
In some ways, he was right to be so paranoid.
Why? Because the coup d’etat plots and external threats he referred to and that the media scoffed at are now confirmed to be true, thanks to the work of Wikileaks. Buried deep within their website is a 2006 cable from Ambassador William Roebuck, stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, which was sent to Washington, Tel Aviv and the League of Arab States and which reveals a list of vulnerabilities in the Assad regime and possible ways to exploit them in order to get him out of office.
Speaking about the release of The Wikileaks Files, which also makes reference to the cable, Julian Assange told RT that Ambassador Roebuck’s cable proves there was a plot to overthrow Assad long before the 2011 uprisings began, and Assad’s brutal military response to the 2011 uprisings may have been due to U.S-induced paranoia. Of course, the responsibility for killing children lies with Assad and Assad alone, and we do not know to what extent Roebuck’s recommendations were put into place, but if the U.S. facilitated his vicious war crimes by destabilizing the regime, they share moral culpability in the crisis.
The urgent and bold proposals to oust Assad:
Exploiting fears of alienation in the region:
According to Roebuck, a primary fear of the Assad regime is that the fine line between an alliance with Iran and warm relations with “moderate Sunni Arab neighbours” cannot be walked forever, and eventually one side may have to be chosen. Outside Syria, Assad is keen to appease the Sunni side by turning down Iranian invitations to conferences and summits, whilst inside Syria, he faces opposition for the apparent presence of an Iran-backed Shia conversion mission which is building Mosques and involving itself in the business community.
Like with the Lebanon Tribunal, Roebuck recommends raising the issue of a Sunni-Shia in regional discussions again and again to ensure that the fears surrounding it are not forgotten, and possibly to encourage Sunni neighbours to feel more uncomfortable about Assad’s relationship with Iran. In other words, Roebuck believes that by reminding everybody in listening range of the Iranian influence in Syria, Assad’s regime may become increasingly isolated on the Arab state, and therefore more vulnerable to a takedown.
Exploiting fears about military disloyalty:
Roebuck explains that Assad is constantly fighting between keeping corruption contained and keeping the loyalty of senior military and intelligence officials, two goals that often seem contradictory. He is especially sensitive to commanders and senior officials who pledged loyalty to former regime elements that have since been purged, and who now have an axe to grind. Assad’s paranoia about being toppled by intelligence and army personnel is actually only making the problem worse, for as he draws his inner circle nearer, the disloyal officials are feeling more and more alienated from the workings of the regime.
Roebuck recommends fostering rumours of coup d’etat plans and exposing the lack of cohesion and loyalty in the senior military command, since Assad has a tendency to accept these as true on face value. Roebuck also suggests getting Saudi Arabia and Egypt to meet with disaffected and purged regime elements, with a purposeful leak of the meeting agenda afterwards so the intel finds its way into Assad’s hands. Roebuck hopes this will cause yet another “self-defeating over-reaction” in the regime.
Exploiting fears about economic stagnation:
Syria’s economy is, according to Roebuck, perpetually under-performing, reliant on oil exports for sustenance, and provides little to no opportunities for half of all university graduates. He notes that in five years time (2010), Syria will have to start importing oil, putting the future of its oil-reliant economy into serious doubt.
Roebuck’s suggestion is small but important. He proposes that direct foreign investment from fellow oil exporting countries should be discouraged, leaving Syrians to fend largely for themselves and stopping Syria from being a regional player in the business world. In short, making civilians pay for the mistakes of their government.
Exploiting fears about a Kurdish uprising:
Roebuck claims that the ethnic Kurds are one of the most well organized and daring opposition groups to Assad’s regime, having not only a stronghold in the North East, but also enclaves in Damascus and Aleppo. So strong is Assad’s fear about Kurdish resistance that his military intelligence forces even protested U.S. efforts to train and arm Syrian Kurds.
Roebuck proposes that the Kurds be used as political bait to further anger Assad, whose feelings towards them are already hostile at best. He suggests highlighting, again in public, the human rights abuses endured by the Kurds, Assad’s refusal to grant Syrian citizenship to some 200,000 stateless Kurds, and the economic hardship in the Kurdish strongholds in the North East. Roebuck urges caution with this however, as many other opposition groups are not warm towards the Kurds either, and a united opposition to force a regime change cannot come if Kurds are given preference over other anti-Assad groups.
Exploiting fears about ever-present terrorist threats:
Roebuck notes that Syria has a bad reputation for funding and supporting different militias at different times, and is generally recognized as a state funder of terror across the region. The terrorist attacks against civilians inside Syria point to signs that this may be unintended blowback, or ‘the chickens coming home to roost’.
Roebuck thinks a good strategy would be to mention that various militias and undesirable groups, from Hamas to the Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine, are moving through Syria and that the Assad regime is too weak and too ineffectual to stop them. When Syria tries to deflect criticism of its support for different groups by saying that it too is a victim of terror, Roebuck suggests turning that defense into further proof that Assad’s power is ripe for the taking.
The less urgent and miscellaneous proposals to oust Assad:
Exploiting fears of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon:
After the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in 2005, fingers were immediately pointed at the Syrian government due to the presence of Syrian troops in Lebanon and a long-standing reputation for meddling in Lebanese political affairs. At the time of Roebuck’s cable, the possible embarrassment of having its officials indicted in the UN investigation into Hariri’s death was a severe concern for Assad, even though the finger was later pointed at Hezbollah instead.
Roebuck suggests increased publicity about the scandal in order to remind Assad that his loyalists are at risk of severe embarrassment. The Mehlis Report on Hariri’s assassination, which initially pointed the finger at the Syrian government, is said to have caused deep splits within Assad’s inner circle, and Roebuck is keen to recommend bringing this up again and again in public.
Exploiting fears of Abdul Halim Khaddam:
Abdul Halim Khaddam was Vice President of Syria from 1984 until 2005, when he defected and fled the country in opposition to some of Assad’s political decisions. Not long after, Khaddam began speaking to the international press about the assassination of Rafic Hariri, and Roebuck notes that his insider knowledge of the Syrian regime is causing Assad to feel “enormous irritation” and the government to feel “self-defeating anger” whenever Khaddam speaks to foreign press or is hosted by an Arab government.
Roebuck’s recommendation for exploiting this fear is no surprise. He suggests encouraging Saudi Arabia to give Khaddam a voice through their media outlets in order to enhance Assad’s annoyance and anger, and to air the dirty laundry of the regime. In a throwback to a previous passage, Roebuck says that an overreaction from the regime should be expected, further isolating it from its Arab neighbours and making it weak to penetration from opposition forces.
Exploiting fears of familial sectarianism:
Regional fears aside, Roebuck is keen to highlight the make-up of Assad’s regime, which is comprised mostly of Assad family members, and Bashar’s maternal family, the Makhlufs. He notes that the regime is susceptible to corruption, internal feuds and anti-regime conspiracies, as is proven by the request of some “regime pillars” that the U.S. embassy begin talking with them about post-Assad possibilities. All of these undermine the cohesion of the regime and leave it distracted by meaningless family squabbles.
Here Roebuck presents his most bold proposal to undermine Assad. He notes that sanctions against specific members of the regime are welcomed by most of Syrian society, but there is a chance that they might bring the family closer together under a siege mentality. To avoid this, Roebuck suggests stirring public reaction to corruption, which wasn’t that great at the time, to pave the way for further targeted sanctions that have the perceived backing of Syrian society. The family may find it harder to rally together if they’re fighting targeted sanctions and public condemnation at the same time.
Exploiting fears about a lack of meaningful reform:
Roebuck explains that Assad seems to believe that economic reform is the key to securing a decent legacy, and has introduced moderate steps to bring back foreign investment. These steps have not solved Syria’s economic woes by any measure, but some expatriates have returned to the country, providing Assad with the illusion of an open economy, and could go a long way to stifling criticism of his economic policy.
Roebuck defers to previous recommendations of embarrassing Assad in public to weaken the regime. He suggests that the U.S. and others publicly call into question Assad’s reform measures, suggest that they are a disguise for cronyism, and use the opportunity to highlight the familial corruption and general nepotism in the regime at large. Finally, Roebuck suggests comparing Syria’s failing economic policy with those of successful oil-rich Gulf states to further embarrass and anger him.
For a much fuller account of America’s role in the Syrian Civil War, you can read Chapter 10 of The Wikileaks Files in its entirety here.