http://wikileaks.cabledrum.net/cable/2006/12/06DAMASCUS5399.html

Viewing cable 06DAMASCUS5399, INFLUENCING THE SARG IN THE END OF 2006

S E C R E T SECTION 01 OF 04 DAMASCUS 005399

SIPDIS

SIPDIS

NEA/ELA
NSC FOR MARCHESE
TREASURY FOR GLASER/LEBENSON

E.O. 12958: DECL: 11/30/2016
TAGS: PGOV PREL PTER SY
SUBJECT: INFLUENCING THE SARG IN THE END OF 2006

Classified By: CDA William Roebuck, for reasons 1.5 b/d

¶1. (S) Summary. The SARG ends 2006 in a much stronger
position domestically and internationally than it did 2005.
While there may be additional bilateral or multilateral
pressure that can impact Syria, the regime is based on a
small clique that is largely immune to such pressure.
However, Bashar Asad's growing self-confidence )- and
reliance on this small clique — could lead him to make
mistakes and ill-judged policy decisions through trademark
emotional reactions to challenges, providing us with new
opportunities. For example, Bashar,s reaction to the
prospect of Hariri tribunal and to publicity for Khaddam and
the National Salvation Front borders on the irrational.
Additionally, Bashar,s reported preoccupation with his image
and how he is perceived internationally is a potential
liability in his decision making process. We believe
Bashar,s weaknesses are in how he chooses to react to
looming issues, both perceived and real, such as a the
conflict between economic reform steps (however limited) and
entrenched, corrupt forces, the Kurdish question, and the
potential threat to the regime from the increasing presence
of transiting Islamist extremists. This cable summarizes our
assessment of these vulnerabilities and suggests that there
may be actions, statements, and signals that the USG can send
that will improve the likelihood of such opportunities
arising. These proposals will need to be fleshed out and
converted into real actions and we need to be ready to move
quickly to take advantage of such opportunities. Many of our
suggestions underline using Public Diplomacy and more
indirect means to send messages that influence the inner
circle. End Summary.

¶2. (S) As the end of 2006 approaches, Bashar appears in some
ways stronger than he has in two years. The country is
economically stable (at least for the short term), internal
opposition the regime faces is weak and intimidated, and
regional issues seem to be going Syria,s way, from
Damascus, perspective. Nonetheless, there are some
long-standing vulnerabilities and looming issues that may
provide opportunities to up the pressure on Bashar and his
inner circle. Regime decision-making is limited to Bashar
and an inner circle that often produces poorly thought-out
tactical decisions and sometimes emotional approaches, such
as Bashar,s universally derided August 15 speech. Some of
these vulnerabilities, such as the regime,s near-irrational
views on Lebanon, can be exploited to put pressure on the
regime. Actions that cause Bashar to lose balance and
increase his insecurity are in our interest because his
inexperience and his regime,s extremely small
decision-making circle make him prone to diplomatic stumbles
that can weaken him domestically and regionally. While the
consequences of his mistakes are hard to predict and the
benefits may vary, if we are prepared to move quickly to take
advantage of the opportunities that may open up, we may
directly impact regime behavior where it matters--Bashar and
his inner circle.

¶3. (S) The following provides our summary of potential
vulnerabilities and possible means to exploit them:

-- Vulnerability:

-- THE HARIRI INVESTIGATION AND THE TRIBUNAL: The Hariri
investigation ) and the prospect of a Lebanon Tribunal —
has provoked powerful SARG reactions, primarily because of
the embarrassment the investigation causes. Rationally, the
regime should calculate that it can deal with any summons of
Syrian officials by refusing to turn any suspects over, or,
in extreme cases by engineering "suicides.8 But it seems
the real issue for Bashar is that Syria,s dignity and its
international reputation are put in question. Fiercely-held
sentiments that Syria should continue to exercise dominant
control in Lebanon play into these sensitivities. We should
seek to exploit this raw nerve, without waiting for formation
of the tribunal.

-- Possible action:

-- PUBLICITY: Publicly highlighting the consequences of the
ongoing investigation a la Mehlis causes Bashar personal
angst and may lead him to act irrationally. The regime has
deep-seated fears about the international scrutiny that a
tribunal — or Brammertz accusations even against
lower-echelon figures — would prompt. The Mehlis
accusations of October 2005 caused the most serious strains
in Bashar's inner circle. While the family got back
together, these splits may lie just below the surface.

-- Vulnerability:

-- THE ALLIANCE WITH TEHRAN: Bashar is walking a fine line in
his increasingly strong relations with Iran, seeking
necessary support while not completely alienating Syria,s
moderate Sunni Arab neighbors by being perceived as aiding
Persian and fundamentalist Shia interests. Bashar's decision
to not attend the Talabani ) Ahmadinejad summit in Tehran
following FM Moallem,s trip to Iraq can be seen as a
manifestation of Bashar's sensitivity to the Arab optic on
his Iranian alliance.

-- Possible action:

-- PLAY ON SUNNI FEARS OF IRANIAN INFLUENCE: There are fears
in Syria that the Iranians are active in both Shia
proselytizing and conversion of, mostly poor, Sunnis. Though
often exaggerated, such fears reflect an element of the Sunni
community in Syria that is increasingly upset by and focused
on the spread of Iranian influence in their country through
activities ranging from mosque construction to business.
Both the local Egyptian and Saudi missions here, (as well as
prominent Syrian Sunni religious leaders), are giving
increasing attention to the matter and we should coordinate
more closely with their governments on ways to better
publicize and focus regional attention on the issue.

-- Vulnerability:

-- THE INNER CIRCLE: At the end of the day, the regime is
dominated by the Asad family and to a lesser degree by Bashar
Asad,s maternal family, the Makhlufs, with many family
members believe to be increasingly corrupt. The family, and
hangers on, as well as the larger Alawite sect, are not
immune to feuds and anti-regime conspiracies, as was evident
last year when intimates of various regime pillars (including
the Makhloufs) approached us about post-Bashar possibilities.
Corruption is a great divider and Bashar's inner circle is
subject to the usual feuds and squabbles related to graft and
corruption. For example, it is generally known that Maher
Asad is particularly corrupt and incorrigible. He has no
scruples in his feuds with family members or others. There
is also tremendous fear in the Alawite community about
retribution if the Sunni majority ever regains power.

-- Possible Action:

-- ADDITIONAL DESIGNATIONS: Targeted sanctions against regime
members and their intimates are generally welcomed by most
elements of Syrian society. But the way designations are
applied must exploit fissures and render the inner circle
weaker rather than drive its members closer together. The
designation of Shawkat caused him some personal irritation
and was the subject of considerable discussion in the
business community here. While the public reaction to
corruption tends to be muted, continued reminders of
corruption in the inner circle have resonance. We should
look for ways to remind the public of our previous
designations.

-- Vulnerability:

-- THE KHADDAM FACTOR: Khaddam knows where the regime
skeletons are hidden, which provokes enormous irritation from
Bashar, vastly disproportionate to any support Khaddam has
within Syria. Bashar Asad personally, and his regime in
general, follow every news item involving Khaddam with
tremendous emotional interest. The regime reacts with
self-defeating anger whenever another Arab country hosts
Khaddam or allows him to make a public statement through any
of its media outlets.

-- Possible Action:

-- We should continue to encourage the Saudis and others to
allow Khaddam access to their media outlets, providing him
with venues for airing the SARG,s dirty laundry. We should
anticipate an overreaction by the regime that will add to its
isolation and alienation from its Arab neighbors.

Vulnerability:

— DIVISIONS IN THE MILITARY-SECURITY SERVICES: Bashar
constantly guards against challenges from those with ties
inside the military and security services. He is also
nervous about any loyalties senior officers (or former senior
officers) feel toward disaffected former regime elements like
Rif,at Asad and Khaddam. The inner circle focuses
continuously on who gets what piece of the corruption action.
Some moves by Bashar in narrowing the circle of those who
benefit from high-level graft has increased those with ties
to the security services who have axes to grind.

-- Possible Action:

-- ENCOURAGE RUMORS AND SIGNALS OF EXTERNAL PLOTTING:
The regime is intensely sensitive to rumors about
coup-plotting and restlessness in the security services and
military. Regional allies like Egypt and Saudi Arabia should
be encouraged to meet with figures like Khaddam and Rif,at
Asad as a way of sending such signals, with appropriate
leaking of the meetings afterwards. This again touches on
this insular regime,s paranoia and increases the possibility
of a self-defeating over-reaction.

Vulnerability:

-- REFORM FORCES VERSUS BAATHISTS-OTHER CORRUPT ELITES:
Bashar keeps unveiling a steady stream of initiatives on
economic reform and it is certainly possible he believes this
issue is his legacy to Syria. While limited and ineffectual,
these steps have brought back Syrian expats to invest and
have created at least the illusion of increasing openness.
Finding ways to publicly call into question Bashar,s reform
efforts )- pointing, for example to the use of reform to
disguise cronyism — would embarrass Bashar and undercut
these efforts to shore up his legitimacy. Revealing Asad
family/inner circle corruption would have a similar effect.

-- Possible Action:

-- HIGHLIGHTING FAILURES OF REFORM: Highlighting failures of
reform, especially in the run-up to the 2007 Presidential
elections, is a move that Bashar would find highly
embarrassing and de-legitimizing. Comparing and contrasting
puny Syrian reform efforts with the rest of the Middle East
would also embarrass and irritate Bashar.

-- Vulnerability:

-- THE ECONOMY: Perpetually under-performing, the Syrian
economy creates jobs for less than 50 percent of the
country,s university graduates. Oil accounts for 70 percent
of exports and 30 percent of government revenue, but
production is in steady decline. By 2010 Syria is expected
to become a net importer of oil. Few experts believe the
SARG is capable of managing successfully the expected
economic dislocations.

-- DISCOURAGE FDI, ESPECIALLY FROM THE GULF: Syria has
enjoyed a considerable up-tick in foreign direct investment
(FDI) in the last two years that appears to be picking up
steam. The most important new FDI is undoubtedly from the
Gulf.

-- Vulnerability:

-- THE KURDS: The most organized and daring political
opposition and civil society groups are among the ethnic
minority Kurds, concentrated in Syria,s northeast, as well
as in communities in Damascus and Aleppo. This group has
been willing to protest violently in its home territory when
others would dare not. There are few threats that loom
larger in Bashar,s mind than unrest with the Kurds. In what
is a rare occurrence, our DATT was convoked by Syrian
Military Intelligence in May of 2006 to protest what the
Syrians believed were US efforts to provide military training
and equipment to the Kurds in Syria.

-- Possible Action:

-- HIGHLIGHT KURDISH COMPLAINTS: Highlighting Kurdish
complaints in public statements, including publicizing human
rights abuses will exacerbate regime,s concerns about the
Kurdish population. Focus on economic hardship in Kurdish
areas and the SARG,s long-standing refusal to offer
citizenship to some 200,000 stateless Kurds. This issue
would need to be handled carefully, since giving the wrong
kind of prominence to Kurdish issues in Syria could be a
liability for our efforts at uniting the opposition, given
Syrian (mostly Arab) civil society,s skepticism of Kurdish
objectives.

-- Vulnerability:

-- Extremist elements increasingly use Syria as a base, while
the SARG has taken some actions against groups stating links
to Al-Qaeda. With the killing of the al-Qaida leader on the
border with Lebanon in early December and the increasing
terrorist attacks inside Syria culminating in the September
12 attack against the US embassy, the SARG,s policies in
Iraq and support for terrorists elsewhere as well can be seen
to be coming home to roost.

-- Possible Actions:

-- Publicize presence of transiting (or externally focused)
extremist groups in Syria, not limited to mention of Hamas
and PIJ. Publicize Syrian efforts against extremist groups
in a way that suggests weakness, signs of instability, and
uncontrolled blowback. The SARG,s argument (usually used
after terror attacks in Syria) that it too is a victim of
terrorism should be used against it to give greater
prominence to increasing signs of instability within Syria.

¶4. (S) CONCLUSION: This analysis leaves out the anti-regime
Syrian Islamists because it is difficult to get an accurate
picture of the threat within Syria that such groups pose.
They are certainly a long-term threat. While it alludes to
the vulnerabilities that Syria faces because of its alliance
with Iran, it does not elaborate fully on this topic. The
bottom line is that Bashar is entering the new year in a
stronger position than he has been in several years, but
those strengths also carry with them — or sometimes mask )
vulnerabilities. If we are ready to capitalize, they will
offer us opportunities to disrupt his decision-making, keep
him off-balance, and make him pay a premium for his mistakes.