Assad under fire as exiled uncle signals wish to return to Syria

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The Independent Online

Uncle Rifaat wants to come home. So there's further grim news for President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.

Uncle Rifaat wants to come home. So there's further grim news for President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.

Having withdrawn his army from Lebanon in humiliation, but still under constant attack by the US for allegedly helping the anti-American insurgency in Iraq, Assad, we now learn - in what is surely a gesture of defiance - has apparently test-fired three Scud missiles, debris from one of which fell in Turkey. And tomorrow Bashar hosts his Baath party's regional congress with the knowledge that the Butcher of Hama - exiled by the late President Hafez al-Assad for attempting a coup d'état against his own brother - has announced that he wants to resume his "political responsibilities" in Damascus.

The man whose special forces killed up to 20,000 rebels and civilians in the central city of Hama during its 1982 Islamic uprising is now offering to meet Bush administration officials to arrange a "regional conciliation" between Damascus and Washington. The 67-year-old black sheep of the Assad family adds that "I have nothing but love for my nephew [Bashar]. But I have condemned the way he rules."

Can things get any worse for Bashar? Most dangerous for him is the constant condemnation from Washington and from its newly elected protégés in Iraq. Syria, they say, is not only sheltering Iraqi insurgents but has allowed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the supposed al-Qa'ida leader in Iraq, to hold a meeting with his comrades inside Syrian territory. The Syrians have repeatedly rejected these claims - they know, for example, that insurgents also cross the border from Jordan, something the Bush administration prefers to keep quiet about, since Jordan is a US ally. The Syrian ambassador in Washington insisted Syria had captured 1,200 foreign fighters on its soil, but said all links with US intelligence were now at an end.

President Assad still faces a major crisis over Lebanon. The UN team investigating the assassination of Lebanese ex-prime minister Rafiq Hariri in February is likely to finger elements of the Syrian security services for the crime, as a previous UN inquiry did. Thursday's murder of the prominent Lebanese journalist and critic of Syria, Samir Kassir, in the midst of Lebanon's first free elections in 30 years, will only have added to suspicions that the Syrian secret police intends to go on killing its enemies inside Lebanon.

There are rumours in Europe that Washington's real purpose in supporting the UN probe is to implicate President Assad and have him taken, Milosevic-style, to an international tribunal - producing another "regime change" but without the need for an American invasion. The irony is that the Syrian Baath party's regular claim - that if it was overthrown, Syria might become an Islamic republic - could have a lot of truth in it.

Many Syrian cities have become "Islamicised" in recent months. In Aleppo, most women now wear scarves and even state-appointed imams are telling citizens to observe their religion more strictly. Alcohol is banned in the city, a hitherto unthinkable restriction in Baathist Syria.

The majority of Syrians are Sunnis, but the minority Alawites - a branch of Shia Islam - control the state. The Assads are Alawites. Their disappearance, however, would lead to a situation not unlike that in Iraq. Just as the majority Shia took power from the Sunnis there, so the majority Sunnis in Syria will want to take power from the Alawites. And if this produces the same kind of disaster as the American invasion created in Iraq, then al-Qa'ida will have another battleground to fight on.

Even Syrian officials now profess themselves at a loss to know what is happening in their country. Is Mr Assad really in charge? Or is Syria being run by a clique of powerful intelligence officers, like Algeria? Tomorrow's party con- gress may provide some clues.

Bashar wants to restrict party leaders' power and rid himself of the tired old men who have dominated Syria for so many years, but he will not be able to break the strength of the intelligence services.

The best advice for President Assad came last weekend from his wife, Asma, who told an international women's business conference in Damascus that "only corruption flourishes in the dark". If Uncle Rifaat turns up to "rescue" Syria, we will all be back in the dark again.