From Beirut, Michael Young writes:
The New York Times gave readers a double-whammy of Syrian statements on Tuesday. Its correspondent in Beirut, Anthony Shadid, landed interviews with presidential adviser Bouthaina Shaaban and with Rami Makhlouf, the powerful maternal cousin of President Bashar Assad, who represents the financial front of the regime.
Shadid was allowed into Syria for only a few hours to conduct the interviews. You have to wonder whether this provoked much debate in the newspaper’s offices. The condition transformed the correspondent into a stenographer, and the New York Times into a platform, for the dual messages emanating from Damascus. This irked quite a few people. However, it’s also fair to say that Shadid has kept the Syria story on the front pages of his daily, at a moment when the attention in the United States has been drifting elsewhere.
What did Shaaban and Makhlouf say? The essence of Shaaban’s remarks was that the Syrian regime had gained the upper hand against the uprising. “I think now we’ve passed the most dangerous moment. I hope so, I think so,” she said. Shaaban repeated the government line that Syria faced an armed rebellion, and disclosed that she had been tasked with initiating a dialogue with dissidents. “We see [the Syrian events] as an opportunity to try to move forward on many levels, especially the political level,” she added.
Makhlouf’s comments sounded more ominous. “If there is no stability [in Syria], there’s no way there will be stability in Israel,” he warned. “No way, and nobody can guarantee what will happen after, God forbid, anything happens to this regime.” He observed that the regime had opted to fight, insisting that all its members were united: “We will sit here. We call it a fight until the end.” He also issued a transparent threat: “They should know when we suffer, we will not suffer alone.”
Some have suggested that the two messages reveal a split in the Syrian regime. That’s not convincing. The messages were not that different, and to put Shaaban on the same level as Makhlouf is absurd. Shaaban is viewed as a spokesman for the president, but she plays no central role in the Assad-Makhlouf constellation. She doubtless needed a green light to go ahead with the interview, one that required some measure of approval by Makhlouf and Assad’s younger brother Maher, both of whom have taken an eradication approach to the protests. Makhlouf, in turn, needed no authorization whatsoever.
What Shaaban said was likely intended to be interpreted in the United States as a marginally soft statement by Bashar Assad. In contrast, Makhlouf offered the harsher alternative if the president’s approach was rejected by the international community. It was a classic good cop, bad cop routine, and those familiar with Syrian manners will be little surprised by the ploy. That’s why it seems far-fetched to assume that we are witnessing a fundamental rift in Syria’s ruling family.