SUBJECT: INFLUENCING THE SARG IN THE END OF 2006
¶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. …. 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….
¶3. (S) The following provides our summary of potential vulnerabilities and possible means to exploit them:
— 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…. We should seek to exploit this raw nerve, without waiting for formation of the tribunal….. 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.
— 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.
— 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 exaggerated, such fears reflect an element of the Sunni community in Syria… 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. (though exaggerated!)
— DIVISIONS IN THE MILITARY-SECURITY SERVICES: Bashar constantly guards against challenges from those with ties inside the military and security services….
— 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…
— 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: … 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.
— Extremist elements increasingly use Syria as a base, while the SARG has taken some actions against groups stating links to Al-Qaeda.
— Publicize presence of transiting (or externally focused) extremist groups in Syria,…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.
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…