The tragic death of a British doctor a few days before his year-long spell in Syria's torture cells suggests that the president has tenuous control of the security services.
The death of a British doctor casts doubt on Assad’s sway
It seems callous to focus on the fate of one man when dozens are dying every day, but the death in Syrian custody of a British surgeon just four days before he was due to be released raises serious questions about who is really in charge in Damascus.
Dr Abbas Khan had entered Syria to supply medical equipment and tend the wounded in the rebel-held north of the country. Arrested by the government forces, he disappeared into one of the Syria’s state security prisons to be tortured for a year. His mother Fatima refused to give up on him and tracked him down. Eventually the Syrian government promised to release him.
George Galloway, a British member of parliament who is well known in Damascus, was invited to come this weekend to take Khan home. The British media were told the release was ordered by President Bashar Al Assad as “a Christmas present for the British people from the Syrian people”. Mr Al Assad’s London-born wife, Asmaa, daughter of a British-Syrian cardiologist, was also said to be behind the release.
On Tuesday, however, Syrian officials admitted that the surgeon had been found dead in his cell, hanged by his own pyjamas. They insisted he had taken his own life, but it is hard to believe that Khan would commit suicide four days before going home. He had lost half his body weight in prison, but he was surely in good spirits knowing his ordeal was about to end.
The death is a tragedy for the family and a sad end for a young man who interrupted his medical career to help victims of the civil war. Lest there be any doubt, it should be said that treating the wounded in rebel-held areas is a serious crime in Syria, which explains why so many local doctors have fled.
The most likely explanation is that the Syrian intelligence services murdered him, and this is the view that Britain’s Foreign Office holds.
At one level, it merely confirms what everyone knows about Syria. The multiple security services are above the law. Their brutality – and the culture of impunity in which they work – are to blame for having turned peaceful demonstrations in the town of Deraa into a civil war. We also know that Mr Al Assad is no Saddam Hussein, whose bloodthirsty record instilled fear in every Iraqi, from generals to peasants. An accidental president, the extent of Mr Al Assad’s authority is a constant source of speculation.
But these are no ordinary times. With the second round of peace talks on the Syrian crisis due to convene in Geneva next month, all parties are jockeying for advantage. For the regime, releasing the surgeon was an opportunity to curry favour with Britain at a time when London and Washington are quietly revising their view that Mr Al Assad has to go.
Official denunciations of the president in Washington as a new Hitler have gone silent. The retired US diplomat Ryan Crocker, a state department stalwart in the Middle East since the 1970s, has declared that the rebels, with their Al Qaeda allies, are more dangerous than the Assad clan.
As the US and Russia gear up for the Geneva II talks, their stances that used to be diametrically opposed appear to be coalescing around the view that the secular despotism of the Al Assad family is an indispensable link in Middle Eastern security. Hints are being dropped to the western-backed secular opposition that a hasty departure of the president would lead to chaos.
These views have caused consternation in Saudi Arabia, whose ambassador in London, Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, has said the US is risking the stability of the Middle East by failing to follow through on its initial demand that Mr Al Assad must go.
In this atmosphere, it is not surprising that the Al Assad clan should have decided to package Khan as a Christmas gift. This would have the added advantage of distracting attention from the army’s brutal offensive against Aleppo, where barrel bombs are being dropped on the civilian population.
Mr Galloway, after he was told the prisoner had died, suggested that the death was caused by a “rift between the regime and some elements of the security services”.
But what that rift might be can only be speculated on. To suggest that a hostile intelligence service had the capacity to secure this death inside a Syrian prison is hardly believable.
But there are good reasons why a Syrian security chief might fear the consequences of a negotiated end of the war. While war rages, the torturers are in demand. If there is a negotiated peace with American involvement, they may find themselves wanted for war crimes.
To most observers, the prospect of the Geneva talks achieving success are close to zero. But perhaps the chances are high enough for some of the Al Assad clan’s henchmen to worry. If the US and Russia are really determined to end the Syrian war, and if Washington and Tehran can reach a nuclear deal, then a peace deal is not out of the question.
The precedent of the Yugoslav wars is not encouraging for them: a parade of generals and lower ranking army and security men brought to justice in The Hague for war crimes. So it is possible that a Syrian security chief might want to spike the president’s charm offensive.
More likely is the simple need to silence a witness. There are thousands of Syrians who can testify to what goes on it their jails, but Khan would have had global resonance: as a proven humanitarian and observant Muslim.
Damascus has a lot of explaining to do. But as the Geneva talks approach, the outside powers have to ask: who is this “indispensable” leader whose writ does not run much beyond the presidential palace? If he is not allowed to organise a Christmas present for the British people, what purpose does he serve except as apologist for the most unreconstructed security state of the Arab world?
On Twitter: @aphilps