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Bashar al-Assad: Can the Dictator Dictate?

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In the shadow of the clampdowns in Syria, far too much focus has been placed on the character and intentions of President Bashar al-Assad.

Too often in the past, US congressman and European parliamentary delegations have returned from Damascus after hours spent with Assad convinced that he is a like-minded reformer. Memorable highlights include Peter Mandelson declaring after such a meeting that he liked Assad who was "a decent man doing a difficult job", and Hillary Clinton's recent surprising faith in the "many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months [and] have said they believe he's a reformer."

Focusing on whether or not Assad is a reformer is increasingly irrelevant. Syria has been shown to possess a paper dictator whose pleas for pursuit of the "Chinese model" of reform have collapsed alongside the country's economy since the start of the protests. Put simply, he is a dictator who cannot dictate.

William Hague couldn't have put it better when he argued that while "one of the difficulties in Syria is that president Assad's power depends on a wider group of people in his own family and of course other members of government and I am not sure how free he is to pursue a reform agenda, even if he wanted to do so."

The fact that the recent US/EU sanctions have avoided targeting Assad can be seen as a final gambit and opportunity for the Syrian president to prove his relevance, but I am not optimistic. His status as a reluctant dictator is well known; Patrick Seale describes Assad as having little or nothing of the menacing pose of a traditional Arab dictator -- "his tall willowy frame has none of the robustness of a fighter, while his gaze, questioning and often perplexed, has none of the certainties of a man born to power".

In Carsten Wieland's book, Syria at Bay, an anonymous journalist described Assad as "holding the opinion of the person he last spoke to," while his sister, Bushra, once referred to him as "stupid and nervous".

To better understand the mechanics of the Syrian regime, people must go beyond the figurehead to examine the nexus of power at the heart of the Damascene court -- an opaque and complex palatial mafia whose lesser known characters wield inordinate amounts of power.

The BBC's Kim Ghattas wrote recently that "for years the outside world has tried to divine who is winning the internal struggles inside Syria". The real stakeholders are those who hold the keys to the shadow state -- the security agencies and the military whose praetorian nature is revealed by their tight control over certain elite divisions and powerful institutions.

Perhaps the best analogy is to imagine Assad as a rather genial figure like George W Bush surrounded by a family of Dick Cheneys. Seale has speculated that Assad may already have lost authority to men like his brother, Maher al-Assad, who is on both the latest EU and US lists of targeted sanctions.

Maher is considered the second most powerful man in Syria, head of the presidential republican guard and the supposedly "elite" fourth mechanised division that has been at the tip of the clampdown in Deraa. He is a military careerist whom some suspected was the preferred choice to Bashar when Basil (Bahar's older brother) died in a car crash.

The council of foreign relations describes Maher as unstable -- a reputation enhanced when after an argument he shot and wounded his brother-in-law, Asef Shawkat. Maher was one of the figures who persuaded Bashar to implement the original "Damascus winter" in 2000, where brief hopes of an opening in Syrian politics were clamped down upon in an orgy of arrests; he also figured in the preliminary UN report into the killing of Rafik Hariri, although he dropped out of the final report in mysterious circumstances.

Last week, unverified footage appeared to show Maher literally taking the lead against the protesters, gleefully shooting at unarmed protesters as they chanted for the downfall of his regime in the Barzeh suburb of Damascus.

Maher and his fellow members of Syria's secretive elite are not deterred by travel bans or sanctions aimed directly at their interests. All they care for is to stay in power, regardless of the costs to the country. Meanwhile, the west has no appetite for intervention in Syria and the persuasive powers of sanctions will have limited impact on a state that has endured various degrees of isolation for decades.

It is time for people to stop looking at Syria as what they would like it to be and start dealing with it as it is. The US and EU appear to have started designing their policy to work around Assad, rather than through him. Simon Tisdall is wrong to argue that the west's sanctions are a case of blaming of figures around Assad rather than biting the bullet of criticizing the president himself. In fact, what the sanctions have done is for the first time name and shame the real pillars of the Syrian regime in the hope that it would force Assad into attempting to take control over his own regime -- something Brian Whitaker referred to as an unlikely "silent coup".

They are gambling that if Bashar cannot be forced to end the clampdown, perhaps his illusion of control can be shattered, humiliating him into revealing the extent of his lack of control over the country.

Originally published in the Guardian.