You wait weeks for a Syrian regime spokesperson, and then two come along at once.
A New York Times reporter was granted access to the President’s closest aide, Buthaina Shaaban. She said she hoped the worst of the violence was over and that things would start to calm down.
But then twenty four hours later something strange happened. Rami Makhlouf, the President’s cousin, a man who holds no official government position but controls much of the country’s economy, also spoke out. But his message was very different. In a combative interview reminiscent of Saif Gaddafi’s first speech, he promised to fight until the bitter end.
That prompted a letter to the New York Times from Syria’s Ambassador in Washington, DC emphasising that Makhlouf is a “private citizen” who “holds no official position” and whose opinions “can not be associated in any way with the official positions of the government of the Syrian Arab Republic”.
So why the contradictory messages? Makhlouf is one of the three hardliners thought to be behind the regime’s crackdown. He was targeted by US and EU sanctions, while the President has been let off the hook. Shaaban is one of the moderates, a group of people who seem to have lost the argument. People like Shaaban, Vice President Farouq Al-Sharaa and even the President himself were rumoured to have been silenced, jailed, put under house arrest, or even forced into exile.
The Daily Mail claimed that the President’s wife had fled to her parent’s house in Britain, the country she was born and grew up in. This prompted a quite exceptional denial from Syrian Embassy in London.
And while these behind-the-scenes battles seem to play out, it has been revealed that Buthaina Shaaban has been meeting the opposition. She has told an opposition leader that the government will not fire on protestors this Friday. Even the fact that she’s meeting them shows that she’s a world away from Makhlouf. Those talks will continue next week, apparently.
But the real test will be this: will the army and police fire on protestors tomorrow? If they don’t, then maybe Shaaban’s wing is taking control. If they do, then Makhlouf’s promise to fight to the end may be a worrying premonition of what’s to come.