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So the Lion of Damascus is, at last, no more. For some people, he has been an unconscionable time dying. I remember when, back in 1983, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and his loyalist guerrillas were fighting a desperate rearguard action against the Syrian Army in the northern Lebanese town of Tripoli. Arafat leaned over his desk and whispered conspiratorially that salvation was at hand: “The monster is dead,” he said. He had just heard it from what he thought was an impeccable source. Stricken with leukemia, Syrian President Hafez Assad apparently did indeed approach death that time, and on at least one occasion since. But in the end, of the now rapidly diminishing gallery of aging Middle East autocrats, three were to go in quick succession before he did.

Assad was absolute master of Syria for 30 years and one of its strongmen for several years longer than that; his death, so very inopportunely timed, is liable to be fraught with much greater consequences, both immediate and long-term, than that of King Hussein of Jordan, King Hassan of Morocco or Sheikh Khalifa of Bahrain. These will be first of all domestic. But, given Syria’s position at the heart of the Middle East power system, they will become regional and international as well. One thinks first of Lebanon, under Syrian tutelage since 1990, and then of the Middle East peace process, of which the Syrian-Israeli agreement was to be the arch of the temple.

Assad’s was a one-man rule “par excellence,” and he died without properly preparing for an heir to step into his shoes. A survival from the era of totalitarian systems, one that bucked the worldwide trend of democratization and “people power,” his regime was held together by a combination of long-accumulated personal authority and prestige on the one hand and a military-cum-party oligarchy completely beholden to him on the other.

But Assad was also an Alawite, a member of that small sub-Shiite religious minority representing about 11 percent of the population in a country whose rulers were traditionally drawn from the Sunni Muslim majority, representing some 57 percent. Born in 1931 in the remote mountain village of Kirdaha, he was among the first of such dirt-poor, provincial peasant children to receive an education of any kind. At school he displayed in abundance that characteristic trait of oppressed minorities everywhere — a great determination, given the chance, to get on in the world.

But he would never have made it to where he eventually did had not his own ascent providentially coincided with that of the whole downtrodden minority to which he belonged. Partly through accident — the French authorities’ preference for enrolling minorities into its formidable “troupes speciales” followed by a series of military purges among Sunni Muslim officers during the early, turbulent years of Syrian independence — and then by design, Alawite commanders came to dominate the army. Throughout his career, Assad relied primarily on his Alawite coreligionists, in army, security services and other key positions, to preserve what became one of the most stable regimes in the Middle East.

Not that, throughout his long rule, he did not strive to establish himself as an all-Syrian ruler, accepted as much by the country’s Sunni majority as by its numerous minorities. If in practice he rose to power mainly through Alawite solidarity, he did so officially through the Ba’ath Party, which he joined at the age of 16. Temperamentally, Syria has always been the most devoutly pan-Arab of Arab countries. And of all the revolutionary doctrines swirling through the region during Assad’s youth, Ba’athism, a Syrian invention, was also the most pan-Arab. With Arab unity as its main rallying cry, it treated sectarianism as one of those aberrations that must be swept away. Though pan-Arabism was primarily a Sunni Muslim aspiration, Ba’athism, being also staunchly secularist and socialist, seemed to promise emancipation for all the Arab world’s oppressed minorities. That is partly why so many rustic, provincial Alawites joined.

But it was part of Assad’s tragedy that, in building and perpetuating his regime, he could never rise above his minority origins to truly win the hearts and minds of the Sunni majority. Through his personal qualities, his mastery of tactics and diplomacy, his infinite patience and stamina, he made Syria a force to be reckoned with. But these qualities were never sufficient, on their own, for him to achieve his aims and, in achieving them, earn the popularity that would have encouraged him to liberalize and to reduce his dependence on his own minority.

He did achieve an apotheosis of sorts when, in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, he won back the Golan Heights, over whose loss he had presided as defense minister in the disastrous war of 1967. But it was a very brief one; Israel wrested the Heights back from him in a furious counteroffensive. Since then, his rule has been a tale of long, slow decay, of regional and international setbacks — from the collapse of the Soviet Empire to Israel’s sudden withdrawal from South Lebanon – that sapped his strength. He died without the recovery of the Golan on which he had staked so much.

That will be left to his successors. But undoubtedly the quest for peace will go into abeyance while those successors address themselves to their primary task: ensuring the very survival of the regime. As expected, his son, Bashar, has already been nominated as his father’s successor. Doubts remain, however, as to whether Bashar has the seniority, toughness and experience to maintain a supreme authority so arbitrarily placed in his hands.

He has certainly been striving to make his mark. Brought back in 1995 from London, where he was studying ophthalmology, he took a crash military-training course. At the same time, with his father’s blessing, he sought to establish himself as the moving spirit behind long-overdue reforms and steps toward modernization. Above all, he declared war on the corruption that was eating away at the vitals of this antiquated, centralized, Eastern European-style, one-party state. But he found that the “heads” of corruption were in many cases drawn from that loyalist old guard on whom his father had so successfully relied.

There were signs last week that, in a climate of gathering intrigue and deep foreboding about the whole future of the system, a power struggle was developing between this old guard and Bashar’s new one. If that could happen while his father was still alive, how much more likely is it now that he has gone.

It won’t happen immediately, perhaps. There will be an initial impulse among the Alawites to close ranks. They realize that the very preservation of the regime, and their own ascendancy in it, depends on their internal solidarity. So it is likely that, provisionally at least, the main Alawite generals and their Sunni Muslim confederates will accept Bashar as a unifying figurehead, symbolizing their wish to maintain the Assad legacy for as long as possible.

But in Syria, collective military leadership has never ben practiced successfully for very long. Intra-Alawite power struggles could all too easily erupt. Only last year, Assad had to strike militarily against the well-armed followers, ensconced in the Alawite heartlands, of his dissident, exiled brother Rifaat. For a long time Rifaat was the second most powerful man in the country. He still has influence — and great ambition. If the Alawites fall out among themselves, there may well come a point when one faction or another is tempted to appeal for support from allies within the Sunni majority, thereby reviving the demons of sectarian conflict that marked the regime’s formative years.

Syria was once a byword for instability. It had some 20 changes of leadership between 1945 and 1971, when Assad took full and formal power. If there is a cycle in human affairs, then a long period of stability, achieved mainly through repression, is likely to be followed by its opposite. And that, with unpredictable consequences far beyond Syria itself, could be the Pandora’s box that Assad’s death has thrown open.

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