The death last week of Mr. Hafez Assad, the president of Syria, leaves a gaping hole in the Middle East. Mr. Assad was one of the last of the region’s strongmen. He ruled Syria with an iron fist. He was an unbending defender of the Arab cause and one of the most resolute opponents of the state of Israel. His son Bashar will take his office, but assuming his authority in the country and in the region is another matter.
Mr. Assad, “the Lion of Damascus,” was minister of defense when he seized power in a coup in 1970. A shrewd and calculating man, he then consolidated power and ensured the loyalty of officials by promoting members of his Alawite sect to senior positions. When challenged, Mr. Assad was ruthless. One of his enduring legacies will be the decision to bombard the city of Hama in 1982. Tens of thousands of people died in that attempt to crush a Muslim-fundamentalist opposition.
Mr. Assad will be most remembered for his confrontation with Israel. He was defense minister during the Six Day War in 1967, launched the surprise attack against the Jewish state in 1973 and pulled the strings throughout the long, deadly proxy war in Lebanon. As the rest of the Arab world moved toward compromise with Israel, only Mr. Assad seemed implacable and unyielding. For him, there would be no peace without a complete return of the Golan Heights, lost in 1967. On several occasions, most recently in March, he turned his back on a deal that did not return all of Syria’s land.
Now the burden falls on his 34-year-old son, Dr. Bashar Assad. He was in London training to be an opthalmologist when his elder brother, the heir apparent, was killed in an auto accident in 1994. He has been groomed since then to take up his father’s post, but the elder Assad’s death has cut the process short. By all accounts, Dr. Assad is a friendly, capable man with a modern outlook. But there are doubts whether he has his father’s steel.
There are also fears that a family feud could break out. The late president’s brother, Mr. Rifaat Assad, was exiled to Europe years ago and he has challenged the succession. While he has little support within Syria, the doubts he raises about his nephew could be dangerous over the long run. They make Dr. Bashar more reliant on his brother-in-law, military intelligence chief Gen. Assaf Shawqat, who by virtue of family ties and experience could emerge as a rival for the presidency.
Nevertheless, the politically powerful army and security services quickly fell in behind Dr. Assad, and pledged him their full support. He assumed leadership of the ruling Ba’ath Party last weekend. Leaving his mark on the party is another matter, however. The first signs of his influence are likely to be visible at the forthcoming party congress, when he has the chance to install some of his allies in leading posts.
With his father’s backing, Dr. Assad launched an anticorruption and modernization campaign. It is likely to be scaled back now. That is unfortunate, since the late president turned Syria into a military machine but neglected its economy. The hand of the state is heavy. Inefficiency and corruption are rampant. The banking system is weak and fading hopes for peace have scared off foreign investors. The country relies on oil exports for growth, which puts it at the mercy of factors beyond its control. Unemployment is on the rise.
The new leader’s inexperience and his lack of a political base mean that Dr. Assad will be unable to make drastic new initiatives or change direction. Modernizing and fighting corruption will require the new president to take on entrenched interests, but he does not yet have the political strength for that — at least not without his father’s protection.
That also means that the peace process is unlikely to move forward for some time. Dr. Assad has promised to resume talks with Israel “at an appropriate time.” He has also planted himself firmly in his father’s shoes. There is little reason to hope that a new, young leader can afford to make the compromises his father turned his back on.
History weighs heavily on Syria. The Lion of Damascus casts a long shadow over his country’s politics, but the late president’s iron rule was inspired by the instability that preceded him. President Assad turned his country into the most influential Arab power in the region. The public outpouring of grief by Syrian citizens upon his death was heartfelt. That means that no government will be able to ignore his legacy. His policies will not be repudiated. Syria will change, but slowly.
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