World

A tough act to follow

Andrew Phillips June 26 2000
World

A tough act to follow

Andrew Phillips June 26 2000

A tough act to follow

World

Syrians bury Hafez al-Assad and wonder what the future holds as his son assumes power

Andrew Phillips

It was said last week of Bashar alAssad that he is the very model of a modern Arab leader. He is young (just 34) and speaks English and French, in addition to Arabic. He likes to surf the Web and is president of the Syrian Internet Society. He is an amateur photographer who enjoys scanning his pictures into a computer. He studied ophthalmology and was educated partly in England. And according to one report, he has a passion for the music of Phil Collins.

That being said, almost nothing is known about what direction the man known to Syrians as “Doctor Bashar” will take his country once he officially assumes its leadership following the death of his father, the longtime dictator Hafez al-Assad. The formal succession was well under way last week even as Syria buried the father, who died on June 10 at age 69. Military and government leaders rallied around his son, who was quickly given senior posts in the army and the ruling Baath party as preparation for having him acclaimed president in a referendum. Ordinary Syrians took up the cry in the streets, chanting “God, Syria and Bashar.”

Bashar al-Assad s elevation seemed assured, though it is far less certain that he can wield power effectively—and even less sure how he can continue efforts to negotiate a peace deal with Israel. His father managed to rule for 30 years by striking a balance between Syria’s rival religious groups and competing interests—as well as ruthlessly crushing all challengers. Bashar, in contrast, is a largely untested leader who was not raised for the top job. Hafez al-Assad in-

tended that to go to his oldest son, Basil.

But when Basil was killed in a car crash in 1994, Bashar was called back from London to be groomed as his father’s successor. He was given responsibility for policy in Lebanon, and put in charge of a campaign against corruption.

Assad s first task will be to consolidate his power and ensure that Syria’s simmering religious tensions do not break into the open. The Assads belong to the Alawite sect, a secretive group that broke away from orthodox Islam in the 10th century and is considered heretical by many Muslims. Its adherents account for just 12 per cent of Syria’s 17 million people, but flourished under Hafez al-Assad’s long rule and now control the top positions in the military and state enterprises. Sunni Muslims, who form Syria’s majority, may seize the opportunity of his father’s death to challenge Bashar’s authority. For the time being, Alawite leaders will likely safeguard their power by rallying around Assad. Otherwise, says Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, “things

could spin out of control.” Assad’s insecure position also makes it very unlikely that he will take a softer line than his father on the crucial issue of peace with Israel. Western leaders who met him last week quoted him as saying: “I’m going to carry on peace just like my father did.” Even that was an enigmatic statement: while Hafez al-Assad went along with the Clinton administration’s desire for a “peace process” between Syria and Israel, he stopped well short of actual peace. In late March, President Bill Clinton met with Assad in Geneva but failed to get him to compromise. The Syrian leader insisted that Israel withdraw from every inch of the Golan Heights and other land it seized from Syria in their 1967 war. Israel wants to keep a narrow strip on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee.

Bashar, say the experts, is almost certain to stick to his father’s position. But he may well revive the peace process, which offers the advantage of attracting favourable U.S. attention without necessarily reaching a settlement that could expose him to domestic criticism. After his father turned down Clinton in March, Assad offered a more upbeat message. He told an Arabic weekly that, for a settlement, “the time is not too late.” Assad has also taken a softer rhetorical line, using the word “Israel” instead of referring to “the Zionist entity,” as his father did. For at least the next few months, however, a deal between Israel and Syria will be shoved to the back burner. Assad will have to start grappling with Syria’s many other problems—especially the rickety, statedominated economy that the late dictator failed to reform. In that area, at least, the son may be more ready to break with his fathers legacy. CD