- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 13, 2000

Anticipating his death, Hafez Assad set June 17 as the day his son Bashar Assad would be elected by the Ba'ath Party National Congress as a
senior member of the party's 21-member executive committee and appointed deputy president. Hafez Assad died while preparing the road for his son's succession. Bashar Assad was unanimously chosen president and commander in chief of the Syrian army.
Hafez Assad was one of the two most notorious and ruthless dictators in the Middle East. The other is Saddam Hussein. Mr. Assad was the last Mohican of anachronistic, discredited pan-Arabism. A rejectionist, implacable foe of Israel and politically retrograde, he did not catch up with the universe of the 21 century, which was well understood by King Hussein of Jordan and King Hassan of Morocco. The immediate reaction by the media to his death was to praise Mr. Assad for stabilizing Syria. Between 1949 and 1970, Syria underwent nearly 30 successful and unsuccessful military coups. It was Mr. Assad's dictatorship and his brutal elimination of opposition, including his own partners in the 1970 coup, that created "stability" in Syria.
Remember that Benito Mussolini of Italy, Juan Peron of Argentina, Anastasio Somoza of Nicaragua, and Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic all brought stability to their respective societies. One must inquire stability at what cost? Assad was no Stalin, nor was he a classical, paternalistic and benevolent dictator as in Francisco Franco's Spain or Antonio Salazar's Portugal.
Nevertheless, Assad established a Soviet-style party state. The Ba'ath Party and the political police were his instruments of rule and stability. He was a ruthless dictator who massacred between 20,000 and 30,000 Sunni Muslims in the city of Hama in the 1970s. He was known to remove, eliminate or exile his opposition. This is Assad's legacy.
To his credit, Assad was the first Syrian ruler since independence from France in 1946 to make Syria independent from the efforts by Egypt and Iraq at different times to integrate Syria into their realm of security and foreign policy, establishing either an Iraqi or Egyptian hegemony in Syria. The most conspicuous case was Gamal Abdel Nasser's experiment called the United Arab Republic, an Egyptian-enforced unity between Egypt and Syria from 1958 to 1961, governed by an Egyptian proconsul, Field Marshall Abed al-Hakim Amer. This rule eliminated some 800 Sunni officers, leaving the officer class open to Alawi and Druze minorities.
The Syrian military revolted against this Egyptian political and economic domination, and it was Assad and his minority Alawite officers who finally liberated Syria from outside Arab domination. It was also Assad who led an anti-Israel coalition and, to the end of his days, believed a collective Arab community could force Israel to make greater concessions. He condemned the separate Egyptian, Jordanian and especially Palestinian, acceptance of bilateral peace with Israel.
In monarchical systems legitimate succession is conferred upon a scion, a relative, a member of the royal family. Therefore, succession after the deaths of the kings of Jordan and Morocco was legitimate, natural and acceptable. This is the strength of monarchies. By definition, they provide stability.
This is not true of the precarious secular, multi-ethnic, multi-religious Syrian republic. Assad wanted to confirm the rule of the Alawite minority with his son as successor. The Alawites make up 11 percent of the population, and dominate the ruling Ba'ath Party, the military, and most significantly the political security forces. The question is, will Bashar Assad succeed in bringing all these forces together in support of his rule?
Bashar Assad should not be confused with King Abdullah II of Jordan and King Hassan II of Morocco. He is not a monarch. The loyalty of the military, security services and political apparatchiks of the Ba'ath Party is not guaranteed in Syria.
Various authors have rushed to conclude that Syria after Hafez Assad, even if temporarily unstable, has a good chance of becoming a liberal state under Bashar. Others do not subscribe to this analysis. Two major political issues will determine the viability of the Bashar Assad regime. One is economic and the other is foreign and security policies. Bashar is known to be fanatic about high tech, and he believes e-commerce can lift the sagging Syrian economy from an agrarian base directly into the information age.
The information age, however, contradicts the rule that the father left to his son. There is a price to be paid for enthusiastically embracing the information age. Information dissolves dictatorships. Bashar will find great resistance to this policy from his security and military services and party leaders. He will face a struggle for power to gain legitmacy that will necessitate juggling the balance of forces among competing military and political police elites.
Will he govern by consensus or will he be a dictator, as his father was? Until he demonstrates the political skill his father possessed in dealing with adversaries, his regime will not be secure and he will not be in a position to successfully negotiate with Israelis.
It is doubtful Bashar Assad will move an inch from his father's policy regarding the peace process. He may be more charming, more adroit, and he is certainly a modern man. However, he is loyal to the Assad legacy and beholden to the current political structures in Syria. No territory will be surrendered without complimentary Syrian concessions. It is possible for Bashar to succeed in his struggle against corruption. And he has gained political experience during the last two years while holding the Lebanon portfolio under his father.
However, when it comes to negotiations with a tough adversary like Israel, he has hardly any serious experience even if he did watch his father's strategies and tactics with Israel very carefully.


Amos Perlmutter is a professor of political science and sociology at American University and editor of the Journal of Strategic Studies.

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