- The Washington Times - Friday, July 7, 2000

Hafez Assad is governing Syria from the grave. His shadow hovers over Bashar Assad. In his dream of creating a Syrian dynasty, Hafez Assad bestowed dynastic succession first to his favorite son, Basil, who died in an automobile accident, and then reluctantly to his ophthalmologist son, who was removed from his studies in Britain to become heir.

The father planned the succession carefully. During the last year of his reign, he purged, exiled and dismissed some old comrades in the military, security services, and Ba'ath Party leadership. The purpose behind succession was to ensure the rule of the minority (12 percent) Alawites, a sect that has governed Syria since 1970.

Bashar Assad was not anointed for his political or military skills. Pathetically, the Anglo-American press touts his studies in Britain, his mastery of the English language, and his commitment to the Internet as reasons to expect he will be a moderate leader. A political neophyte who never intended to go into politics, an ersatz colonel, he has already been catapulted to lieutenant general, commander in chief of the Syrian Army, secretary general of the Ba'ath Party, and has most recently been elected by the majority of party aparatchiks to become president of Syria, a foregone conclusion. The Syrian constitution has been tinkered with, adjusting the minimum age for a president from 40 to 34, Bashar's age. In the tradition of totalitarian, communist and Arab praetorian states, the elevation of Bashar Assad speaks of the continuity of Alawite authoritarian rule over Syria.

There is no inkling of a liberal democratic spark in this comic opera since Hafez Assad's death. Decadent Vienna could tolerate comic operas directed toward the decaying Hapsburg monarchy and the aristocracy, but this will not happen in Syria. An entourage of authoritarians in the military, security services, and the party encircles Bashar Assad. The power behind the throne is Hafez Assad's son-in-law, Asef Shawkat, who is married to the ambitious and beloved oldest daughter of the dead president, Bashara. Alawite tribal barons form the next circle enveloping Bashar. They make sure the son does not veer from his father's style and orientations.

There are two options available to the heir apparent of Hafez Assad. The obvious one is to continue the autocracy established by his father. The other is that Bashar Assad's rule will become liberal or democratic a most unlikely option. Bashar's political survival will depend on two key issues and events that will follow: one, the future of Lebanon, and the other peace with Israel.

Will Bashar bring an end to Syria's autocratic rule over its captive, Lebanon, remove his occupation forces, and allow the Lebanese to proclaim independence? It is not possible because of the nature of his autocratic regime. The same is true when it comes to peace with Israel.

Like his father, Bashar will continue the peace process, with no interest in bringing it to its conclusion unless Israel makes improbable concessions. He will face a recalcitrant Lebanon where the newly emergent Hezbollah intends to rule Beirut and end the Assad family vasaldom over Lebanon. The chances of securing concessions from Prime Minister Ehud Barak's Israel are meager indeed. The Barak government is already considerably weakened. If Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat proclaims an independent state before the negotiations reach a conclusion, and the Palestinians call for liberating Palestine by fire and force rather than be handed the state on an Israeli silver platter, Mr. Barak will not be able to call for a referendum and chances for a new election in Israel will increase. This would mean the Israeli-Syrian "peace process" would linger into the next American president's tenure.

During the last 50 years, the Middle East has demonstrated that conflict resolution only works through violence. Diplomacy is subordinated to violence. Only when the Arab parties are exhausted are they willing to move away from war to negotiations for peace. Peace is a secondary aspiration of the Syrian regime and the Palestinian Authority. Both Syria and the Palestinian Authority want total Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories: the Egyptian model.

The Palestinians are jumping the gun by demanding total Israeli withdrawal, which was not the understanding of Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin in Oslo in 1993. The Syrian strategic goal, says the Assad family, is peace, i.e. maximum concessions by Israel going beyond the territories occupied by Israel.

This will not work. So long as a rural minority rules Syria and Iraq, there will be no comprehensive peace in the Middle East.

The ghost of Hafez Assad still governs Syria. If the Palestinians have mistaken Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon as applying to their cause, then we are back to the days of Intifada and terrorism, which will bring an end to Mr. Barak's moderate, reasonable government, and bring on a Middle Eastern stalemate.

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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