Could Deplore Peace Prospects?
had called Leon Hadar, the libertarian Cato
Institute's resident expert on the Middle East, to get some
comments on the death of Syrian dictator-for-life Hafez-al-Assad,
and he gave me plenty of information. But he kept pushing the conversation
in a more interesting direction namely, who is it these days who
simply can't stand the idea that some part of the world might be
on the brink of peace?
right, it's a bit soon to be suggesting such a likelihood in the
Middle East, an area that has inspired countless jokes and stories
about the self-defeating preference for war and hostility even when
it seems utterly crazy (to outsiders) not to settle down and live
in relative peace for a while. But there is little question that
Hafez al Assad was one of the more persistent barriers to anything
resembling a formal peace settlement in the region (though he managed
an implicit non-aggression understanding with Israel rather well).
And now he is dead. It is unlikely that whoever follows him in power
whether his son, his brother or somebody else will be quite so
al Assad, who died Saturday, had been preparing the way for his
son to replace him for several years, and with increasing intensity
over the past several months, as his own illness and likely death
loomed larger in his mind. Bashar Assad was appointed commander
in chief of the Army on Sunday, and the Syrian parliament the same
day rushed through a measure changing the constitution so the minimum
age is for president is now 34 (Bashar's age) rather than 40. This
suggests that the father was successful at clearing away most potential
aspects of the succession in Syria virtually cry out for comment.
Most of the diplomats, representatives of international organizations
and many of the journalists have been all but rooting for this corrupt
dynastic promenade to succeed for the sake of "stability."
Hafez was the chief stumbling block to even a phony agreement between
Israel and the Arabs, a sponsor of state terrorism and officially
labeled as a sponsor of terrorism at various times by the State
Department. He held onto power ruthlessly, artfully playing factions
off against one another within Syria but not hesitating to murder
opponents or potential opponents when that seemed the way. He held
back the progress of Syria for a generation. Yet he preserved "stability,"
so now that he is dead he is viewed as a statesman of great vision
and wisdom, and everybody hopes his son, whose path to power has
been paved with corpses, will slide into the seat safely.
there's the leader-worship implicit and explicit in much of the
coverage. Perhaps there were Syrians so taken with the Great Leader
that they were genuinely sad to see him shuffle off this mortal
coil. But the guy ran a police state in which it was prudent, whatever
one's private feelings might have been, to pretend to be devoted
to the leader. Yet almost none of the coverage in the first few
days even came close to acknowledging this, treating all the symbols
of grief and mourning as the genuine outpouring of a heartbroken
people deprived of a beloved and benevolent leader. Give me a break.
the son will be able to hold onto power or even whether he will
want to do so for very long is another question. The future of Syria's
relationships with Israel and with Lebanon and other key countries
in the Middle East is also unknown. Little is likely to change in
the near future, but a succession struggle is still possible and
policies could change substantially over time.
years ago Bashar Assad was completing a residency in ophthalmology
in Britain, assuming his older brother Bassel would carry on the
family political tradition. But Bassel was killed in a car accident
and Bashar was rushed home to Damascus to begin a crash course in
the realities of power in Syria and the Middle East.
realities included a raid last September on a compound controlled
by Hafez Assad's estranged brother and former vice president Rifaat
Assad, who had attempted a coup when Hafez Assad was ill in 1983,
during which several hundred Rifaat supporters were reportedly killed.
(Rifaat has since questioned Bashar's "right" to the post
in public and might yet make trouble for the new chosen one.) It
also included purges of high Syrian officials, including a former
prime minister and a former chief of military intelligence who had
expressed doubts about Bashar's accession to power.
recently as March, however, Bashar Assad told the London-based Arabic
newspaper Al-Hayat that his ambition was "to serve my country
and not to become a president." Syria needed change and "new
blood," said Bashar. Educated in the West, he is said to be
fascinated by technology, to have his own Web page, and to believe
that Syria needs to reduce corruption and open its economy, especially
to foreign investment. He was recently instrumental in pushing for
economic reforms that included liberalizing the rules against holding
foreign currency and reducing the power of economic security courts.
is not as revolutionary as it might seem, Cato's Leon Hadar reminded
me. Although Syria has been relatively closed during the Hafez Assad
years, its political, economic and intellectual elites have been
Westernized for a long time; ties with France are especially close.
"Over time, because of its geographical location, old ties
to Europe and a positive attitude toward commercial activities,
with peace and deregulation Syria could become a prosperous, influential
commercial center," Mr. Hadar said.
all that could take a while. In the shorter run, Bashar Assad might
well have less practical ability than his father might have had
to reach an accommodation with Israel not so much because of inherent
difficulties negotiating with Israel (though that could be complex)
but because of the possibility that opposition within Syria could
threaten him before he has fully consolidated his power.
ideal, for peace partisans, might have been for Hafez Assad to make
an agreement with Israel so his son could defend it as his father's
legacy," Mr. Hadar said. "That didn't happen, and it will
probably take Bashar a while to feel confident enough to move dramatically.
I wouldn't rule out a dramatic move toward Israel as he consolidates
power, but I don't expect it."
also talked with Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Southern
California chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations.
He said that from an American Muslim's perspective, he hopes the
U.S. government takes advantage of the change "to take a more
evenhanded role in Syrian-Israeli relationships. This could be a
new beginning for US relations with the Middle East."