On June 10, 2000
, in the middle of a phone call to PM Emile Lahoud
n president Hafez al Assad
collapsed and died. Under the banner of the Ba'ath Party
, he had ruled Syria for thirty years and created a personality cult
that was begrudgingly supported by Syria's middle class
. Now, in the wake of his death, there existed a huge power vacuum
. His son, 34-year-old Bashar, was the obvious man to fill that vaccuum.
But Dr. Assad, a trained ophthalmologist, was not groomed for his office as Kim Jong Il had been in North Korea. Basil al Assad, the eldest son in the family, had been picked to succeed his father back in the eighties. Then, a freak car accident in 1994 killed Basil, and Bashar, who had lived a life as a puritan medical student, suddenly became an heir to the throne of sorts. He had not served in any significant government post until 1999.
Just as importantly, nobody could have foreseen the elder Assad's death. He still seemed to be in his prime, a seemingly ageless leader whose face would never betray his thirty years of rule over one of the Arab powers.
Young Assad didn't have a lot to build on. The elder Assad, even with his grandiose Stalinesque displays of power and authority, had been an unpopular ruler. Right-wing Muslims had initially opposed Assad's ascension in 1971, as he wanted to make Syria a secular state, and was himself an Alawi. (Alawis were not considered to be Muslims until Assad convinced a Shi'ite mullah in Lebanon to change the rules.) The only thing that kept the Ba'ath regime in control was its vitriolic opposition of Israel and its generous industrial subsidies and defense contracts.
Early speculations surrounding Dr. Assad's rule were positive. He was educated in Britain, and had worked to bring the Internet to Syria, which made many pundits see him as a positive force for peace in the region. Yet Bashar has been contrary to his father in several ways.
Perhaps the most pertinent today is his position towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While Hafiz was struggling with the Israelis over two issues (Lebanon and the Golan Heights), Bashar also brought in a third variable: peace agreements with the Palestine Liberation Organization. Assad indicated on several occasions that he would not sit down with Ariel Sharon until the Likud leader agreed to sit down with Yasser Arafat. Furthermore, at an Arab summit in Amman, he compared Israel to Nazi Germany, and pledged to bring back resolutions in the United Nations to equate Zionism with racism. He has yet to reject a peace agreement outright, however, and so the future of Syrian-Israeli relations is still in the air.
Exactly how such a seemingly dove-ish politician could turn hawk so quickly is still a matter of debate. For one, Assad is facing a skeptical Syrian public at the head of a government that isn't always willing to follow his orders: some have said that his hardline rhetoric has been a way of maintaining control. Others have argued that his rhetoric has been an attempt to gain support from equally hard-line neighbors like Iran and Saddam Hussein's Iraq, both of whom were kept at arm's length by his father. And still others argue that the two Assads' policies are not really that different: it's just that Bashar doesn't know how to cover his rear.
For his foreign policy downfalls, Dr. Assad has shown a very distinct desire to change the president's role in domestic politics. No giant posters of Bashar are raised in the streets, and chants of allegiance have been kept at a minimum. His Syria looks decidedly less Soviet than his father's, and until the beginning of War on Iraq 2003, the Syrian economy was showing a significant improvement, partly because of the establishment of new financial markets and institutions, partly because of better trade relations with the European Union, and partly because Assad secretly opened a pipeline from Iraq that had been closed since the Gulf War. With no national debt to speak of, a trade surplus with the West, and a good currency reserve, Syria looked like it was becoming the next PRC to emerge from a stagnant hard-line socialism into state capitalism.
Compared to other leaders in the Middle East, he's good people.