May/June 2000

Pop, Goes the Assad!

By Barry Rubin

(June 13) When a big event happens, like the death of Syrian President Hafez Assad, an immediate global reaction occurs. Many things are said, some of them quite silly. Moreover, people tend to repeat a few obvious points while missing all sorts of other trends, indicators and possibilities. Before going any further, I can't resist quoting the headline of Britain's The Observer, on the Syrian ruler's death: "Hafez Assad's vision of a Middle East free of Zionism has gone with him to his grave."

Sounds good to me.

OKAY, now let's try to separate out the sheep and goats, wheat and chaff, wisdom and wind:

1. The Myth of Hafez the Good: People don't like to speak ill of the dead, but some of the Western sentimentalizing about Assad was ridiculous. He was a brutal dictator who repressed and intimidated his people, not to mention the Lebanese next door. About the only thing that makes Hafez Assad look good is a comparison to the even worse Iraqi ruler, Saddam Hussein.

One way to look at the situation would be that Assad's Syria resembled more the Soviet Union of Nikita Khruschev or Leonid Brezhnev, while Iraq's society is more like the USSR of Joseph Stalin. Of course, Assad's great contribution was to provide stability for Syria. Just imagine this amazing fact: Between 1948 and 1970, Syria had about 10 successful coups and an equal number of failed attempts. The longest-lived governments lasted only four to five years. But after Assad took over he brought Syria 30 years of stability. This meant a lot to the Syrian people, and they are frightened that the bad old days of instability might return.

2. The Myth of Hafez the Great Statesman: Stability, however, included a strong element of stagnation. President Anwar Sadat of Egypt was also a dictator, as is Hosni Mubarak, yet they instituted domestic economic progress and profitable international flexibility. Assad's international record was terrible. He could not adjust to the times, did not build a good relationship with the US, failed to make peace with Israel, and forfeited much of his historic link to Moscow. Syria remained linked with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, but did not really get anything from the loose cooperation they offered. He could not bend in his long hostility to Yasser Arafat, either. In short, Assad was a great statesman only if endlessly saying no can be called a strategy.

3. Hafez the Peacemaker: Many of those commenting on Assad in the Western media praised him for negotiating with Israel and laying the basis for peace. Of course Assad did no such thing. He certainly did not act in a way that promoted peace in southern Lebanon. About the only positive thing that could be said is that he did not launch terrorist attacks against Israel in the Golan Heights. Presumably, this has something to do with Israel's deterrent power.

4. Hafez the Palestinians' Friend: For his entire 30-year rule, Assad tried to take over the PLO. He did more than Israel to drive Arafat's forces out of Lebanon (by splitting the organization in 1983). He never respected Arafat and opposed his peacemaking activities with Israel. Forget about the speeches and official mourning period proclaimed by the Palestinian Authority. Assad did less than almost any other Arab leader to help the Palestinians.

5. An Imminent Coup?: Imagine you are a Syrian general. Are you going to get on the phone and start calling other officers to suggest a march on Damascus? They would say: "You idiot! Here we are at this delicate moment - when the future of our whole regime may be in jeopardy - and you want to start a civil war?" The Syrian elite's motto for this week could be, to paraphrase the late John Lennon, "All we are saying is: Give Bashar a chance."

6. Rifat: Rifat Assad, Hafez's brother and Bashar's uncle, is a man of the past. If the largely Alawite elite does start looking for an alternative leader, they'll want someone more reliable than Bashar. Rifat is known to be dangerously unstable, extremely corrupt, and hated by many. He's the best choice if the Syrian regime wants to commit suicide. Forget about him.

7. The Myth of the Quick Peace Breakthrough: While many have warned that the regime will need time to consolidate before returning to talks with Israel, others have had a difficult time in understanding this point. Bashar is not going to rush to make concessions to Israel. He doesn't need peace that badly, or that soon. We can certainly have more hope for the future; but it is definitely going to be the not-so-near future.

8. The Perils of Bashar: Imagine the situation for this young man who one minute was studying in London and the next was dragged back to be his country's dictator. As Gilbert and Sullivan so aptly put it, he was "Wafted by a favoring gale... To a height that few can scale... Surely, never had a male... So adventurous a tale/Which may rank with most romances." But will Bashar's elevation to be Syria's Lord High Executioner have a happy ending? Consider one simple point: Bashar, say all, will clean up corruption. Well, there are some people who like corruption, and many of them have lots of power and money. Who will he antagonize and alienate, and on whom can he rely? Bashar was never intended to be a dictator but he had to take over the family business after his ruthless older brother, Basil, died. In The Godfather the younger, effete brother grows into a powerful leader after his older sibling is bumped off. But with the Lebanese Gemayel brothers, the younger one could not be a strong president after his tough older brother was killed. As a result, Lebanon lost its independence to Syrian control.

Who will be Bashar's model, Michael Corleone or Amin Gemayel? This is the central question for Syria, a country where nice guys are finished first.

© Jerusalem Post

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