June 14, 2000
He may be of a new generation and Western-educated, a healer rather than a warrior
by profession and a Netizen rather than a nationalist by instinct, but don’t
expect to see Bashar Assad even talking to Israel any time soon. No matter
how much Washington cajoles, peace with the old enemy isn’t going to
feature on the agenda of a presumptive president whose priority will be
political and even, perhaps, physical survival.
“As a father, I have to wonder what kind of man wishes this on his
son,” says TIME West Bank correspondent Jamil Hamad. “Hafez Assad has
condemned his son to a life of sleepless nights and constant pressure,
always looking over your shoulder because somebody wants to kill you.”
And it’s not as if 34-year-old Bashar has exactly coveted the job,
telling anyone who’d listen until a few months ago that he harbored no
But in a scenario eerily reminiscent of India’s Gandhi family — in
which Rajiv found greatness thrust upon him after Indira’s preferred heir,
Sanjay, died in a plane crash — Bashar may have had no choice after his
elder brother, Basil, died in a car crash.
Like Rajiv Gandhi, Bashar had
been educated in Britain before returning home to reluctantly fill a
deceased parent’s shoes. And Syria’s brutal authoritarian tradition
certainly offers Bashar plenty of reason to sweat over the possibility
that, like Rajiv, he could be removed from the scene by an assassin.
His father certainly bequeathed Bashar more than enough enemies to keep
him awake nights. For one, there’s his uncle Rifaat, exiled since leading
a failed coup attempt against his father in 1983 — and against whose
supporters Hafez and Bashar, of late, have conducted a campaign of violent
harassment. Rifaat made clear Monday that, having held the title of deputy
president before his ouster, he, and not Bashar, should succeed Hafez Assad.
Syria’s security forces have pledged to arrest the outcast uncle
should he attempt to come home, but that hasn’t stopped him from stirring
Then there’s the Muslim Brotherhood, whose efforts to rouse the
country’s Sunni Muslim majority against the minority Alawite Assad regime
were brutally suppressed. It was Rifaat, ironically, before his coup
attempt, who authored the most notorious campaign of violence against the
Brotherhood in 1982, when he leveled the city of Hama following a Muslim
uprising there, killing up to 20,000 people.
While they’re unlikely to accept Rifaat any more gladly than Bashar, in
statements since Assad’s death they’ve echoed the exiled brother’s
criticism of the succession process that has positioned Bashar to take
over. And while the military may not have a viable alternative, it may be
difficult for the top brass to accept orders from a 34-year-old with no
“Western media may be taking too simple a view of Bashar by stressing
that he’s young modernizer and that he’s committed to peace,” says Hamad.
“Bashar’s priority will be to save his own head and ensure the loyalty of
enough of his people and security forces to stay in power. He won’t be
able to move on any foreign policy issues for at least two years, and he
may actually have to play the anti-Israel card — which still mobilizes
the Arab masses behind a leader — to stabilize his rule. That worked for
his father, and even though he was the strongest leader Syria ever had,
not even Hafez Assad was able to conclude a peace deal with Israel.”
Not only must the thirtysomething ophthalmologist bachelor muster the
requisite skill, experience and — inevitably — ruthlessness to navigate
the treacherous waters of Syria’s domestic politics, he’s also got to
modernize an economically decrepit state squeezed between the
Israel-Turkey alliance and the hostile regime in Iraq, while sustaining an
increasingly complex policing role in neighboring Lebanon.
“Bashar’s key allies will be Iran and Saudi Arabia,” says Hamad.
“Iran provides the strategic counterweight to Israel, Turkey and the U.S.,
while Saudi Arabia ensures the flow of financial support from the Gulf States.”
If there are any grounds for optimism in Washington, it has to be qualified
by a time frame that will see President Clinton, who had hoped to add
an Israel-Syria peace deal to his trophy cabinet, long gone from office.
“Bashar is of a different generation than his father, and his education
in the West has given him a more modern view of the world,” says TIME
State Department correspondent Douglas Waller.
“It’s probable that he doesn’t hate the Israelis as much as his father did,
but that doesn’t mean he’ll jump into a peace deal anytime soon — he has
to consolidate his grip on power, and it’ll be at least a year before he can
even think about reopening talks with Israel. But being of a new generation
and looking to the future, he may over the long term prove more willing than
his father was to conclude a land-for-peace agreement.”
That’s assuming he lasts that long.