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Political Succession and the Prospects of Political Reform in Syria PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Louay Safi   
Mar 24, 2001 at 07:00 PM

Hafiz al Assad is dead 30 years after he came to power in 1970. Steps have been taken to pave the way for his eldest surviving son, Bashar, to succeed him. The Syrian parliament has already amended the constitution to take away a major hurdle the young Assad faces in his bid to assume the highest political office. The age requirement was lowered from 40 years to Bashar’s age of 34.


 The latest developments in Syrian politics come as no surprise to political observers. The failing health of the Syrian president and his efforts to secure his office to his son were common knowledge. Bashar has been groomed to succeed his father since his bother Basil died in a car accident in 1994. He was still completing his ophthalmology training in London when he was summoned to Damascus, and was put on a rapid track toward the top echelon of the army.  He became a colonel in 1999 and was put in charge of a brigade of the elite Republican Guard division.

 In addition to his role in the military, Bashar was last year given important political responsibilities. He took charge of the Lebanon portfolio, played a decisive role in the cabinet reshuffle in March, and has been credited with the anti-corruption campaign that reached to the top echelon of the government and intelligence apparatus. Mahmood al Zubi, former prime minister, took his own life in April to avoid a court appearance on corruption charges shortly before he was to be taken to custody, while Bashir al Najjar, a former intelligence chief is in prison, serving a 12 year jail sentence.


 All indications show that Bashar is poised to be the next president. He has already been designated a commander-in-chief of the armed forces, a power which can only be exercised by the president of the Republic. The two highest-ranking members of the armed forces, Mustafa Tulas, minister of defense, and Ali Aslan, the chief of staff, have already pledged their allegiance. The intelligence chief, Akef Shahin, is Bashar’s brother in-law and reportedly an ardent supporter.

 Many of the old guards who were openly critical of the efforts to groom Bashar for succession, including Hikmat Shihabi, the former army chief of staff, and Ali Duba, the former intelligence chief, have already been discharged from their posts, and hence their ability to challenge the new Syrian leader has markedly been reduced if not eliminated altogether.

 The strict controls exercised by state apparatus over political organizations and the media have rendered the emergence of any popular opposition a virtual impossibility. A challenge to the current ruling elites requires wide popular mobilization or an army support. No political opposition in today’s Syria can lay claim to either.

 Ironically, the only challenge to Bashar came from within the Assad family. Rifaat Assad, Bashar’s uncle, has laid claim to the presidency, questioned the constitutionality of the political maneuvering to position his nephew to the highest office, and vowed from his exile to lead a “corrective movement” to bring freedom and democracy to Syria. But Rifaat is neither a democrat nor is he capable of mustering any credible challenge against his nephew after his last cleavages of power in Syria, a small port his supporters ran near the city of Latekia, was closed down following a brief confrontation between Rifaat’s supporters and government security forces.


 Hafiz Assad came to power in 1970 through a peaceful coup détente. His accession to power ended a period of repeated coups and political instability. Stability was, however, won through a policy of iron feast and political suppression. The current constitution adopted in 1972, two years after Assad came to power, sanctions a one-party rule, giving the Baath party the power to nominate the president of the Republic, and practically eliminating the possibility of a challenge coming from outside the ruling party.

 Similarly, Assad’s rule brought marked improvements to rural areas, which were both dominated and neglected by the urban elites of Damascus and Aleppo prior to his coming to power. Rural development was, however, achieved at the expense of retarding private enterprise and creating corrupt and incompetent state bureaucracy.

 Assad’s reputation as an astute statesman and shrewd tactician comes from his political maneuvering on the international stage. The strategic choices he made are those of a leader who is in full mastery of the art of powers balancing, and of one who is readily prepared to exploit the shifting winds of global power to his advantage.

 His decision to send Syrian troops in 1982 to save the Christian minority from a certain defeat on the hands of the Palestinian Liberation Organization is a case in point. By maintaining the delicate balance of power among the Shiites, Sunnis, and Christians of Lebanon, Syria incursion into its neighbor was accepted by the rivaling Lebanese communities, and was sanctioned by major world powers, including France and the United States.

 In the same vain, Syria’s alliance with Iran, and its unwavering support for the Lebanese resistance against Israel turned it into a regional power exercising influence far beyond its strength, and frustrated the Israeli plans to enjoy absolute control over the region.

 Perhaps the greatest credit Assad could claim, both as a statesman and as a tactician, lies in the uncompromising position he took with regard to the peace process with Israel. Not only was he a leading advocate of a joint peace agreement between Arab countries and Israel, but he also insisted on the principle of land for peace, and used this principle effectively to free the Syrian negotiator from American pressure. Although he failed to maintain Arab unity in the face of Israel, as the latter tricked Arafat and Hussein to sign separate peace agreements outside Oslo framework, the wisdom of a joint agreement was vindicated by the broken promises, false hopes, and the disappointments of the Arab-Israeli peace process.

 Also remarkable has been Syria’s ability to resist the pressures of a “peace minus the Golan Heights” formula favored by Israel, despite the power disparity Syria experiences in the post cold war era.


 It is a matter of days before the young Assad succeeds his father as the new leader of Syria. The succession brings to the fore the disturbing and disquieting fact that Syria is yet to experience the cultural and political reforms necessary for moving from medieval to modern politics. Clearly Syrian politics still revolves around the strong man and strong ruling family tradition. It is astounding to realize that the pretender to power and his only challengers are both members of the Assad family. The power succession and intrigues in Syria raise the specter of a “republican dynasty” in the making, as a BBC report noted, and give all the appearances of a political regression.

 Yet among all who have political clout in Syria today, including Rifaat whose old ambitions of ruling the country has been frustrated by the rise of the political power of his nephew, Bashar is the most likely person to inspire hope for reform of a political system plagued for long by hero worship, favoritism, and political corruption. His modest and mild manner, his interest in a medical career and the lack of political ambition prior to 1994, and his latest campaign against political corruption are positive signs.

 While it is still early to judge the new Syrian leader and the type of politics he is likely to favor, there are few signs that one can watch for. Whether Bashar’s presidency will mark the beginning of new reforms awaits the answering of a number of questions. Will he continue the anti-corruption campaign he started and target all corrupt leaders without fear or favor? Is he prepared to allow more room for more meaningful political pluralism and freedom of expression? Will he be interested in broadening political participation? Will he oppose the current tendencies to base political legitimacy of hero worship and insist on making the rule of law the foundation of the modern Syrian state? The future of Syria and its ability to develop and meet future challenges hinges on how these questions are answered.

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