Syria, succession, and peace

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On the borders and the highways the signs proclaim "Welcome to Assad's Syria" and "Hafez al-Assad forever." But it is with matters of mortality rather than immortality that the Syrian president's days are filled. With his health again said to be failing, Mr. Assad's first and last preoccupation is engineering the succession of his son Bashar.

No one in Syria now doubts that Assad wants to turn the country into a hereditary republic. Bashar's portrait is everywhere, alongside his father's and that of his dead brother, Basil. It was Basil's death in a car accident in 1994 that caused Assad to recall his younger, more diffident son from a career abroad as an eye doctor. Bashar has since groomed since as a leader in waiting.

During the last four years, Bashar's imagemakers have worked overtime trying to make their man fit the part. Bashar was made an officer to give him experience in the Army; he assumed responsibility for information technology, championing the Internet to make him appeal to Syria's burgeoning young population; he was given the "Lebanon file" in order to prove that Syria's strategic interests were secure in his hands; most recently Bashar has toured the Gulf, portrayed as the consummate diplomat who will safeguard Syria's relations with the conservative, rich oil producers.

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Assad has also tried to smooth the path for his son in other ways. Some of the most senior figures of the regime, such as former chief of staff Hikmet Shihabi, have been retired. Another round of senior generals, a veritable who's who of the Syrian security establishment, are scheduled to go in the next four months. Some of these may be given an honorable exile, filling some of Syria's ambassadorial vacancies abroad.

The aim of such personnel changes is, as one foreign diplomat put it, to reduce the number of senior regime figures that Bashar has grown up calling "Uncle." One senior figure, the former head of the Special Forces, Ali Heidar, was one of the first such casualties. He made a wrong call by scoffing at the idea that Syria might be assuming monarchical tendencies. Younger, less opinionated figures are set for promotion - men who are more likely than the old guard to give due deference to the thirtyish Bashar.

Another area where the succession is having a definite impact is on Syria's ties with its neighbors. In the last year, the president has moved with purpose to stabilize some of Syria's once difficult foreign relations. Trade and low-key political links have calmed the once bitter personal rivalry with Iraq's Saddam Hussein; Assad defused a crisis with Turkey last October by ejecting the Kurdish insurgency leader Abdullah Ocalan; he seized the occasion of the death of King Hussein in February to engineer a rapprochement with Jordan. Assad appears particularly pleased with the new relationship with Jordan's young King Abdullah II, hoping, no doubt, Syrians will take to a vigorous and popular young leader of their own before long.

The key to Assad's strategy, however, is making peace with Israel. In spite of good atmospherics in the wake of Ehud Barak's election as Israeli premier, Israeli-Syrian talks have yet to recommence. The stumbling block is Assad's insistence they resume from where they left off under former Prime Ministers Rabin and Peres, with an Israeli acknowledgement of full withdrawal from the Golan Heights as the main prerequisite for a bilateral peace treaty. For Assad, land is not negotiable, though virtually all else is, including water.

With Mr. Barak insisting that a public commitment to full withdrawal must await a package deal, to include, most importantly, security measures, bilateral peacemaking remains stubbornly stalled. If the combined imaginations of American and European diplomats can restart the talks, they could well go quickly and cordially. Unlike the Palestinian track, the Israeli-Syrian agenda is relatively short and straightforward. If talks restart by next spring, they should be complete by the end of 2000.

As a father in a hurry, Asad will hope to wrap up the negotiations as quickly as possible. The transitional phase for the implementation of an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights is likely to take one to five years, and Asad wants to be around to see Syria reclaim sovereignty over its occupied territory.

So, in spite of the Canute-like slogans on the streets of Syria, the president's consciousness of mortality is pertinent to both change at home and the fortunes of the peace process. The claims to immortality, he hopes, will be fulfilled by his son's eventual accession to power. In that event the signs can still say "Welcome to Assad's Syria," Bashar Assad's that is.

*Philip Robins is a lecturer in Middle East politics and a fellow of St Antony's College, at the University of Oxford, in England. He has just returned from a visit to Syria.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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