Syria's new Assad no sure thing

What can the world expect from Syria's new president - 34-year-old Bashar al-Assad? Some Americans, excited by the transition, have expressed hopes that the new president will be a more pro-democracy leader, more flexible in his peace diplomacy with Israel than his late father. Some predict a new generation of Western-educated leaders in Syria, as in Qatar and Jordan, could bring more open, pro-Western politics to the Arab world.

I've closely followed events in Syria and the broader Middle East for more than a quarter century. Many of the hopes expressed about Syria's presumed new leader are dangerously ill informed. Indeed, if unrealistic expectations like those above are used to inform policy, then policymakers may only exacerbate tensions in a region that is still - in south Lebanon - poised on the brink of a major confrontation.

Why do I believe this?

*Bashar al-Assad is not King Abdullah of Jordan. True, both men are in their mid-30s and received some education in the West. But Abdullah came from a family that was always relaxed in its links with the West. (Not surprising, since his mother is British.) And we don't know what Assad drew from his experience at college in England. Many non-Westerners who study in the West become even more anti-Western as a result of that experience. Beyond that, Abdullah seems to have an easy manner with Jordanians and non-Jordanians alike. What little is known of Assad reveals a deep natural reserve. It remains to be seen whether, like Abdullah, he can use personal charm to build a solid constituency for reform.

*Syria is not Jordan. Jordan is a monarchy, with broad popular acceptance for "kingly" successions, while most Syrians still support a theory of republicanism in which father-son succession has no natural role. If you were a senior member of Syria's Baath Party and had done your political duty for 30 years, how would you feel if the boss's youthful son were promoted over you? There must be many senior figures in Syrian politics who are not delighted, and who await the right chance to test the newcomer's mettle. One of them, Assad's uncle Rifaat al-Assad, has already expressed a challenge from his exile in Spain. Other potential opponents may be lurking closer to home.

*Despite Syria's nine-year pursuit of a peace treaty with Israel, no peace ever resulted. One of Hafez al-Assad's more troubling legacies was that in late March he withdrew from the peace talks altogether, piqued by the introduction of a key new Israeli demand. The popular sentiment in Syria, to which Assad, will have to appeal remains more suspicious of Israeli and US peace diplomacy than opinion in Jordan.

What should US goals be regarding the Syrian transition?

The fact that Syria is still in a formal state of war with Israel, and the powerful role Syria plays in a Lebanon still poised on the brink of renewed conflict, mean that Syria remains important to Washington's regional peacemaking. During the 1990s, whenever Lebanon's southern border with Israel erupted into a damaging escalation, the older President Assad always ended up helping Washington calm things down. But he had a strong incentive: He was still actively engaged with US peace diplomacy. The younger Assad currently has no such incentive, and is perhaps more wary of antagonizing Arab sensibilities at home.

Israel and the US could calm the diplomatic air with Damascus by quietly reaffirming support for the terms of the draft peace agreement that, in 1995 and 1996, brought former Israeli premiers Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres very close to a final peace treaty with Syria. That move would re-engage Syria, and allow rapid progress on both the Israeli-Syrian and the Israeli-Lebanese tracks.

Syria, with its 16 million people, its military capabilities, and its network of Arab and non-Arab relations, is too powerful to be ignored or marginalized. While Assad still has a chance to consolidate his power, there's still time to ensure that the remaining challenges of Syria's political transition are faced in a context of regional peace, rather than war and instability. Without peace, the prospects for the region look grim.

*Helena Cobban writes on foreign affairs.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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