Syrian leader charts rocky path to reform

Assad, still young and consolidating power, is pushing Bush this week to support Palestinian rights.

While President George W. Bush drafts a speech this week to advance the cause of Mideast peace, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is warning that a lasting settlement in the region cannot be achieved unless the rights of the Arabs are fully restored.

"Moderation cannot be attained as long as there is [Israeli] killing and destruction, and extremism will only lead to more extremism and violence," he said, in remarks published Sunday in the state-run Al-Baath newspaper.

It is familiar advice from President Assad, who inherited one of the toughest jobs in the Mideast from his father, Hafez, two years ago. Described by those who know him as charming and a good listener, the tall, lanky, and unassuming 36-year-old former eye doctor nonetheless has relayed some of the strongest anti-Israel rhetoric delivered by an Arab leader in recent times.

Assad's critics accuse him of being weak and manipulated by the regime's old guard. Others say his desire for peace with Israel and needed reform in Syria is genuine but he has to maneuver with caution.

"There are sharks around and he has to tread carefully," says a Western observer of Syria. "In order to implement your program, you have to maintain power. And he's learning the hard way."

The heir unapparent

Indeed, Assad has had much to learn in the past eight years. As the second son of the shrewd and uncompromising Hafez al-Assad, who took power in 1970, Bashar was never meant to be leader of Syria. That position had been entrusted to his elder brother Basil, a popular and dashing character who was groomed from youth to one day succeed his father.

Bashar devoted his career to medicine, studying ophthalmology in Iran and then from 1992 in London. But he was summoned back to Damascus in 1994 following the death of Basil in a car accident and immediately enrolled in a military academy for a accelerated course in leadership.

While swiftly ascending the Army ranks, Bashar was taught the intricacies of Middle East diplomacy. His apprenticeship was not without pitfalls. On a visit to Kuwait in 1999, he caused a diplomatic upset by reportedly describ- ing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein as a "human beast." Syria had just launched a rapprochement with Iraq in a bid to end three decades of mutual hostility, and Syrian officials quickly denied Bashar had made the comment.

Swift transition to power

Hafez al-Assad died in June 2000 and Bashar, at the age of 34, was ushered into office 10 days later.

His inheritance was hard to envy. Peace talks between Syria and Israel had collapsed two months earlier, and in September 2000, the Palestinian intifada erupted, plunging the Middle East into deep crisis.

But anyone who thought the new President Assad would be a pushover was wrong. He soon made it clear in a series of fiery speeches – which some critics said bordered on anti-Semitic rants – that he would not compromise on his father's tough conditions for peace with Israel. Washington has been dismayed by Syria's growing economic and political relationship with neighboring Iraq, fueled by suspected exports to Syria of over 100,000 barrels of oil a day in breach of United Nations sanctions. At home, Assad pressed ahead with an anticorruption drive, introduced the Internet to the country, released political prisoners, approved the creation of private universities, and promoted tentative economic reforms.

But mounting calls for political liberalization led to a backlash, which saw several dissidents arrested and an end to the public debate on reform.

Although the crackdown has caused despondency in Syria, most blame the aging and powerful old guard. "He's up against a great deal of opposition from a body of entrenched interests who don't want change," says Patrick Seale, the biographer of Hafez al-Assad. "I think the real test will be in the next year or so, when he has to confront these people in order to get the country moving."

Hope for reform remains

And it appears that President Assad is attempting to speed up this process. In March, he passed laws requiring state employees to retire at the age of 60 to speed the emergence of a younger, more technically minded generation.

Yet in Syria, it seems that each step forward is matched by a step back. Much legislation remains unimplemented, especially key economic reforms. Diplomats believe that President Assad lacks the viselike control exerted by his father, Hafez. This has encouraged the rise of a new generation of hard-liners – mainly powerful businessmen and officers in the security services. But Syrians continue to have faith in their young leader.

"I am very optimistic about him," says Mohammed Shukri, professor of law at Damascus University. "He's open-minded, educated.... He's proving a master in realpolitik. He will win because the people are backing him. Sooner or later he will rearrange his house."

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