Can Assad thread the needle in Syria?

Bashar Assad has praised democracy in the past. Will he engineer a new Syria -- or revert to his father's brutal oppression of opponents?

AP Photo/Hussein Malla
A Syrian sits in his shop to watch Syrian President Bashar Assad make a televised address in Damascus on Wednesday March 30, 2011. Assad has blamed a wave of protests on "conspirators" who are trying to destroy the country. Assad gave his first address to the nation since the protests erupted in this tightly controlled Arab country. The speech was seen as a crucial test for his leadership and one that may determine Syria's future.

Henry Kissinger called Hafez Assad the shrewdest Arab leader, a man who spun the 1967 and 1973 Syrian defeats at the hands of Israel into power and prominence for him and Syria.

As former Monitor correspondent Robin Wright noted in her book "Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East," "The primacy of survival and a legacy of tyranny were Assad's bequests to his son," the current president, Bashar Assad.

A London-trained opthamologist, the younger Assad never seemed destined to rule -- and certainly not with the iron fist his of his father, who harbored terrorists and ordered the massacre of regime opponents at Hama in 1982. In his 2000 inaugural address, Assad called for democracy and free speech. When that led to dissent within a couple of years, however, political life was shut down.

Democracy advocates reappeared a few years later, only to be clamped down on again. Now he is faced with an unprecedented uprising. Part of him knows the value of freedom. Part of him reflects his father's instinct for self-preservation.

If he can maneuver Syria toward greater democracy without the sort of violent spasm Libya is going through, he will be the shrewest Arab leader of 2011.

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