Syria´s President: A leader looking for a role - Five years after taking power, Bashar Assad is considered ´the least worst dictator in the Arab world (THE GLOBE AND MAIL) By PAUL KORING DAMASCUS, Syria 05/12/05 Page A18)
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DAMASCUS -- In the portrait hanging in Damascus airport´s dusty lost-
and-found office, President Bashar Assad looks baleful and
uncertain -- as though the younger son of a much-feared father is
still searching for his role as a ruler of an Arab state in
desperate need of reform.
Five years ago, when the President assumed power after Hafez Assad´s
death, the worst fear was that Syria would be seized by a violent
The brightest hope was that the young ophthalmologist with a modest
demeanour and some exposure to the West could smoothly transform the
nation into a modern, market-driving democracy.
Neither has been realized, and the high hopes have ebbed. Rife with
corruption, Syria stumbles along -- surrounded by a rapidly changing
Middle East, mired in its own messy contradictions, increasingly
isolated. And Mr. Assad seems to rule by caution, not boldness.
"He´s the least worst dictator in the Arab world," is the cynical
but not entirely negative view of one Syrian intellectual, as well
as several sympathetic foreign observers living in Damascus.
Mr. Assad, 39, remains broadly popular among ordinary Syrians, most
of whom have known no other rule than that of Assad the elder and
younger. But there is also a growing sense of impatience, as little
has changed for the better since Hafez Assad´s death.
The President keeps promising that reform is just around the corner,
but some are unconvinced: "The real opposition is the majority of
the Syrian people," said an intellectual whose memories of his
prison term -- a long one -- have made him reluctant to have his
name published. "But they are afraid to speak out, and they have no
rights. They live in a sea of fear."
Next month´s Baath Party congress will see the unveiling -- or so it
is promised -- of sweeping political and economic change. The hope
is that it will include free, unfettered political parties -- not
the tame, subservient and tightly controlled "opposition" that has
been allowed until now. Laws providing foreign investors with
genuine forms of redress when things go wrong would be welcome,
along with private banks not tethered to the government.
"There´s a lot of talk about reform," says a Syrian inclined to give
Mr. Assad the benefit of the doubt at least one more time. "He has
built up expectations, and there could be a wave of disappointment
if he fails to deliver."
That kind of sympathetic assessment blames the clannish military and
governmental elites installed by Hafez Assad for thwarting or at
least slowing his son´s inclination to reform.
Seen from this perspective, Bashar Assad achieved something of a
breakthrough by ordering Syria´s military and secret police out of
Lebanon last month, satisfying international demands and facing down
the old guard with one bold stroke. In the view of Flynt Leverett, a
former CIA analyst and State Department official, it was the kind of
defining moment that may turn the cub into another Lion of Damascus,
as his father was known.
"Bashar, not quite five years into his presidency, I don´t think has
gone through those kinds of defining challenges," said Mr. Leverett,
author of the just-published Inheriting Syria: Bashar´s Trial by
"I think he is going through one now. And how he handles that
defining crisis will, I think, say a lot about his future as a
national leader . . . . It´s a critical moment in terms of Syria´s
But retreat from Lebanon as the first step toward bold change
strikes others as unlikely.
Syria remains an authoritarian state in which both the levers of
power and the sources of wealth are controlled by a small circle.
Despite persistent efforts to portray Mr. Assad as modest, self-
effacing and thoroughly modern, Damascus is still a place where
thugs in bad suits packing scarcely concealed handguns hold parking
spots outside trendy restaurants for the President´s cronies.
If, as is alleged, he really chides his friends for their excessive
use of chauffeurs, it has had little effect. Like the President´s
professed dislike for seeing his portrait on every building and shop
front, it is an endearing notion that seems universally disregarded.
In reality, grey and uninspiring portraits of the thin, mustachioed
President are ubiquitous, alongside portraits of his father. The
elder Assad is almost always portrayed in the prime of life rather
than as an elderly man, with the disconcerting result that the two
look like brothers.
The view of the President as impatient reformer is too simple.
Syria looked to the Soviet Union for decades and the dark shadows of
centralized state control remain.
Even Syrians who admire what Mr. Assad has achieved and remain
certain that more reform is in the offing acknowledge the size and
difficulty of his challenge.
"We had been under the influence of the Soviet Union for so long, it
is not so easy to get out of it," said Rateb Shallah, head of the
Syrian Chamber of Commerce and a leading establishment business
figure. "We have a civil service based on loyalty rather than
efficiency, [and] a certain amount of corruption."
What remains unclear is whether President Assad is willing to root
out corruption, whose sticky vines clearly climb high into the
ruling elites that include his friends and extended family. And time
may be running out.
Pressure for change is building inside the country, not least from
the professional and middle classes whose standard of living has
steadily declined over the last decade.
Meanwhile, in Washington, the Bush administration shows no signs of
letting up on its pressure on Damascus -- although it has made no
mention of seeking regime change. (© 2005 Bell Globemedia
Interactive Inc. 05/12/05)
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