For Syria, a nation wracked by nearly three decades of political turbulence following
its independence from France, Hafez Assad and his son Bashar represent a dramatic
change -- a ruling family that has formed the longest, most stable political legacy
in the Arab world. But despite being part of the same lineage, the two Assads
have starkly different styles in leadership and policy.
For Hafez Assad,
he used the umbrella of pan-Arab nationalism to end the fractious ethnic fighting
within Syria and ushered in an era of diplomacy, secularism and unification.
al-Assad was really truly one of the last of a generation of pan-Arab nationalist
leaders. He defined the contemporary history of Syria," Edward Djerejian,
former U.S. ambassador to Syria, told the NewsHour in 2000 after Assad's death.
think one of his achievements was to really build a regional political role for
Syria, to have Syria considered and acted upon as a major player not only in the
Arab-Israeli conflict in terms of issues of war and peace, but in terms of the
Middle East peace process ... he did much to amplify Syria's regional role, and
also brought stability within Syria for the 30 years he was in power."
his five years at the helm of the Syrian state, Bashar Assad was known first as
a reformer, allowing some political and democratic changes, but in recent years
has been more marked by contradictions and derided for a lack of direction.
Out of the chaos of civil unrest and cycles of
bloody coups that characterized years of postcolonial Syrian politics, emerged
He rose through the ranks of radical Baathists, a socialist
party that aimed to build a pan-Syrian state that stretched from Lebanon through
Iraq and south to Egypt. But as these radicals took power, divisions between the
extremist civilian leaders and more moderate military chiefs grew starker. As
the country's defense minister from 1966 to 1971, Assad had refused to aid Syria's
militarists in their military campaign to aid Palestinians fighting to topple
the king in Jordan. Because of his unwillingness to deploy more forces, Syrian
tanks were soundly defeated. But it was the civilian leadership that took most
of the blame and it was this debacle that led to the coup that brought Assad Sr.
The military coup that resulted from the defeat saw Assad overthrow
the former president and take helm of the government to overwhelming political
support. In 1971, he was elected president and immediately began a period of political
mobilization and unification under the auspices of secular Islam and Syria's National
Progressive Front party.
In 1973 under Assad's leadership, Syria established
a constitution incorporating Islamic jurisprudence as a main source of legislation.
Syrian Islamists, unhappy with the new constitution's exclusion of language declaring
Islam the state's official religion, staged a series of riots in the Sunni cities
Hamah and Homs, according to Murhaf Jouejati, professor of Middle East Studies
at George Washington University.
To appease his constituents, Assad compromised,
instead instituting a policy that the country maintains today.
place of declaring Syria an Islamic state, Assad put in the provision that the
president must be Muslim," Jouejati said. "This maintained the secular
state, but pacified the Islamic faction."
Under Baath party doctrine,
Assad carefully crafted a set of policies that, while maintaining the socialist
and secular doctrine, reached out to ethnic minorities and regional alliances.
This approach to governance was a radical departure from Syrian history and the
history of many of the country's Arab neighbors, for whom Islam was the state
religion and tribal agendas dominated national politics.
But Assad also
consolidated power through a targeted but ruthless campaign of intimidation, political
oppression and the use of an emboldened secret police.
It was this combination
of reaching out and crushing political opponents that allowed Assad to weather
the kind of storm that had toppled so many of the previous Syrian governments
-- a failed war against Israel. The 1973 Yom Kippur War was a surprise attack
by Egypt and Syria and a mammoth failure for both nations. For Assad, it was his
most difficult test and his political acumen and ability to suppress opponents
that allowed his still-new government to survive.
Although he began his
rule as a staunch foe of Israel, Assad's evolution into a pan-Arab pragmatist
toward the bordering nation came to be a hallmark of his stabilizing reign. A
longtime opponent of Israel and the United States, Assad showed an ability to
seize the moment and change course when needed.
In 1991, he sided with the
U.S.-led coalition to oust Saddam Hussein's forces from Kuwait and in 2000 he
nearly negotiated an Israeli withdrawal from the contested Golan Heights.
was our most formidable adversary since the death of Abu Nasser, the man who symbolized
the Arab opposition to peace with Israelis and then accepted the notion of peace
-- and went 95 percent of the way, did not complete the remaining 5 percent,"
Itamar Rabinovich, Israel's ambassador to the United States, said following his
Assad Sr.'s health had begun deteriorating in the 1980s and
by the mid-1990s he was battling heart problems, lymphoma and kidney failure.
He focused on clearing the bureaucratic and political obstacles to his sons, first
for his elder son Basil and later, after Basil died in a car wreck in 1994, for
According the June 12, 2000 edition of Cairo's Al-Wafd newspaper,
it was an open secret that Assad devoted the last years of his life to removing
potential political challengers to the presidency for his Western-educated ophthalmologist
son, Bashar. Assad demoted his brother Rifat Assad and the Syrian army's chief
of staff Hikmat Shihabi, among others, out of political contention.
the death of his brother, Bashar was recalled from London where he was practicing
medicine and enrolled in the Syrian military academy. He quickly ascended to colonel
by 1999 as his father worked to prepare the younger Assad to lead. Despite the
fact that few in Syria knew Bashar, when Hafez Assad died in 2000, the general
public tended to view the new leader optimistically.
"This image of
a reformer, of a man of the world familiar with Western ways and views, made it
easier for many, inside and outside Syria, to accept Bashar as his father's heir.
Bashar continued to bask in optimistic Western expectations even after he took
office. The smooth transition of power upon his father's death contributed to
his aura," author Eyal Zisser wrote of Syria's political scene in 2000 in
The Middle East Quarterly.
However, some political thinkers in the Arab
world met the news of Bashar's ascension with derision. Citing his lack of exposure,
experience and stature among Syrian power brokers, regional figures expressed
skepticism over his ability to continue his father's legacy, according to the
Experts in the West saw a difficult road ahead for the younger Assad
when he rose to power.
"He is going to face a daunting challenge, because
he has a variety of regional as well as domestic challenges," Hisham Melham,
the American-based correspondent for the Lebanese newspaper Al-Safir, said at
the time. "The economy is in dire straits, he has to reform that, he has
to open Syria to foreign investment, he has to provide for greater openness to
a younger yearning Syrian generation."
Bashar Assad's era of uncertainty
By all accounts, Bashar Assad began his
presidency with intentions of democratizing the country with transformative political
"I hope you will allow me to emphasize to you a fact I feel
that the man you have known and loved some of his merits and exchanged trust and
love with him will not change at all once he assumes his post. He came out of
the people and lived with them and shall remain one of them," Assad said
as he assumed the presidency. "The man who has become a president is the
same man who was a doctor and an officer and first and foremost is a citizen."
his father's death in the summer of 2000, Bashar encouraged Syria's intellectual
leaders to congregate in forums in cities throughout the country to plan democratic
reforms. Even independent newspapers sprung up to challenge the state media machines,
according to the Sydney Morning Herald.
Dubbed the Damascus Spring, this
movement was abandoned after 18 months, when Bashar reversed his support, ordering
the forums disbanded and some critics imprisoned. Regional experts attribute the
change in policy not to Bashar himself, but to the old guard of Syria's government,
fearful of the instability quick reforms could bring, according to The Middle
even as he abandoned many of the political and societal reforms and maintained
a police state, the new president continued to push for much-needed reforms to
the struggling Syrian economy. In April of 2001, Bashar succeeded in convincing
Baath party leaders to support legislation creating private banking in Syria.
The move was a major step for a nation entering its third decade of tight socialist-government
control the nation's economy.
But even these moves have faltered as Bashar's
presidency has evolved. Since 2001, Assad has publicly contradicted himself on
the idea, telling Syrian newspaper Tishrin that the banks pose a threat to the
But beyond the borders of Syria, the younger Assad has
faced regional and international challenges over Syria's role in Lebanon and other
In December of 2000, Syria denied importing Iraqi oil through a
pipeline, a serious violation of U.N. sanctions, instead saying the pipeline was
being tested, CNN reports. The United States and other Western nations blasted
Syria for the moves, although the United Nations could not confirm the transfers
and no action was taken against the Damascus government.
Hopes that Bashar
Assad may be able to achieve the final steps necessary for a peace deal with Israel
also evaporated as the Palestinian intifada continued and Syria renewed its support
of Hezbollah and allowed other terrorist organizations to operate out of their
the first three years of Bashar Assad's reign as the equivalent to an absence
of power, author Eyal Zisser, writing in the winter 2003 edition of The Middle
East Quarterly, concluded the regional and political future of Syria rides on
the shoulders of the former doctor.
"The selection of a young and inexperienced
leader who lacks public trust may be inconsequential in a country that benefits
from political stability and long-standing democratic traditions. But Syria is
a country suffering from severe social and economic problems that require immediate
and unequivocal solutions. More important, Syria plays a crucial regional role
and may even decide the fate of the region -- for better or worse, for peace or
war. The vacuum created at the top of the ruling pyramid in Damascus presents
problems, not just for Syria but for the region as a whole."
less brutal and severe as the rule of his father, the younger Assad's efforts
have been plagued by regional instability, internal conflict with the old guard
and a struggle to maintain the Assad dominance of Syria.