by Eric Margolis
LONDON -- The idea that in our 21st Century one person could inherit an
entire country and its people seems absurdly medieval. But that is what has
recently happened in four nations: North Korea, Morocco, Jordan, and, most
Hafez al-Asad, who ruled Syria's 16.4 million people with an iron first for
three decades, died suddenly on 10 June. His mild-mannered son, Bashar, a
34-year old eye doctor, seemed an unlikely candidate to succeed the
brilliant, crafty, ruthless Asad senior, who crushed all internal
opposition, faced down the United States, and, in Lebanon, became the first
Arab leader to defeat Israel in war.
But Syria's ruling circles rushed to rally behind the inexperienced Bashar.
The reason was not so much love of his father, but very real fear that a
post-Assad power struggle would plunge Syria into civil war. So Bashar was
summarily `elected' president of Syria. Sultan would be a more accurate
The Assads and their main supporters are Alawis, a highly secretive
religious sect from the northern coastal mountains that is an offshoot of
Shia Islam. Alawis believe in the divinity of Ali, the son-in-law of
Prophet Mohammed. This is anathema to mainstream Sunni Muslims, who regard
Alawis, and their cousins, the Druze, as heretics. Alawis are Syria's
largest minority, about 11-12% of the predominantly Sunni Muslim nation.
Under Assad, who seized power in a 1971 military coup, Alawis gained
control of the government, ruling Baath Party, and security forces. A
third of all senior Baath members, 21% of cabinet ministers, and 18 of 25
top military or intelligence commands were held by Alawis.
During the 1980's, and again recently, Sunni Muslims led by the underground
Muslim Brotherhood, rebelled against Alawi rule and the Baath Party's
socialism. All revolts were crushed. In 1982, Assad's brutal brother,
Rifaat, led the Presidential Guard against Sunni Islamist rebels in Hama,
killing some 10,000 people. Mass arrests and torture by Syria's eight
overlapping security agencies is common. The unloved Rifaat's threats to
return from European exile and bid for power contributed to the rush to
support his nephew, Bashar.
A power struggle could easily have sparked civil war between Alawis and
Sunnis, between the four main Alawi clans(like the feuding Kurds of Iraq),
between factions in the 316,00-man armed forces and the feared security
services, and dragged in Syria's important Christian, Palestinian(250,000)
and Armenian minorities. If Syria did dissolve into internal warfare, its
hostile neighbors - Israel, Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq - might be tempted to
In Damascus, the world's oldest continuously inhabited city, Baath Party
leaders remain committed to their ambition of reuniting historical Syria.
During the highly decentralized Ottoman Empire, what is today Lebanon,
Jordan, Palestine and Israel, were part of Syria. France carved Lebanon
out of Syria as a beachhead for French influence in the Levant, a strategy
Paris pursues to this day. British imperialists created the mini-states of
Jordan and Palestine from historical Syria, then promised Palestine to
European Jews, the Arab Emir Faisal, and to its Arab inhabitants.
In our era, the colliding ambitions of Greater Syria and Greater Israel led
to 30 years of conflict over Lebanon and Jordan between the two regional
powers. Bashar Assad and his backers may conclude Syria's feeble economy -
only a third that of Israel - cannot afford continued confrontation.
Syria, the breadbasket of Ancient Rome, still exports wheat and some oil,
but its infrastructure and military forces are increasingly outdated. Half
of Syrians are under 15 years old. Syria's sputtering socialist economy
won't make jobs, education, or housing for this oncoming demographic wave.
>From Morocco to Iraq, the Mideast's political vista is bleak and
depressing. Israel is the region's only democracy(for Jews, though not
Arabs); Iran is half-way to becoming a democracy - if a
counter-revolution does not set back the clock. But everywhere else across
the Mideast , oil sheiks, dictators, or generals rule and wield power of
life and death over their subjects. Most of these autocrats and oligarchs -
`rogue' Iraq, Libya, and Sudan excepted - are protected by the United
States and Britain, under the banner of `maintaining regional stability.'
Syria, however repressive internally, at least retained its national pride
and independence by refusing to take marching orders from Washington.
This column had hoped the new generation of Arab leaders would rise above
the Mideast's squalid tribal politics by modernizing and democratizing
their nations. Alas, not so. Morocco's new, 34-year old King Mohammed
continues the medieval autocracy inherited from his father. Jordan's
smart, likeable young King Abdullah seems unfortunately disinclined to
lead Jordan to democracy.
There is not a single Arab regime that has authentic political legitimacy.
All are kept in power by soldiers and secret police. As a basic first
step, one would like to see Bashar Asad and King Abdullah hold fair
national referendums to at least legitimize their continued rule. But the
only time this experiment was tried - in Algeria - its military regime
overwhelmingly lost the vote to Islamists and promptly imposed martial law.
Perhaps Dr. Bashar will surprise us. We wish him well. But running
difficult countries like Syria tends to turn rulers nasty. Recall another
young, promising, mild-mannered doctor, Francois Duvalier, who became
Haiti's president - and soon turned into that legendary monster, Papa Doc.
[Eric Margolis is a syndicated foreign affairs columnist and broadcaster, and
author of the just released War at the Top of
the World - The Struggle for Afghanistan, Kashmir, and Tibet which was reviewed in
The Economist, May 13, 2000]
Copyright © 2000 Eric Margolis - All Rights