Release Date: June 25, 2000
Eric Margolis, c/o Editorial Department, The Toronto Sun
333 King St. East, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5A 3X5
Fax: (416) 960-4803 -- Press Contact: Eric Margolis

Syria: Hail to the New Sultan

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 lately, Syria.

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 title.

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 intervene.

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 Reserved
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