Syria's New President Bashar Al-Assad: A Modern-Day Attaturk

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Syria's New President Bashar Al-Assad: A Modern-Day Attaturk

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst. He is a specialist in Middle Eastern affairs and an author of two books on Syria.

Historically, leaders who have succeeded their fathers as heads of state have deviated from their parents' specific policies--without, however, abandoning their predecessors' ultimate goals. King Talal of Jordan, for example, was quite different from his father, King Abdullah I, and King Abdullah II was different from his own father, King Hussein. The same applies to Saudi Arabia's King Saud, who succeeded his father, King Abdul-Aziz, in 1953. Nor is President Bashar Al-Assad of Syria an exception to the rule. Since officially coming to power on July 17, Bashar has managed to break many negative norms, shake off primitive restrictions from the past, and garner sincere public support among Syria's disgruntled youth.

In January 1994, three months short of completing his medical residency at St. Mary's Hospital in Great Britain, Bashar Al-Assad cut short his studies to attend the funeral of his elder brother Basil. He journeyed to Damascus to attend the service, share in the family grief and, supposedly, return to London. Instead, to his surprise, his "short" visit lasted for six years and, rather than becoming a practicing ophthalmologist, he became president of the republic following his father's death in June 2000.

The product of a Western education, with a cosmopolitan upbringing and independent views, Bashar has begun implementing his own cultural revolution. No sooner had he been sworn in as president than he issued a decree banning photos of him and his father--plastered on every wall throughout Syria--from public display. Overnight, thousands of pictures of Hafez Al-Assad, some in place since the 1970s, disappeared. Bashar backed his action with a statement saying that the new regime wanted to follow a realistic policy that did not immortalize and over-exaggerate its leaders. The photographs now can be found only in government offices--a black cloth frames the picture of the late president, side-by-side with a shot of the new leader, wearing a stern expression while his blue eyes gaze into the unknown horizon. Bashar's edict was a relief to the Syrian people, who were disturbed by the ever-increasing photo mania, a must in Syria's departed political culture.

Other reforms quickly followed: a 25 percent wage increase was instituted, some decades-old bureaucratic laws were canceled, and Syria's two-and-a-half-year military service requirement, which alienated the country's educated youth and resulted in their self-imposed exile in the Gulf, was somewhat reformed. Previously, any Syrian male not enrolled in the university at the age of 18 was drafted into the army, where he would undergo a crash course meant to "make a man out of him" in order to face the "ever-present" Israeli threat. To evade service, young men fled to the Gulf, where a law stated that after five years of work, they could pay $5,000 for their military exemption. Those who did not get a chance to work in the Gulf were forced to go to Lebanon, Europe, the U.S. or the Far East. There they would remain until they were 55 (the age for military exemption). By then, however, having worked for decades and raised their families abroad, almost all of them declined to return home.

President Bashar has made it legal for any person with an advanced technical degree, or who agrees to invest in the Syrian market a substantial amount of money (which varies with the country of exile), to come home to Syria. Another military reform requires any new cadet at the Homs Military Academy to obtain a university degree (B.A.) before enrolling.

In response to these reforms Syrians, a hard-working and simple people by nature, who have had to suppress their hopes and dreams for decades, have begun reaching for the sky. Some speculated that wages would "definitely" increase by 100 percent, others that the state would restore to its rightful owners land nationalized in 1964. …