For much of the world beyond the Middle East, the funeral today
of Syrian President Hafez al-Assad marks the debut of the late
leader's son and chosen successor, Bashar.
But for Syrians, this mild-mannered eye doctor first appeared
with the flourish of a presidential campaign, Syrian style, last
autumn. Bashar visited the city of Aleppo and mingled with people in
the main souk for several hours. He sat for coffee, witnesses
recall, and gave people he met this message: "Here's my number. If
you need anything, give me a call."
While speaking to one elderly woman, the president's son and heir
apparent bowed and kissed her hand. It didn't make the newspapers,
but the outing flashed by word of mouth throughout the country.
The signal was plain: "Put yourself in Bashar's shoes," says a
Western diplomat. "He wants to emerge as the bright new hope. A
little pressing the flesh shows a marked change of style without
During the three decades of his authoritarian rule, President
Assad had not wandered among his people so easily for many years.
And the choice of Aleppo for the younger Assad's visit has added
significance, since it was the site of clashes between the Sunni
Muslim majority and the Alawite minority of the Assad family.
Today, a critical transition is under way with Bashar - at just
34 years of age - gathering the many reins of power required to rule
Syria. Despite the nature of the regime, however, the future is
Some question whether Bashar - if named president by the
parliament in the next few weeks and then approved in a popular
referendum - has enough political moxie, military support, and
financial acumen necessary to lead this complex nation into the 21st
But as tearful mourners marched through the streets of Damascus
with black cloth streaming from posters of the father, they are
sending another message too, with chants, banners, and portraits
that support the son.
"He was born into this house of Assad, and the talk there is of
nothing but politics," says a Syrian analyst who asked not to be
named. "He is not as quiet as you think. Remember that President
Assad himself started at the age of 39. He was shy and withdrawn -
nobody expected his rule to last more than a few months."
An avid technocrat
Political maneuvers like Bashar's Aleppo walk are one of a myriad
of other carefully calibrated moves meant to prepare him for
leadership. In recent months, he has spearheaded a high-level
corruption campaign, opened Syria to the Internet, and preached
about Syria's desperate need to enter the computer age. Meanwhile,
he also met with a host of other young leaders across the region.
Though Bashar's official title until this weekend was only head
of the Syrian Computer Society. But his reforming influence was
strongly felt in a recent Cabinet shake-up. By Syrian standards,
Bashar has helped initiate unprecedented criticism of Syria's
stagnant economy, its isolation, and he has called for more
accountability and change.
Bashar's message has been backed by young entrepreneurs who would
benefit from a chipping away at the corrupt liaison between state
enterprises and political dinosaurs. His voice also resonates with
Some analysts wonder if all the changes add up to a new
"corrective movement," the rubric under which Assad first seized
power in a coup in 1970.
The first moves meant to reassure Syrians that there will be
stability have already been taken - a critical ingredient to win the
support of those who remember the spate of coups and violence in the
1950s and 1960s. …