Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Syria's New Assad No Sure Thing

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Syria's New Assad No Sure Thing

Article excerpt

What can the world expect from Syria's new president - 34-year- old Bashar al-Assad? Some Americans, excited by the transition, have expressed hopes that the new president will be a more pro-democracy leader, more flexible in his peace diplomacy with Israel than his late father. Some predict a new generation of Western-educated leaders in Syria, as in Qatar and Jordan, could bring more open, pro- Western politics to the Arab world.

I've closely followed events in Syria and the broader Middle East for more than a quarter century. Many of the hopes expressed about Syria's presumed new leader are dangerously ill informed. Indeed, if unrealistic expectations like those above are used to inform policy, then policymakers may only exacerbate tensions in a region that is still - in south Lebanon - poised on the brink of a major confrontation.

Why do I believe this?

*Bashar al-Assad is not King Abdullah of Jordan. True, both men are in their mid-30s and received some education in the West. But Abdullah came from a family that was always relaxed in its links with the West. (Not surprising, since his mother is British.) And we don't know what Assad drew from his experience at college in England. Many non-Westerners who study in the West become even more anti-Western as a result of that experience. Beyond that, Abdullah seems to have an easy manner with Jordanians and non-Jordanians alike. What little is known of Assad reveals a deep natural reserve. It remains to be seen whether, like Abdullah, he can use personal charm to build a solid constituency for reform.

*Syria is not Jordan. Jordan is a monarchy, with broad popular acceptance for "kingly" successions, while most Syrians still support a theory of republicanism in which father-son succession has no natural role. If you were a senior member of Syria's Baath Party and had done your political duty for 30 years, how would you feel if the boss's youthful son were promoted over you? There must be many senior figures in Syrian politics who are not delighted, and who await the right chance to test the newcomer's mettle. One of them, Assad's uncle Rifaat al-Assad, has already expressed a challenge from his exile in Spain. …

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