Most would say that Hafiz al-Asad, master of Syria since 1970, was an autocrat, an "oriental despot," differing only about the nature of the autocracy he runs. Is Asad simply the head of a junta of generals who might be compared with some Latin American military leaders of recent memory? Is he perhaps more like a party boss on East European lines, a variant of his friend, the former Bulgarian leader Todor Zhivkov? Or should he more properly be situated in the Arab tradition of the za'im, whose power derives from and is exercised through a network of patronage?
Some might prefer to say that Asad's regime is not like any of these models but should be seen as representing the triumph of a sectarian minority, the long-repressed Alawis, over their rivals in a Levantine society profoundly divided on ethnic and religious lines. In this argument, his rule, built on an accident of military power, can only be a freak of history, which must eventually give way to a system more representative of Syrian reality. This last model, of a Syria in thrall to an exploiting and dominant minority, is the one that hostile observers most often adduce to interpret Asad's Syria. Like all caricatures it reflects a measure of truth while--again like a caricature--overstressing a single trait at the expense of the whole. Certainly it is the interpretation that Asad resents most, considering it an unfair representation of the state system he has built. Indeed he has spent much of his adult life trying to escape from identification with his minority background, but the fact that his regime is still widely seen in these terms suggests he has been less than successful.
As in most societies, there is a difference in Syria between theory and practice, between the way power is supposed to be exercised and the way it actually is. On the one hand, there is in place quite an elaborate array