The Grooming of Syria's Bashar Al-Assad

By Scott Peterson, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, June 13, 2000 | Go to article overview

The Grooming of Syria's Bashar Al-Assad


Scott Peterson, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


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 being critical."

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 still unclear.

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 century.

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 Syria's youth.

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. …

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