Uncertain times for Mideast with loss of unwavering force


JERUSALEM - The death of Hafez el Assad removes one of the Middle East's shrewdest operators and a pillar of consistency, who combined an iron grip on his country with an unwavering stance toward the rest of the region.

By turns brutal and wily, he was well-known as a man who kept his word. In making peace overtures last year, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak repeatedly said that if peace could be made with Assad, it would hold.

In his absence, the Middle East is thrown into months of nervous uncertainty, with ramifications for Syria itself, neighboring Lebanon, Israel, the Palestinians and the U.S. role in the region.

To the extent that they were widely known, Assad's priorities were, in order, preservation of his regime, reclaiming land lost to Israel and leadership in the region. For his successor, each of these is called into question.

Since the 1960s, Syria has been run by an elite of Assad's Alawite Muslim sect that represents just 10 percent of its population.

The Syrian leadership made a show of a smooth transfer of power to Assad's son Bashar, 34, who had been groomed for succession for the past six years by his father and was being packaged through Syria's controlled media as a modern, outward-looking reformer.

Westerners hope that Bashar Assad's zeal to open Syria up to the information age will break down Syria's rigid economic structure and lead him to seek peace as a bridge to better ties with the United States and Europe.

But there may be a jockeying for power both within the Alawite elite and outside it, according to Amatzia Baram, a professor of Middle East history at the University of Haifa.

Hafez Assad's two brothers, Jamil, who lives in Syria, and Rifat, who was sent into exile many years ago, both might make a bid for power, Baram said. In Rifat's case, "he's quite a loose cannon, and we can't be sure his calculation would be rational."

Key sources of power inside Syria are its relatively new army chief of staff, Ali Aslan, who is also chief of military intelligence, and the head of intelligence in Lebanon, Ghazi Kanaan.

"These people will have to settle amongst themselves a rational way to make Bashar Assad at least a figurehead," Baram said. He gives them at least a 50 percent chance. But if they fail, "the danger of retribution by the Muslim Brotherhood is very real."

It was in an effort to wipe out opposition by the Muslim Brotherhood that Assad launched a crackdown on the provincial city of Hama in the early 1980s that claimed some 20,000 lives. The Brotherhood's current size is unknown, but "they are everywhere," Baram said, and "if they see serious cracks in the power elite, they will attack."

Whatever happens in Syria's ruling circles will have an impact in Lebanon and beyond. Since the end of Lebanon's civil war in 1990, Assad had controlled Lebanon's leadership and political processes through fear and the presence of about 30,000 Syrian troops.

Recently, however, there have been a number of calls in the press, from Lebanese abroad and from the Maronite Christian leadership, for Syria to withdraw. Such calls became more insistent after Israel's withdrawal of its forces from South Lebanon last month, ending a 22-year occupation.

One of the most outspoken critics of Syria, publisher Gebran Tueni, launched a direct attack last week on Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Sharaa.

A flashpoint for trouble in Lebanon would be its southern border with Israel. While keeping Syria's own border with Israel quiet since the end of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Assad used his influence with Lebanese guerrillas to keep pressure on Israelis occupying southern Lebanon.

Since Israel's withdrawal, a power vacuum has developed, with Lebanon declining to send large numbers of troops there and the United Nations not ready to expand its peacekeeping force.

For the time being, most analysts see Syria acting to stabilize southern Lebanon, a goal also pursued by the Hezbollah guerrilla movement that led the drive to push the Israelis out. But Assad was believed to have kept open the option of using radical Palestinian militants based in Lebanon to launch attacks against Israel's northern border, a move that would trigger harsh Israeli retaliation and possibly lead to chaos in Lebanon.

Lebanon was just one part of Assad's platform for regional leadership. Another was his ties with Iran, on the one hand, and with Egypt and Saudi Arabia. He tied them all together with a rigid stance toward Israel that had a major influence in preventing states in the region from pursuing normal relations with the Jewish state.

Israelis expressed hope yesterday for both a period of quiet on its border and, when the dust settles within the Syrian leadership, a more flexible attitude toward peace.

For decades, Assad displayed "remarkable consistency" in his approach toward peace, biographer Patrick Seale noted in a CNN interview yesterday. Assad refused to consider any deal that didn't include a total Israeli withdrawal to the line it occupied before the outbreak of their war in June 1967.

Some Israelis believe that Assad's determination on this point may have stemmed from a sense of responsibility for losing the territory to Israel, and that his successors might show more flexibility.

The Israeli leadership, gripped by its own power struggle, prepared itself yesterday for a period of watching and waiting.

"For 30 years, Syria was Assad, and Assad was Syria. With his death, whichever way it goes, it will be a different Syria," said Justice Minister Yossi Beilin.

Assad's death will also have an impact on the Palestinians, now engaged in a tense test of wills with Prime Minister Barak as peace negotiations enter a crucial period. Assad never forgave Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for secretly breaking ranks and negotiating the Oslo accords with Israel and made no effort at a united front afterward.

He also invited some of Arafat's most bitter critics to Damascus. Now some Palestinians hope for a coordinated approach to the peace process that could strengthen their hand.

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