Seamless transition in Syria so far; But some are skeptical about son holding power


DAMASCUS, Syria - No one knows how long it will last, but Syria has so far managed an almost seamless transition from dictator to son.

Two days after burying Hafez el Assad, his son Bashar appears to have firm support from two of the key power centers of this tightly controlled country - the military and the intelligence apparatus.

He is expected to assume leadership of the ruling Ba'ath Party at a congress starting tomorrow. "I would presume there are no threats," said Ibrahim Hamidi, the Damascus correspondent for Al Hayat, the pan-Arab newspaper published in London.

Diplomats and other observers say Bashar Assad, 34, enhanced his stature with his smooth leadership Tuesday as world leaders paid respects at the presidential palace.

The respect accorded him by such regional powerhouses as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, along with his father's erstwhile rival, Yasser Arafat, signaled broad support in the Arab world. Even Lebanon's Maronite church leaders, long opposed to Syria's military presence in their country, have softened their tone this week.

But some close observers are skeptical about Bashar Assad's chances of keeping control of a country that his father dominated with shrewdness, caution and iron determination for 30 years.

Hafez el Assad's rule required not only fear and force but also a careful use of patronage in important sectors of the state-run economy and a balancing of religious and secular forces. Even at his funeral, a principal role was assigned to a Sunni cleric, as members of Assad's Alawite sect stayed in the background.

He also kept the loyalty of various military and security services as well as a multilayered intelligence operation, including separate branches for the military, government and political life.

Bashar Assad is believed to have strong support from two powerful leaders of the security apparatus - his brother-in-law, Gen. Asef Shawkat, and Gen. Bahjat Suleiman - and to have picked some of the members of the new government formed in March.

But an Old Guard of military or political figures, resentful at loss of influence or wealth from patronage, could make trouble for the young leader.

The party congress will offer a hint of the young Assad's ability to put his stamp on the government. Hamidi expects two-thirds of the 21-member top body, the regional command, to change. He and others say seats will go to the new prime minister, Mohammed Mustafa Miro, as well as Foreign Minister Farouk al Sharaa and Information Minister Adnan Omran.

At a news briefing yesterday, Omran fed expectations of change, saying the congress will review the government's work and prepare a strategy for the future. "Everything that has been right will continue, and everything that didn't work will be changed," he said.

But Assad will need to tread carefully.

"When there is change anywhere in the world, there will be some people harmed. The question is whether these people who are harmed are really influential or not," Hamidi said.

One casualty of Assad's bid to consolidate power may be the trumpeted war on corruption of recent months. So far it has only scratched the surface of an endemic problem, and Assad may need to curtail it to avoid alienating powerful interests.

Assad is expected to concentrate on shoring up power at home before looking abroad. And although he told Americans on Tuesday that he wanted "results" from the peace process with Israel, few expect him to buck his father's steadfast refusal to accept anything less than a total return of territory occupied by Israel since 1967.

One question is whether the national desire for stability will last in a region where old barriers are breaking down and Syria risks falling further behind in growth and openness.

But anyone who expected Assad's death to uncork pent-up revolutionary forces would be wrong, at least so far.

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