Hafez Al Assad, the legendary colossus of Arab politics, ruled Syria for thirty years, longer than any other caliph, sultan, amir, wali or President in Damascus since the reign of Amir Maawiyah, the first Ummayad caliph.
However, the Lion of Damascus was not able to bequeath his absolute power to his eldest son and anointed successor Basil, who was killed in a car accident in 1994. Bashar Al Assad was never meant to be the heir yet the 34-year-old political neophyte and London trained ophthalmology inherited the Presidency of Syria when his father died exactly a decade ago in a bloodless, if disputed, dynastic succession.
Dr. Bashar Al Assad has confounded his critics by simply surviving as President of Syria for the past decade. The Baathist old guard and Alawite generals who dominate Syria’s Baathist single party state and multiple intelligence agencies viewed Dr. Bashar with deep suspicion. A succession of abortive palace coups against his ascendancy failed and the new President ruthlessly purged his father’s cronies from the pinnacles of power in Damascus. Vice President Khaddam defected and General Ghazi Kanaan, once Hafez’s omnipotent viceroy in Lebanon, was forced to commit suicide.
George W. Bush made no secret of his desire to engineer regime change in Damascus, after American troops overthrew Saddam Hussein and the leaders of Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution accused the Syrian regime for Rafik Hariri’s assassination. A popular uprising in Lebanon forced Bashar Al Assad to withdraw Syrian troops from the fractured state where his father had intervened with an iron fist during the civil war between the Phalange and the PLO in 1976. In 2005-6, the risk of a US attack on Syria seemed all too plausible, particularly after the devastating Israeli attack on Hezbollah and Shia Lebanon in July 2006.
While Dr. Assad has survived multiple external threats, Syria’s anachronistic, Soviet style command economy is the Baathist regime’s Achilles heel. While hope of a Damascus Spring were overblown even in 2000, Dr. Bashar Assad has licensed private banks, eased foreign exchange controls, attracted Saudi and Gulf petrodollars in a FDI surge, even spawned a property boom in Damascus, Aleppo, Homs and Latakia. Yet the Syrian regime remains one of the most repressive “mukhabarat states” in the Arab world, intolerant of even the slightest murmur of political dissent. The President’s Alawite blood kinsmen control the Baath Party, the intelligence agencies, the lucrative state economic monopolies and military high command. Assad is no Syrian Gorbachev committed to systemic political reform. After all, he knows all too well that the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda have never forgotten that his father sent Syrian Army tanks to crush a Sunni revolt in Hama and executed an estimated 25,000 rebels. Thomas Friedman’s “Hama Rules” still define Syrian politics.
Bashar Assad’s greatest foreign policy humiliation was his exit from Lebanon in 2005, hailed by George Bush as the beginning of the end for the Arab world’s last surviving Baathist dictatorship. Yet Dr. Assad, thanks to Hezbollah and a rapprochement with France and Saudi Arabia, has quietly restored Syrian influence in Lebanon. Saad Hariri and Walid Jumblatt have both visited Damascus to “reconcile” with the regime they once blamed for the murder of their respective fathers. Israel bombed a Syrian nuclear reactor and Mossad assassinated top Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyah in Damascus but was still forced to seek Turkish mediation in secret talks over the future of the Golan Heights. Hezbollah, with its ballistic missiles, rockets and Cabinet veto power, still dominates Lebanese politics.
Assad still faces multiple geopolitical landmines. The Obama White House has extended Bush’s sanctions against Syria. The State Department brands Syria as a state sponsor of terrorism. Israeli Foreign Minister Lieberman threatened to unseat the Assad clan from power in the next war with Syria. The resurgent PKK revolt in Turkish Anatolia could well trigger secessionist unrest among Syria’s own Kurdish minorities. Al Qaeda’s jihadist networks could resume terrorist attacks against the Syrian regime. A Republican takeover of the House and Senate in the November US election will be the last nail in Obama’s policy of engagement with Damascus. A new Israeli assault against Hezbollah and tighter US sanctions against Iran are existential threats to Syria’s closest allies in the Middle East. President Assad’s first decade in power was eventful, precarious but, ultimately, successful. In Syria’s Darwinian politics, survival alone is the ultimate compliment.
Matein Khalid is an investment banker based in Dubai