Today's date:
Fall 2000

Adieu, Assad

Shimon Peres, the former prime minister of Israel, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize along with Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin in 1994.

Tel Aviv—It is only predictable things that come as a real surprise.

Syrian President Hafez el Assad’s failing health was no secret to the world’s decision-makers, yet his death caused a sensation. Also known to all, even more than his ill health, were the many flaws in his mode of government and the abundant shortcomings of his rule. And possibly above all others was his determination to hang on to an era that had disappeared from most parts of the Earth.

When he came into power as sole ruler of Syria, 30 years ago, the world—including the Arab world—was different. At the time, the Cold War influenced the world and the Middle East conflict drew its force from the greater world conflict. The Soviet Union at the time lavished money and weapons on a number of dictators in the Middle East and turned a blind political eye to help them, primarily President Assad.

The Arabs were convinced they could defeat Israel by sheer force of strength, and they opted for a military-oriented policy. To that end, they created military coalitions with the aim of going to war. The world economy was then more nationalistic in nature than global. The media were still on the brink of the enormous television-generated power they would garner. Terror had still not uncovered to the full its beast-like mien.

When Assad took his leave, however, the world was one that had undergone radical changes. The Cold War had ended, Russia was no longer as generous and biased as the Soviet Union had been. The Middle East had experienced a number of expensive wars that did not result in the expected victories. There was now a global market economy.

Assad’s contemporaries, who once fought alongside him, had passed from war to peace. Anwar Sadat, one of the two architects of the Yom Kippur War, had signed a peace agreement with Israel. King Hussein of Jordan, whose country had been dragged into wars it had not initiated, also embarked on the road to peace. Arafat, who once stood at the head of the strategy of terror, had abandoned this tool, entered into political negotiations and recognized Israel. The King of Morocco, Hassan II, who served as chairman of the Jerusalem Committee on behalf of the Muslim world, sought peace-building channels and went so far as to put his country at the disposal of the peace process.

Alone among all these rulers was Assad. While he decided on a strategy of peace, 21 out of his 30 years of rule were wasted on negotiations that were inconclusive. Even when Israel made concessions in his favor, Assad entrenched himself in the notion that he had to have a say on the shores of the Kinneret. This proved beyond a doubt that he had no confidence in the central truism of politics: the art of the feasible. He was unable to understand that Israel, which possesses two lakes, one of which is dead, would never relinquish its sovereignty over the only freshwater lake it had, constituting a valuable water reservoir and a regulator of its irrigation needs.

Furthermore, Assad entered Lebanon with alacrity and permitted various terror organizations to operate from his country and in Lebanon. As a consequence, Syria today is one of the poorest countries in the Middle East. Its army is not in a position to cope with another war. And the young Assad lacks the coalition for such an undertaking, as well as the arms called for to ensure victory (even the weapons destined to bring about victory in the past failed to do so). Syria’s presence in Lebanon is embarrassing, and it will not be long before the Lebanese insist that Syria withdraw from its land after Israel’s pullout.

Even the contest for leadership over the Arab world has been relegated today to a barely distinct memory of days of grandeur long past.

A ruler should not be judged according to the length of his rule, but by the track record of his achievements, and Assad’s time spent at the helm does not seem too brilliant, in light of the accomplishments he did not attain. Assad was a taciturn man. He spoke only Arabic. He barely saw the world. In his own country too he traveled rarely. Most of the lengthy meetings he held focused on history—remote history. Even though he ruled his country with an iron fist, this did not enable Syria to attain even one of the two vital goals that all the countries of the Middle East now seek: making peace at the dawning of the new era; ceasing the wars of the previous epoch.

His son Bashar appears to be more of a man of the world—more capable and better equipped to deal with the new challenges of the new age the world is embarking upon. He speaks English, makes use of the Internet and is also an ophthalmologist—bad eyesight is one of the most common diseases in the Middle East.

Should he, however, give top priority to the task of stabilizing his rule at home, while making the same demands from Israel to which it cannot agree (partnership in the Kinneret), it is doubtful that he will accomplish stability, and even more improbable that he will advance his country as he should.

The first hundred days of rule are always the decisive ones. Should Bashar take advantage of this period to return to the negotiating table, he could turn his father’s legacy into his people’s hope.

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