ANALYSIS Assad No Longer Stands in His Father's Shadow

Nine years into his tenure, Syrian president has become 'seasoned leader,' biographer says.

Yoav Stern
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Yoav Stern

There are large billboards on the road leading to Damascus from the Jordanian border. Once they featured portraits of former Syrian president Hafez Assad. Even after his death, he continued to exist on the billboards, alongside his two sons, Basil (who died before him) and Bashar, who was appointed president in his place. Today Bashar alone is on the billboards. The new "lion of Damascus" no longer stands in anyone's shadow.

This month marks the ninth anniversary of Hafez Assad's death. Next month will mark nine years of Bashar's tenure. A different Syria and a different Assad. The young man (34 years old at the time) who lacked confidence and experience has become an experienced president with tested ability to overcome crises and even to be strengthened by them. The Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies in Cairo recently awarded him the title of "the most popular leader" in the Middle East.

Prof. David Lesch, a Middle Eastern scholar at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas and the author of "The New Lion of Damascus: Bashar al-Assad and Modern Syria," visited here last week. At the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University he related an incident he witnessed at the Damascus Opera House (which is named after Bashar's father). At the end of the performance Bashar and his wife Asma held a reception. They stood in the large square outside, and the audience leaving the hall found itself facing the presidential couple. To help the audience overcome their embarrassment, the ushers took action and simply pushed those present toward the couple. A handshake, a smile, a glance, a short conversation. It's important for their image.

Lesch sees this incident as an example of the way in which Bashar Assad establishes his rule in Damascus. No longer is there the distance his father favored, no more residence in the military ivory tower. The president and his wife are said to go out, by private car, to eat in a restaurant or a cafe. That did, in fact, happen once or twice, far less often than the Syrians tend to talk about.

In an interview with Haaretz Lesch said Assad had "clearly evolved as a leader. When I first met with him in 2004, he was still a bit unsure. He was not totally in control domestically."

At the time, said Lesch, Assad had limited knowledge of the Arab-Israeli conflict and lacked basic information about U.S. foreign policy. Meetings with him were held in the presence of advisers and interpreters, who made sure he would not blurt out anything stupid. Now during meetings with interviewers, Assad sits by himself, relaxed.

The turning point that Lesch saw was the election of 2007, when he was "re-elected' in a referendum. The word "elected" does not quite fit the procedure in which the citizens of Syria can say "yes" or "no" to the continued tenure of the president. To ensure the outcome, the answer is written in sight of everyone in the room where the ballot box is located.

In those days Assad was recovering from two major crises: the murder of Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri and the Second Lebanon War. Hariri's murder forced the Syrians to withdraw its forces from Lebanon. A Syrian friend of Lesch told him: "We lost Beirut at the time, but we gained Damascus," because as a result of the crisis, Assad strengthened his hold in the corridors of power and ousted those who did not accept his policy. A year later, in 2006, Syria turned out to be one of the big winners of the Second Lebanon War. Assad was euphoric. His tough policy, his opposition to the American occupation in Iraq and the price he had paid for that in international isolation - all increased his popularity. In Damascus, people took to the city squares and cheered their president.

The 2007 elections were accompanied by demonstrations of support organized by the regime, and yet, said Lesch, they contained a degree of authenticity. Assad went out on the balcony of the modest house that serves as the presidential residence, pointed to families who were standing in the street and cheering him and hosted them for a few minutes on his balcony.

"I met with him just after he was elected," said Lesch, "and for the first time I really saw in him this level of self-satisfaction that I hadn't seen before. He has always been very modest and humble, self-deprecating even. This time he was ... in a cathartic expression of gratification that the people really liked him."

The meetings with Assad also provided Lesch with a rare glimpse into the manner in which the regime is run. "It is very interesting to see him work around the system," said Lesch. Assad once said to him, for example: "You know, I've signed 1,000 decrees, only four were implemented. Many times I have to work around the system to get anything done."

Assad is aware of the corruption and the opposition to change," and according to Lesch "it's very frustrating for him over the years to get any kind of serious reform." He knows that changes that go too far are liable to lose him the support of those who benefit from the corruption and from the existing situation. Lesch said that once, in a conversation about a project in which he is involved in Syria, "Bashar leaned over to me and said, 'How can we do this? We need to implement this. How do we get around these groups?'"

Assad is leading a policy of rapprochement with Israel, and Lesch said that "since it was the first time [he was] doing this, he cannot afford to fail. He has made his decision and he has an array of people around him who agree with him in terms of the idea of the negotiations with Israel. This is still a strategic choice. But there are elements who do not agree with this. This indicates to me that Bashar feels he has one shot at this, and he'd better get it right or he'll be forced to retrench from this foreign policy path he'd like to follow."

That's why, said Lesch, the president will agree to direct talks with Israel only if there is a good chance they will succeed.

Lesch described the atmosphere in Damascus as "sour." U.S. President Barack Obama did not mention Syria in his policy speech in Cairo. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked only to visit Damascus. In the wake of the speech, the Syrian press agency issued an official statement to the effect that Syria saw it as proof of "an absence of genuine Israeli desire to make peace in the region."

The West is still suspicious of the Syrian regime. The transfer of weapons to Hezbollah continues, and Hamas receives refuge in Damascus. Iran is a strategic ally. Is Bashar secretly promoting a nuclear program? Bashar denies it, Lesch doesn't know.

He quotes Assad as saying "that would be monumentally stupid for the Syrians to do, to develop a nuclear capability ... history is full of regimes who made monumentally stupid decisions."

When it comes to internal Syrian affairs Assad projects greater confidence. He is not paying a price for imprisoning human rights activists, there is no real threat to his regime and the opposition in exile is of no real importance. In the area of foreign relations he has not succeeded in totally breaking out of the isolation imposed on him years ago. He just went with his wife to the Republic of Georgia and earlier visited Qatar and France. His schedule is fuller than in the past, and he entertains many diplomats and foreign ministers who come to Damascus. But that is not enough. Assad is disturbed mainly by the continued coldness of the U.S. administration.



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