Squandering the Assad Legacy

When Bashar Assad was appointed president of Syria seven years ago, the constitution had to be changed. Back then the president-elect was too young - less than 40 years old, the age required by the constitution to assume the post. The political echelon rushed to implement the required change and the 34-year-old Assad became president. After last week's referendum, which, as expected, approved another seven-year term for him, with an overwhelming majority of 97 percent of the votes, people are already talking about Hafez Assad's next term in office. There is no mistake here - Hafez is the name of Bashar's son, and since it is customary in Syria to transfer the regime from father to son, it appears as though Hafez, the grandson, also has a respectable future ahead of him.

There was no need to wait for Bashar to complete his full term in office to reach the conclusion that he is not exactly a copy of his father. A summary published last week by an Arab commentator in the Al Khayyat newspaper pointed to a series of mistakes Bashar made as a leader: He has lost Lebanon, he has undermined Syria's status in the Arab world, he is responsible for the deterioration of the Syrian economy, he has forbidden freedom of expression and he has been unable to advance the peace process with Israel. This month, Assad's regime is expected to turn from suspect into the convicted party with regard to the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, following the UN Security Council's decision to set up an international tribunal and to hold a trial, contrary to Assad's will and despite the threats issued by Hezbollah's spiritual leader, Hassan Nasrallah.

Assad will thus chalk up yet another humiliating defeat with regard to the most important heritage his father left in his hands: to hold onto Lebanon at all costs and turn it into a Syrian province. Meanwhile, it appears that Lebanon is casting a giant shadow on Assad's regime. The government of Fouad Siniora continues to stay in office despite Assad's attempts to topple it; the violent events in the Naher al-Barad refugee camp have taken on a life of their own, apparently contrary to the interests of both Syria and Nasrallah. And even if it were possible to attribute Hezbollah with an achievement during last year's Second Lebanon War, Assad came and turned this affair into his own, and Syria's, loss.

Last week, a UN team went to examine the security situation along the Lebanese-Syrian border, against Syria's will. It seems as though in the near future a joint team of the UN multinational force and the Lebanese army will begin patrolling this border. But while the distrust of Assad's declarations about not permitting the transfer of arms from Syria to Hezbollah is a matter between Syria and Lebanon, and between Assad and Israel, this is not the case regarding the speech Assad made shortly before the end of last year's war. In that speech he called the Arab leaders "half-men" for not coming to Hezbollah's aid and for not standing up against Israel. The result was an immediate freeze of relations with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. The relations between Syria and these countries, which had not been characterized by warmth even before the speech, pushed Assad almost completely outside the arena of events in the Arab world. Ahead of last March's Arab summit in Riyadh, Assad was forced, in interviews he gave to the Saudi media, to describe his ties with King Abdullah as extremely cordial and was almost made to apologize for his previous remarks. This is the same Saudi Arabia that was pushing for the establishment of the international tribunal, and the same Assad who was forced to swallow the Saudi initiative.

Assad does not have any real ties with Abdullah, the Jordanian king, and his conversations with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak are rare. At the same time, the Syrian president is not as isolated as is usually assumed in Israel. He enjoys close ties with the leaders of, and in particular with investors from, the Gulf states. These investors continue to develop the Syrian tourism industry. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan also considers Assad a personal friend. Of course, when it comes to ties with Iran, Assad can remain relaxed, although relations between Syria and Iran suffered last year as a result of various arguments. But Assad can also gaze wistfully at the picture of his father, who was one of the most relevant figures in the Middle East, in contrast to the marginal position he has fallen into.

Assad can also look at his neighbor in Jordan with envy and see how a similar age is not a guarantee of similar political capability. In contrast to the political and economic activity of King Abdullah, who has put Jordan on the map of the Middle East, Assad is wallowing around in neighborhood politics. To all this has to be added the seven years during which the Syrian economy has been frozen. The data Syrian Economic Minister Amer Lutfi gave to the Al-Baath newspaper last week speak of a predict 7 percent growth in the coming year, as opposed to 5.6 percent in 2006. But the figures issued by the World Bank speak about an average growth rate of 3 percent during the past two years.

Syria talks about extending privatization and about a considerable increase in private sector contributions to GNP, but economists point out that the private sector is still floundering and continuing to produce goods for which there is no demand on foreign markets, whether Arab or Western. Even though there was an increase in per capita income over the past two years, it has to be remembered that we are talking about a monthly increase of $88 per capita, as opposed to $63 per capita in 2000. In nominal terms, this is a significant amount, but in fact, and in view of the inflation in Syria, this is a worrisome figure, which joins the meteoric rise in prices caused by the influx of Iraqi refugees into the country. This phenomenon has given a tremendous push to the real estate market in Syria. However, this is a temporary period of growth at the end of which the country is likely to find itself in an even worse crisis - without the government being able to present a suitable long-term plan to fight either this crisis or the oil crisis that is expected in view of the depletion of the country's oil reserves.

In contrast to these data, Dr. Moheyddine Al-Ladkani, the secretary-general of the opposition Syrian Democratic Stream, published an investigative report according to which the Assad family, including its cousins in Syria, has assets worth an estimated $40 billion, which also encompass income generated from joint projects in Lebanon, exclusive franchises and fees for granting permits for investment in Syria.

Reports about corruption among members of the ruling family are not something new, and the practice of granting franchises to family members is also well-known. But when the president raises the banner of a war against corruption as the symbol of his regime, it is difficult to accept such talk. And yet another small matter: When Assad gave his inaugural speech in the summer of 2000, a short while after the Israel Defense Forces had withdrawn from Lebanon, he referred in his remarks to the structure of society and to democracy. "Do rights, freedom of expression or transparency constitute democracy?" he asked. "No, they are its results. Democracy is to say that what we are entitled to, others are also entitled to." A good idea, had it not been for the speech's continuation in which Assad explained that in fact democracy could not be a universal term.

"Every building has a suitable basis," and therefore the democracy of the West is the product of its history and its experiences, and Syrian democracy is the product of its history and Syrian society. This means that Western democracy is not necessarily suitable for Syria. "We cannot adopt the democracy of others for our country," Assad said on that occasion, without forgetting the status of women who, he said, are vital for the blossoming of society because "the woman is the one who prepares the men to play their role in society." A study of the list of political prisoners and an examination of the official press, which has not yet changed, point to the fact that over seven years Assad merely "studied" the matter. Perhaps in the next seven years, a miracle will happen.