Hafez Asad - a tough act to follow

24 May 1996

The 1990s have been kind to most Syrians, even the massed ranks of political prisoners, several thousand of whom have now been released. But there remains one nagging question to disturb the placidity of the Syrian political environment: who or what will come after President Hafez Asad?

The Syrian leader fought and conspired his way to the top of the regime in 1970, legitimised by Baathist ideology and buttressed by the blood ties of his fellow clansmen from the Alawi minority. Over the ensuing decade-and-a-half, he has clung on to power in the face of domestic insurgency, political infighting inside the regime, economic disasters and periods of intense international pressure.

The German academic Volker Perthes, author of an exhaustive study of Syria under Asad,* defines 'Asadism' as a kind of anti-ideology. He portrays the state under Asad's regime as authoritarian, not totalitarian. He argues that Asad has watered down Baathism and Arab nationalism, never attempted to establish a centrally planned economy and has not sought to prescribe what people should believe. 'Asadism, so to speak, depoliticizes,' Ferthes writes. 'It implies that Syria's future is guaranteed as long as Asad is at the helm.'

Now 66, Asad is said to be in reasonable health. He is two years into his fourth six-year presidential term. But his days at the helm will not continue indefinitely. In the early 1990s, the succession issue became associated with his elder son Basil, who died, aged 31, in a car crash in January 1994. Basil had established a strong basis of support among Syria's younger officers and the new business elite. He was popular and respected, and had links that spread far beyond the Alawi minority. In short, he was a credible successor. His younger brother Bashar has taken over many of Basil's tasks, but has made little impact on the political scene.

With no successor evident from within the extended family, there are grounds for concern that Asad's departure would leave a dangerous power vacuum. However, Perthes argues forcefully that the civil war, chaos and sectarian strife scenario for the post-Asad era is by no means the most likely. 'While the regime and its leadership certainly lack legitimacy, the legitimacy of the state is not in doubt,' he writes.

Perthes foresees the transfer of power to one of Asad's deputies, most likely AbdelHalim Khaddam, as Syria follows the model established by regional states such as Egypt or Tunisia after the demise of the charismatic leader. 'One should not preclude that in order to prevent chaos and destruction, Syria's military and security strongmen. . could respect constitutional rules,' Perthes writes.

Syria's track record over the years since the First World War suggests that an orderly transition is by no means guaranteed once Asad departs. It is only when this fateful moment comes that the claim that Syrian institutions have put down strong enough roots to guarantee the state's integrity can be put to the test.

The Political Economy of Syria under Asad, by Volker Perthes, IB Tauris, London, 1995

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