U.S.-led war in Iraq proves first major test for Syria’s ‘untested’ young president
DAMASCUS, Syria — When Bashar Assad succeeded his father as Syrian president, there were hopes the young, Western-educated leader would reform and modernize the stagnant country. Three years later, that hasn’t happened, and Assad wields almost absolute power.
His vehement opposition to the U.S.-led attack on Iraq won him cheers during anti-war demonstrations around the region. But he has been mum in public — as his reclusive father, Hafez Assad, might have been — over the barrage of accusations from Washington about harboring fleeing Iraqi leaders or terrorists, leaving it to the Foreign Ministry to deny the charges.
For a while, it seemed as if things would be different.
In the early days of his presidency, Assad, now 38, spoke of the need for constructive criticism. He released hundreds of political prisoners, passed laws aimed at liberalizing the state-controlled economy and introduced cellular phones and the Internet to an enthusiastic populace of about 17 million.
Eager to speak up after three decades of iron-fisted rule, democracy activists began voicing their views in “salons” — political discussion groups held in private homes.
But, the drive toward openness quickly sputtered. Ten activists were arrested in 2001, among them two lawmakers who were stripped of parliamentary immunity and accused of trying to change the constitution and inciting sectarian conflicts.
In a speech to Syria’s newly elected parliament last month, Assad made clear there are limits.
“We believe in dialogue as the only way to democracy, but instigators and those with revolutionary ideas have no place in this dialogue,” he said.
Assad was not meant to be Syria’s president. His father was thought to be grooming his oldest son, Basil, as his successor, but Basil died in a car crash in 1994. Bashar was summoned home from England, abandoning his studies in ophthalmology.
Although Assad reportedly had little interest in politics, he assumed his brother’s role and became popular by launching a modernization and anti-corruption drive. He joined the military and was promoted to colonel in 1999.
After his father’s death on June 10, 2000, the rubber-stamp parliament hastily lowered the minimum age for president to 34 from 40. He was elected president unanimously by the parliament the following month.
Critics say Assad’s promises to democratize the country and stamp out corruption were derailed by the old guard that brought him to power.
“This is understandable, but we thought the leadership would be able to transgress those hindrances gradually. It has not,” said Akhtham Nuaisi, chairman of the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights in Syria.
Assad still is counted among the younger crop of Arab leaders — like Jordan’s King Abdullah II, Bahrain’s Sheik Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa and Qatar’s Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani — on whom many pin hopes for eventual social and political reform in the Middle East.
Fluent in Arabic, English and French, Assad has made a favorable impression on business leaders and young people.
Unlike his father, he is a frequent traveler and has made major trips to European capitals — even meeting with Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, a first for a Syrian leader.
He is usually flanked by his elegant wife, Asma, a financial analyst he wed in December 2000 and with whom he had a son a year later. His father kept public and private lives separate and his wife out of the limelight.
Assad’s tough, uncompromising stance with Israel has made him the champion of Arab rights for many Arabs. He has not deviated from his father’s refusal to negotiate peace until Israel agrees first to return the Golan Heights seized in the 1967 Mideast War.
After the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington, Assad pledged to fight terrorism, and U.S. officials say Syria has been helpful in the hunt for al-Qaida members. But Syria remains on the U.S. State Department list of countries that support terrorism, for refusing to close down the Damascus offices of groups on Washington’s terrorist list, such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement.
Since the war began March 20, U.S. officials have accused Syria of supplying Iraq with military equipment, providing refuge to members of Saddam Hussein’s deposed regime and possessing chemical weapons.
The seriousness of the accusations present Assad with his first real test in the tough world of Mideast politics.
On Tuesday, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer described Assad as a “young” and “untested” leader and said he must understand “the future needs to be different from the past.”
“He has a chance to be a leader who makes the right decisions,” Fleischer said.