Changing of Syria's guard

Dictator dead: Succession of son looks smooth, bodes continuity and chance for peace.

June 13, 2000

ISRAEL and the United States should push negotiations this week seeking a final peace accord between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

The death of Hafez el Assad may delay Syria's ability to come to terms in its own dispute with Israel. But progress between Israel and the Palestinians would provide helpful pressure on Syria.

Mr. Assad ruled with an iron grip for 30 years, through the army, security police and what's left of the Baath Party. If ordinary Syrians thought they had a choice, which they do not, they would probably respect him for maintaining order and hate him for the slaughter of the town of Hama in 1982 following an Islamic uprising. Syria's power apparatus is smoothly replacing the dictator with his 34-year-old son Bashar. In the short run, Bashar's ascendancy is not likely to be seriously challenged. His exiled uncle, Rifaat el Assad, the actual butcher of Hama, tried to seize power in 1983 and yesterday, through a spokesman, staked his own claim again. Little support for him is apparent.

A greater threat in the long run comes from Islamic politics, now suppressed, among the Sunni Islamic majority. That can focus on the Assad family's secularism and favoritism toward the Alawite minority professing Shia Islam.

Bashar is said to be a modern and worldly realist who wants to open and computerize the Syrian economy. If so, peace would help him do it. His biggest immediate challenge, though, is not at home but in Syria's protectorate, Lebanon. Hezbollah's seizure of the borderland vacated by Israel's army and allies brings Damascus' authority there into question. Syria cannot control its own relations with Israel if it cannot guarantee tranquility on Israel's border.

The best approach for other governments is to assume that Bashar el Assad will consolidate power, then seek accommodation with neighbors. He should at least be accorded the chance to show otherwise.

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