Assad's death leaves Arab leadership vacuum

June 16, 2000|By Shibley Telhami

COLLEGE PARK -- AT The end of May 1990, I sat in Damascus watching live television coverage of Saddam Hussein's biggest moment of glory in the Arab world: A well-orchestrated Arab summit conference in Baghdad that gathered most Arab leaders, including the king of Saudi Arabia, the emir of Kuwait and the president of Egypt.

It was as much a celebration of Iraq's "victory" over Iran as it was about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It was, in effect, a crowning ceremony for Mr. Hussein.

Notably absent was Syrian President Hafez el Assad, who, having supported Iran in its eight-year war with Iraq, also watched the summit on television from Damascus. By the time I arrived in Baghdad a few days later, Mr. Assad, who was already concerned about losing the support of his Soviet patron with the end of the Cold War, seemed to be the loser to Mr. Hussein in the competition to carry the mantle of Arab nationalism.

It took two months for Mr. Assad's colleagues in the Arab world, except for King Hussein of Jordan and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, to realize that it was they who had placed losing bets when Iraqi troops suddenly overwhelmed Kuwait.

Within days, diplomats knocked on Mr. Assad's door as it became abundantly clear that he was the standard bearer of Arab nationalism. Only he could bestow the kind of legitimacy to the U.S.-led coalition against Iraq and prevent Mr. Hussein from playing his biggest card in rallying Arab public opinion. Mr. Assad's death last week leaves no obvious reference point for Arab nationalists.

Ever since the greatest pan-Arab leader of the 20th century, Gamal Abdal Nasser, died in 1970, the Arab nationalist movement has looked for a new leader. Anwar Sadat, who succeeded Nasser as president of Egypt, had his chance after his relatively successful war with Israel in 1973 but chose to focus on the immediate interests of his own country by signing his own peace with Israel in 1979.

Three leaders aspired to inherit Nasser's legacy: Mr. Hussein, Mr. Assad and Muammar Kadafi of Libya.

Although Colonel Kadafi's ambition was unbounded -- he used to say in seeking unification with Egypt that he was "a leader without a country and Egypt was a country without a leader" -- he had too small a state and was too unpredictable to have a real chance.

The field was left open for Mr. Assad and Mr. Hussein, two members of competing branches of the pan-Arab Baath party. Their contrasting styles tell much about the tides of Arab nationalism in the past 30 years and even more about its leaderless state today.

Strengths and weaknesses

Mr. Hussein had the upper hand. He was a leader of a large industrious country that was benefiting from the 1970s oil boom, situated on the edge of one of the strategically most important regions in the world: the Persian Gulf. And just when the Arab nationalist movement was looking for a new champion after the Camp David accords, Iraq found itself with the upper hand in the Persian Gulf when the 1979 Iranian revolution weakened Iran and made it an enemy of the United States.

But Mr. Hussein's weakness was Mr. Assad's strength. Whereas Hussein rarely understood the limitation of power, Mr. Assad was a master of reading his limitations -- and the limitations of his enemies. What many saw as his extraordinary patience was in large part a product of his grasp of the limitations of power.

Mr. Hussein knew he had the edge over Mr. Assad in 1980. He wielded a powerful army and large financial reserves. Rather than exercise this power in a patient and subtle manner, he sent his forces into a weakened Iran in an all-out invasion. Had he succeeded in defeating Iran quickly, as he had expected, he would have emerged as the undisputed king of the Persian-Arab Gulf -- and of its oil. His leadership of the Arab world would have been unquestioned. The dream was too irresistible.

But the war ended with a hollow victory. After eight years of intense fighting in which there was a million casualties, and after wasting all of its financial reserves and those of its neighbors, Iraq stood near bankruptcy, having achieved neither territorial gains nor change within Iran. But the appearance of victory, and the amassing of weapons were enough for Mr. Hussein to attempt another disastrous adventure.

In contrast, Mr. Assad bid for time. Knowing his weakness vis-a-vis Israel, he sought closer ties with the Soviet Union in his drive to achieve "strategic parity."

Despite his determination to regain the Golan Heights, which he lost to Israel in the 1967 war, he kept his border with Israel quiet. He opposed Iraq's invasion of Iran, becoming the only Arab leader to support Iran. When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 to push out the Palestine Liberation Organization, he refused to be drawn into a war with Israel, even though the episode embarrassed him.

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