With the world as he knew it cracking and with his preferred son dead after crashing his car into a wall, Hafez Assad was in a situation that King Solomon described thus: “I loathed all the wealth that I was gaining under the sun, for I shall leave it to the man who will succeed me, and who knows whether he will be wise or foolish?” Solomon’s heir proved foolish, losing quickly his father’s military sway, diplomatic reach, cached treasure and the very union that was David’s estate. Assad’s heir followed this script, almost to the letter.
Hard as many will find this to believe, Bashar Assad will next month mark 15 years in power – more than Roosevelt, Churchill, Ben-Gurion and de Gaulle. Yet from the perspective of his original assignment, this political longevity is worthless, and is in fact part of his country’s doom.
With Islamic State’s seizure this week of the central Syrian oasis of Palmyra, speculation concerning Assad’s political prospects has intensified. Yet even if he remains in the arena for many more years, his damage to his father’s inheritance is as irreparable as the Islamist iconoclasts’ will likely be to Palmyra’s archeological gems.
True, Syria’s political illnesses originate in the father’s era. However, if even with blood and iron, he kept his country intact; moreover, when faced with historic change that was beyond his ability to predict or undo, in his case the end of the Cold War, he maneuvered in its face with poise, wisdom and success.
Anxiously watching the collapse of his longtime allies across the former East Bloc, then the unraveling of the Soviet Union itself while he was himself ailing – Assad joined the US-led coalition that extracted Iraq from Kuwait, despite decades of total loyalty to the USSR.
In what later proved to have been but a charade, Assad further made believe he was adjusting to changing times when he passed Law No. 10, which promised to open a stock exchange in Damascus.
When Assad died the stock market had yet to be born, but when the law was passed the impression was that, like dozens of other economies at the time, Syria’s too was about to travel from left to right.
That was also the context in which he negotiated with a succession of Israeli leaders until close to his death. Actual change would not be delivered, but the impression of change was being manufactured, helped by Western scholars – including some Israelis – who insisted that Assad had taken a strategic decision to make peace with the Jewish state. It was a cunning tyrant’s way to smile abroad from above the clenched fist he retained at home.
Assad’s response to history’s footsteps, then, was the antithesis of his neighbor Saddam Hussein’s p0olitical oafishness, which led the Iraqi leader to provoke the US just when it became the world’s lone superpower. Still, it was an escapism that could only last so long, since change was not a foreign intrusion that should be evaded, but Syria’s urgent need.
There were two decades between the war in Kuwait and the Syrian civil war’s outbreak four years ago this spring. The first half of this period overlapped with the elder Assad’s twilight, the second half with Assadthe- son’s dawn. They were equally squandered while a self-centered West looked away.
Europe and the US refused to see the Syrian situation for what it was: A minority’s brutal occupation of a majority nearly 10 times its size, the concoction of several generals who dominated the coup that produced Hafez Assad’s 30-year rule.
There was some logic behind the West’s apathy.
Assad’s opposition was dominated by Islamists, next to whom he appeared to be the lesser evil; and his country was a Soviet satellite whose domestic affairs were understood as none of the West’s business.
Even so, this mentality of denial fed the assumption that Syria’s crooked political arrangement would last, and that its citizenry’s abuse would not affect the outer world.
That is why when Bashar Assad came along, there was a great focus on his fluent English, medical education and penchant for computer games, peppered with discussion of his sporadic pronouncements in favor of a new “openness” – while there was no discussion of the ethnic tyranny that was at the heart of his father’s estate.
“Assad,” wrote The New York Times the day the son buried his father, “is seen as a beacon of hope for a new, more relaxed Syria.” And while cautioning that he “is likely to go slow,” the paper excused this, saying the alternative would “upset the traditionalists” – as if the clash in Syria, like those in Communist Europe, was between reformers and reactionaries.
In fact, the clash was tribal, and it demanded resistance of any change.
POLITICAL CHANGE might quickly lead to public scrutiny of the regime’s performance and corruption, and that exposure would in turn automatically threaten the ethnic minority’s grip on power. It was a price such a regime could not pay.
Similarly, economic change would inevitably result in merit’s challenge to privilege, because the fellow tribesmen installed along the country’s commercial spine would suddenly be judged by delivery, as defined by the markets’ brutal impartiality.
That, too, was unaffordable.
The minority regime’s refusal – and inability – to accept meritocracy lay bare for all to see, in the very succession process – whereby the 35-year-old Assad was installed while facing no rival, despite the fact he lacked the background that treating his country’s problems demanded.
Though the USSR had long vanished, and the West was now in a position to influence the situation, Assad’s succession was accepted by the entire world – whose misunderstanding of this political deformity was but the aftermath of what Assad expert Patrick Seale specified when Bashar’s older brother, Basil, was killed: “I don’t think the president thinks dynastically,” the British scholar told The New York Times that day in 1994.
The president was, of course, thinking dynastically; it was the best idea his thought process could yield, and the worst Syria could expect. And so, soon after the son climbed onto the father’s throne, the signs began gathering that change would never arrive from above, even while pressures would grow from below.
During his first decade in power, Bashar Assad dragged his feet on all of reform’s fronts.
A brief experiment with freedom of speech was quickly canceled; the stock exchange he finally opened in 2009 traded only several days a week and by the civil war had only 12 listings; newly licensed private banks learned they needed government approval for their every move; and the entire economy was clutched by Assad’s cousin Rami Makhlouf, whose nod was indispensable for any foreign investor’s initiative – an arrangement that fed his own wealth, estimated at $5 billion, but depleted Syria’s.
Bashar Assad had a decade in which to steer his father’s defunct economy in a new direction.
The country’s oil reserves, modest to begin with, were dwindling, and had to be replaced as the economy’s main engine. A prudent leader would have launched an orderly industrialization, so that the disproportionate farming sector would shrink and the minuscule manufacturing sector would grow. But that would have potentially empowered the people. Assad therefore sat back and did little to restructure the labor market.
And a prudent leader, realizing Syria was facing a growing water problem, would have desalinated Mediterranean water and led them to the hinterland. Not Assad. Instead, when a three-year drought arrived in 2006, the cities’ already underemployed populations were overwhelmed by newly arriving farmers who could no longer live off the land.
This social dislocation fed the steadily growing restlessness that soon produced despair, rebellion and civil war.
LIKE SOLOMON’S SON Rehoboam, Bashar Assad lost his kingdom when instead of engaging in dialogue with his disenfranchised people, he opened fire on them.
Moreover, in a public address on March 11, 2011, he told them they were incited by conspirators and foreigners.
It was his way of saying, “My father flogged you with whips, but I will flog you with scorpions,” as Rehoboam told the elders of Israel before they ran away with half his kingdom.
Assad unleashed his scorpions on the people of Syria – anything and everything from artillery shells and gun-shipped missiles to barrel bombs and sarin gas. A moderately estimated 200,000 Syrians have died thus far; more than 10,000 children have been killed; some 10 million Syrians, almost half the nation, are displaced; sanitation has collapsed in many places, triggering typhoid, dysentery and diphtheria; millions of children are growing up without ever entering a classroom; many have been raped; and Europe, the continent that ignored Bashar Assad’s governance, is now fending off his refugees as they come pounding on its doors.
This – along with the enmity of most Arabs, as well as of non-Arab Turkey and all of the free world – will be the backdrop to Assad’s celebration of his reign’s 15th anniversary next month, and of his 50th birthday next fall. What began with post-Solomonic audacity will end with Solomonic justice, as the Syria Bashar received intact breaks up into warring tribes and faiths.
It will be a grim anniversary, marked as Assad’s varied enemies march on Damascus while his Alawite brethren entrench in their strongholds out west. Assad may or may not survive the war he has waged on his people, but his country can already be declared its loser.