Analysis: The noose tightens

Assad has also emerged as a clumsy politician who can't even keep his own house in order.

assad 298  (photo credit: AP)
assad 298
(photo credit: AP)
The UN commission's request to question the Syrian president himself about the murder of former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri leaves no room for doubt: The noose is tightening around Bashar Assad. Assad is damned if he does and damned if he doesn't. If he declines the UN's request, he is leading his country into the kind of sanctions that have previously floored Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. If he and Foreign Minister Farouk a-Shara are questioned, discrepancies between their testimonies and what the investigation commission has already learned will all but have sealed their verdict. And so, the man who was unwittingly catapulted into Syria's leadership due to his charismatic brother Basil's untimely death in a car accident, and their unpredictable uncle Rifat's betrayal of their father Hafez Assad, is now staring down an abyss at whose edge Assad-the-elder would never have arrived. When he rose to power in spring 2000, some in the West hastily celebrated Bashar as his father's modernist aftermath, and maybe even antithesis. Much was made of the years he had spent in London as a student and his attraction to computer games and the Internet. Half a decade on it is clear that the younger Assad has inherited all of his father's one-dimensional views, and none of his legendary caution. This week, after having already failed to prudently handle distant powers and next-door neighbors, Assad has also emerged as a clumsy politician who can't even keep his own house in order. While the reasonable English he spoke during a rare interview with CNN recently was a refreshing break from Hafez Assad's geographic reclusion and cultural insulation, the father's reading of the world was still better than the son's. Hafez Assad was savvy enough the morning after the end of the Cold War to fool many by pretending to join the West, whether by participating in the American-led liberation of Kuwait, engaging in talks with Israel or promising a stock market in Damascus. Subsequent events proved that Hafez Assad had not changed his spots - he remained virulently anti-Israeli and never delivered that stock market or any other vestige of economic freedom, not to mention political liberty - but he understood that changing times demanded maneuvering, at least until the geopolitical fog cleared. Assad the son shunned such dialecticism and consistently gambled. First, he struck an alliance with Saddam Hussein, thus not only betraying his father's legacy, but also defying international gravity. Then, he threw his weight around in Lebanon, failing to understand that the days when Damascus could murder prominent figures like president-elect Bashir Jemayel with impunity had long gone. While at it, he managed to antagonize France, his most natural, veteran and indispensable Western ally. And now, deposed vice president Abdul-Halim Khaddam's testimony indicates that Bashar Assad antagonized not only much of the Middle East, Europe and America, but even his father's immediate circle. Its investigative meaning notwithstanding, Khaddam's testimony is already politically devastating. Until recently, some in the West still hoped Bashar Assad could be arm-twisted into inverting his country's convictions and policies, the way America forced Emperor Hirohito to do in 1945. Now this design must also be abandoned, because it seems that even if he had wanted to, Assad could not deliver his nation the way Hirohito could his. Considering the Alawite Assad's provocation of his country's Sunni majority, of which Khaddam was a rare representative among the ruling elite, his problem is now not only in the anachronism of his views and the audacity of his actions, but also in the narrowness of his following, with all due respect to the show of support staged the other day by his rubber-stamp parliament. Perhaps it's because his power, unlike his father's, was inherited rather than painstakingly conquered, but the fact is that Assad's rule, besides being violent and imprudent, is also weak. If Monday's request actually leads them to Assad's palace, the UN's investigators may wonder whether the soft-spoken, weak-chinned man they will face is actually the leader of the clan whose mixture of patronage, intrigue and bloodshed has made many compare it with the Corleone family, the cinematic underworld legend. The Hariri murder investigators should therefore be advised that what they will see is how the Corleone saga would have unfolded had the Godfather been succeeded neither by Sonny nor by Michael, but by Fredo, the weak son who lacked the eldest one's ferocity and the youngest's wisdom.