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Middle East: Analysis From Washington -- The Death Of A Dictator

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 12 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The death of Syrian leader Hafez Assad Saturday (June 10) appears likely to bring instability to his own country, undermine chances for a peace agreement in the Middle East anytime soon, and reignite a new round of geopolitical competition between Moscow and the West.

Even though his death had been widely expected -- Assad had been ill for several years -- his demise represents a tectonic shift in a region where even small changes often have produced enormous political earthquakes. And consequently, even as Syrians and world leaders publicly mourn his passing, many of them are undoubtedly worried about what the world will be like without Assad.

The first shock wave is certain to be in Syria itself. Among the many failings of dictatorships is their inability to manage successions well. In virtually every case and regardless of the plans of the late dictator, his demise leads to a period of instability in which various forces either favored or long-suppressed attempt to push forward. Syria is unlikely to be an exception.

Like an increasing number of authoritarian leaders around the world, Assad had been grooming his son, 34-year-old Bashar, to take over after his death. The rubber-stamp Syrian parliament amended the constitution on Saturday to allow the British-trained opthalamologist to do so. And both he and those with an interest in the future policies of Damascus will be talking about the need for calm and stability in the days ahead.

But there are three reasons why such stability is likely to prove elusive.

First, Assad based his rule on both fear and personal loyalty. With his death, the former may be maintained, but the latter is unlikely to transfer to someone, even a favored son, who has not built his own power base.

Second, Assad could never transfer enough power and hence authority to his son before the father's death to ensure that his son would be able to effectively control those who were the instruments of the dictator's power rather than be controlled by them. Had he done so, he, Assad, might have lost control of the situation, something he was loathe to ever do.

And third, given Syria's lack of a democratic tradition, many Syrians either opposed to Assad's policies or person, or fearful of their continuation, are likely to see the dictator's death as quite possibly the only chance they are likely to have to seize power or at least to prevent those they most oppose from seizing or consolidating it.

As a result, Damascus is unlikely anytime soon to be able to play the role it has in recent years both in negotiating an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict and in playing off Western and Russian interests in the Middle East.

Many leaders around the world recently have had great hopes that there could be a breakthrough toward peace in the region. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright recently visited there, and President Bill Clinton has made the achievement of a Middle East agreement a top goal of his last year in office. Indeed, even the current difficulties of Israel's coalition had done little to dampen this enthusiasm.

But Assad's death almost certainly will. Without someone at the top in Damascus with his political skills and even more his ability to deliver his country in the event of an agreement with Israel, progress toward an accord, never easy at the best of times, is likely to be slowed significantly. And it may even become impossible until his successors sort things out among themselves.

And that prospect in turn is likely to trigger a new geopolitical contest between the United States and Western Europe, on the one hand, and the Russian Federation, on the other.

The United States and to a lesser extent the Europeans have pushed hard for an accord between Israel and its Arab neighbors, including Syria, and both trans-Atlantic partners have significant interests in access to that region's enormous supplies of oil. The calculations of Western leaders were based on the presence of Assad; his departure means that they will now have to scramble to try to shore up their influence there.

Over the past decade, Russia has played a much reduced role in the Middle East. But Assad's death and the consequences it has for both stability in Syria and the U.S.-backed peace process certainly gives the newly assertive government of President Vladimir Putin new opportunities.

And during the last week, news reports from Moscow suggest that Putin is preparing himself for just such a move. The Russian president, various Russian media outlets have said, has been consulting regularly with Yevgeniy Primakov, the former prime minister and longtime Soviet and Russian actor on the Middle Eastern scene who regularly sought to challenge Western interests in this most important region.

To the extent that happens, Assad may affect the world even more in death than he did in life.