Bashar al-Assad's ascent to power following the death of his father, Hafiz al-Assad, on June 10, 2000, surprised no one. It had been an open secret in Syria for some years that this was Hafiz al-Assad's wish. Nevertheless, President Assad's decision to make Bashar his heir, and the apparently smooth transfer of power after Assad's death, raised some eyebrows among careful observers of Syrian affairs.
Not only does Bashar lack maturity, experience, and self-confidence, Syria-watchers generally agree that Bashar also lacks charisma and leadership qualities. As one noted expert on Syria put it, Bashar lacks the "killer instinct" vital to anyone who would rule the country. Uri Lubrani, former coordinator of Israeli policy toward Lebanon, even predicted Bashar's demise. Lubrani was quoted as saying:
Bashar has no chance at all of long-term survival in power because the generals in the Syrian army will never come to terms with this "kid" ruling over them.
In the Arab world, Bashar's rise to power was received with undisguised derision—toward the man himself as well as the Syrian "Socialist Democratic Popular Republic," which Hafiz al-Assad and his son had turned into a monarchy, even a family fiefdom. And even in Syria, doubts were expressed regarding Bashar's ability to lead the country. The man in the street shrugged his shoulders in answer to the question, "Why Bashar?" Taxi drivers, when asked, simply replied: "There just isn't anyone else (ma fi ghayru)!" In the eyes of many Syrians, Bashar became president by default, given the absence of any alternative. This situation had been created by Hafiz al-Assad himself, who had devoted the final years of his rule to ensuring the succession of Bashar and the removal from play of any other potential candidate.
The two and a half years that have passed since Bashar's rise to power in Syria have been relatively calm and stable. Nevertheless, the Syrians' attitude toward Bashar has not changed: ma fi ghayru. The reason: during these two years, Bashar has not persuaded the average Syrian that he is a worthy successor to his father. And despite two years in power, Bashar has remained the same young, raw, inexperienced, and insecure ruler, who has yet to prove he is capable of leading the country. The fact that Bashar has not yet won the trust of his people, and that his ability to govern Syria is still questioned, does not mean that his rule is in immediate danger. But he does not sit easily upon his father's throne.
The selection of a young and inexperienced leader who lacks public trust may be inconsequential in a country that benefits from political stability and long-standing democratic traditions. But Syria is a country suffering from severe social and economic problems that require immediate and unequivocal solutions. More important, Syria plays a crucial regional role and may even decide the fate of the region—for better or worse, for peace or war. The vacuum created at the top of the ruling pyramid in Damascus presents problems, not just for Syria but for the region as a whole.
How did Syria, which aspires to lead the Arab world, wind up without an effective leader?
A Smooth Transition?
Bashar was not his father's first choice. For years, Hafiz al-Assad had groomed his eldest son, Basil, for the succession. But after Basil perished in an automobile accident in January 1994, it became increasingly clear that the ailing father was determined to keep the succession in the family and to pass the scepter to Bashar.
Yet during the six years that Bashar wore the informal mantle of "heir designate," he remained an enigma. He gave the public no opportunity to assess his worldview, political preferences, or even his personal qualities. The low profile was a matter of policy. His father did not want to alarm Syria's senior military and political figures, some of who coveted the job for which he was being groomed. So Hafiz al-Assad refrained from declaring Bashar to be his chosen successor, and Bashar disappeared into the military. Absent from the public eye, he remained an unknown quantity.
Nevertheless, some impressions could be gleaned from the tidbits revealed by people who met him, as well as from newspaper interviews he so sparingly granted. Bashar came across as an open-minded and intelligent young man with a modern Western outlook, who recognized the need for a real change in Syria. Optimistic observers cited with approval his stay in London, where he had been a resident in ophthalmology at a local hospital, as well as his deep familiarity with the Internet. This image of a reformer, of a man of the world familiar with Western ways and views, made it easier for many, inside and outside Syria, to accept Bashar as his father's heir.
Bashar continued to bask in optimistic Western expectations even after he took office. The smooth transition of power upon his father's death contributed to his aura. The only sour note was sounded by his uncle Rif'at, a self-styled potentate who described Bashar's rise to power as "a knife in the back of the Syrian nation." However, Rif'at had lost his standing long ago; there was no substance to his challenge.
Nevertheless, the smooth transition was something of a trompe l'oeil. It resulted from more than the absence of an alternative. In fact, it resulted from a deliberate decision by Syria's real powerbrokers to avoid a choice on the matter of succession. They had decided to defer a decision to some point in the future and to make do with Bashar in the interim, initiating what they saw as a transitional period between the Assad dynasty and a different era.
Bashar's success in smoothly ascending to power might best be explained as follows: Syria's senior leadership, aware of Hafiz al-Assad's impending demise, wished to deflect any possible threat, domestic or external, to the existence and stability of the regime. Bashar remained the best possible option, especially since everyone else mentioned as a possible heir had been removed from the political scene by the late president in the years before his death. (The demoting of these people, including the army chief of staff Hikmat Shihabi, Rif'at al-Assad, and others, had preoccupied Assad père in the final years of his life.) The fact that Bashar was his father's son also worked in his favor, assuring an aura of legitimacy to the succession. But above all, Bashar did not threaten anyone. Lacking any power or status, he could not challenge the senior leadership and the powerful vested interests of the country. Nor did he profess any dangerous ideas. His worldview, to the extent he had one, lacked substance, or at least remained inchoate.
Syrian defense minister Mustafa Talas, for years a close friend of Hafiz al-Assad, perfectly expressed the motive behind the decision of the powerbrokers to accept Bashar. In an interview granted to the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram, Talas admitted that,
With Assad's death, we began to think that either I or Vice President 'Abd al-Halim Khaddam were worthy of filling the shoes of the dead president. However, in view of the fact that all of us were past seventy years of age, we were afraid of a situation in which every year we would have to change the country's leader, as had happened in the former Soviet Union. …We reached the conclusion that Bashar was indeed worthy of succeeding his father; after all, that had been the will of his father, Hafiz al-Assad, to whom Syria owes so much. After all, we were among his close friends. … Bashar is a young, promising leader, and he can rely on our support.
It perfectly suited this old guard that some sectors of the Syrian public—most notably, intellectuals and businessmen—saw Bashar as someone destined to change or even revolutionize Syrian life. The senior leadership duly noted Bashar's popularity and conveniently drew on the public favor that Bashar commanded.
Two years later, there is no obvious threat to Bashar on the horizon. But holding on to power is also the sum of his achievement. Syria under Bashar has been about preservation of the status quo at any price—a kind of immobility cherished by the powerbrokers. The plain fact is that Bashar has not initiated anything in the crucial areas of domestic policy, socioeconomic affairs, and foreign relations. As a result, Syria's cart remains stuck precisely in that rut where Hafiz al-Assad left it.
In the early months of Bashar's "rule," he took a few limited steps toward political and economic reforms. In a moment of enthusiasm, Syria-watchers dubbed this the "Damascus Spring." For example, Bashar encouraged the initiation of political and cultural forums in Damascus and other cities, in which "intellectuals" discussed the need for democracy in an atmosphere of relative openness and freedom. Bashar's ostensible support for these forums encouraged a round of petitions signed by prominent Syrian intellectuals. Some of them even established a "Committee for the Establishment of a Civil Society."
But this openness was very short-lived, and in mid-2001 Bashar led (or more precisely was pushed into leading) a counterattack against the supporters of the reforms. Regime spokesmen, and even Bashar himself, labeled the reformists "agents of the West whose only aim is the undermining of Syrian domestic stability, in the service of the enemies of the state." At the peak of this counterattack, the regime ordered the disbanding of all the forums that had sprung up throughout Syria, and even threw a number of Bashar's more prominent critics into prison. Among them were members of the Syrian People's Assembly, Ma'mun al-Humsi and Riyyad as-Sayf, each of whom was sentenced to five years in prison for "countermanding the constitution and harming state security."
When Bashar recognized that he could go no further in allowing free political debate, he decided to invest his energy in the economy. He would lead a process of liberalization that would open the Syrian economy to the world economy—or so he thought. Initially, he tried to promote the opening of private banks in Syria, and in December 2000, he even persuaded the Baath Party Regional Command to ratify a decision to this effect, culminating in April 2001 in new legislation. Since then, not a single private bank has opened in Syria. On the contrary, in mid-2002, Bashar himself was quoted as saying, "Private banks pose a threat to the national economy." The voice was the voice of Bashar, but the spirit was that of the senior ranks of the old guard, still devoted to the status quo.
It should be stressed that Bashar himself initiated, or at least encouraged the reformist camp, both political and economic, during his own honeymoon. The old guard forced him to reverse gears, as soon as they suspected that the appetites of the reformists knew no bounds. Bashar obliged. His capitulation demonstrated his lack of the political experience and power essential to making decisive moves inside Syria, especially when they involved confronting entrenched power centers. Even more important, the end of the "Damascus Spring" demonstrated that Bashar had no clear vision of his own goals. His commitment to reform did not run deeper than a generalized belief in the need to improve government administration.
Foreign Policy Missteps
Bashar's inability to lead also marked Syrian foreign policy. In his first two years, Bashar presided over the weakening of Syria's position in Lebanon, and a deterioration of the balance with Israel in Lebanon that almost led to a military confrontation. Relations between Damascus and Washington reached a nadir, and tensions increased in Syria's relations with its Arab allies, above all Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and even Jordan.
Bashar and the Intifada. With the outbreak of the Al-Aqsa intifada in October 2000, Bashar thought to exploit it to promote his personal standing as well as Syria's regional status. Bashar thought the uprising presented him with a golden opportunity to establish himself as the head of the radical Arab camp, or at least as the head of a state that had adopted an uncompromising stand toward Israel.
But in his effort to ride the intifada to influence in the Arab world, Bashar came off as an impulsive and frivolous wannabe. His immaturity led him to make rash statements, including strongly worded expressions of support for terrorist attacks against Israel and gratuitously anti-Semitic remarks. In March 2002, Bashar stated in a speech to an Arab summit conference in Beirut that any Israeli, wherever he may be, is a legitimate target for a terrorist attack. Earlier, in his welcome to Pope John Paul II, who was on a visit to Damascus in May 2001, Bashar spoke out against the treacherous mentality of the Jews, who had betrayed Jesus.
Some of Bashar's utterances were reminiscent of his father's statements in the early years of his rule, when Hafiz al-Assad was mired in a deep conflict with Israel. But Hafiz al-Assad had matured over the years and learned to differentiate between his vision, which absolutely negated the existence of Israel, and the constraints of reality, which required that he adopt a balanced tone and a pragmatic policy. The father knew how to dance the dance, right up to the brink of a peace agreement with Israel. Bashar did not have the savvy to follow this act. Rather than pick up where his father left off, he started all over again, at the very same rhetorical point where his father began back in November 1970, when he first seized power.
Syria in Lebanon. The weakening of Syria's position in Lebanon began after the Israeli army withdrew from southern Lebanon in May 2000 but gained momentum under Bashar. Shortly after he took office, voices began to be heard from Lebanon, mainly but not exclusively from the Christian-Maronite camp, calling for the withdrawal of Syrian forces from the country. Bashar chose the path of concession: he removed Syrian forces from heavily populated areas in Lebanon, although he kept his grip on the country's leadership. Bashar naively hoped that if he decreased the daily friction between Syrian troops and the Lebanese population, it would diminish criticism of Syria. Instead, many in Lebanon read Bashar's policy as a sign of weakness.
Bashar's weakened position in the Lebanese arena was most evident in his relationship with the leader of Hizbullah, Sheikh Hasan Nasrallah. Nasrallah himself admitted at one time that he had never had a personal, face-to-face meeting with Hafiz al-Assad. Assad senior probably saw no reason for such a meeting; he would have regarded Nasrallah as one more pawn. Bashar, on the other hand, met with Nasrallah frequently, as if to bask in Nasrallah's victorious glow. Nasrallah was quick to cast his cloak of patronage over the young leader in Damascus: he would show the new boy the ropes. Nasrallah said on more than one occasion that Hizbullah would support Bashar in securing his standing at home and protecting Syrian interests abroad—as though Bashar were incapable of doing so himself.
Israel and Syria on the Brink. Bashar's leadership looked especially uncertain when the Israeli-Lebanese border deteriorated in March and April 2002. As the crisis escalated, Bashar seemed to have no control over the pace and intensity of Hizbullah attacks on Israeli targets. Some time later, there were even reports that Bashar had supplied Hizbullah with advanced rockets. This is something Bashar's father would not have done, since it would have meant surrendering the crucial power to escalate or calm the situation on the border.
Some analysts suggested that Bashar let the situation deteriorate out of careful calculation. Not so. Bashar acted rashly, perhaps in the naïve belief that Hizbullah could replicate its earlier triumphs in south Lebanon. Bashar had not learned, or perhaps had forgotten, the lesson of the June 1967 war, in which a similar penchant for provocation led his father and others in the Syrian leadership to ignominious defeat on the battlefield. Fortunately, the wily old veterans had not forgotten, and at the crucial moment they moved in to clean up the mess left by Bashar's encouragement of Hizbullah activities.
Arab tensions and the fallout with Washington. Even during Hafiz al-Assad's rule, Syria functioned in "splendid isolation," but at least Assad senior, in complete contrast to his son, enjoyed prestige and recognition. The countries of the region, including Israel, held him in high regard, increasing Syria's regional importance.
Bashar frittered away the respect his father had earned. He personally attacked the leaders of Egypt and Jordan, by permitting the Syrian press to lambaste them for not severing their ties with Israel, and even worse, taunting them for not embracing military struggle against Israel. Adding insult to injury, he permitted street demonstrations near the Egyptian embassy, in the course of which demonstrators shouted epithets against Egyptian president Husni Mubarak and Jordanian king, Abdullah II. Not surprisingly, the Egyptian press quickly mounted a juggernaut against Bashar, attacking
the young president of a neighboring country, who is inexperienced and, like his predecessors, is interested in dragging Egypt into a war in which it will pay the full price, while his country [Syria] remains, as usual, an onlooker from the sidelines.
Bashar also needlessly angered the United States, first and foremost when he lied to the U.S. secretary of state regarding the flow of Iraqi oil via Syria. (The Syrians denied that Iraqi oil was being exported through their territory to the world at large, claiming that the oil flow was merely intended to test the Iraqi-Syrian oil pipeline.) The Syrians also ignored U.S. requests to regulate Hizbullah's activity and cut back on Syrian indulgence of Palestinian terrorist groups located in Damascus. This did nothing to help Syria win friends and influence people in Washington. And while Syria provided Washington with (partial) information on Syrians connected to Usama bin Ladin's al-Qa'ida group, they lost much of the credit when it became known that several dozen al-Qa'ida members had found refuge in Lebanon.
Lonely at the Top
Part of Bashar's problem is his isolation. He failed (or never tried) to create an inner circle of senior-echelon political, security, and military personnel on whom he could rely. Instead, he is surrounded by the same entrenched powerbrokers –the boon companions of his late father. True, there have been some personnel changes, but these involved nothing more than the replacement of one or another senior figure with his deputy. (For example, deputy chief of staff Hasan Turkamani replaced chief of staff 'Ali Aslan when the latter reached retirement age in January 2002.) Bashar refrained from promoting his own younger loyalists, if indeed he had any. Even the changes made in the government apparatus—the refurbishing of the government in December 2001 and the replacements of governors and the Baath party bureaucracy—were inconsequential. The shake-up was simply the replacement of old guard party hacks and officials with younger party hacks and officials, products of the same "schools" as their predecessors, and for the most part committed to the dogged preservation of the status quo. Nothing in these changes could produce a new generation of senior-echelon personnel committed personally to Bashar.
The result is that Bashar lacks a cadre of close, loyal associates on whom he can rely. Syria's powerbrokers do not owe Bashar unequivocal personal loyalty. They merely defer to him in his formal capacity as president. And that is not enough.
Bashar's failure to create a unified and loyal group to surround and assist him was especially obvious regarding his close family—or, more precisely, his clan. The extended Assad family has not lined up behind the young president. His father's two brothers, Rif'at and Jamil, have in one way or another expressed their reservations about Bashar's appointment. Other squabbles have made the family an unreliable crutch. For example, many reports speak of trouble between Mahir, Bashar's impulsive younger brother, and what is popularly referred to as the "royal couple"—Bushra, Bashar's sister, the Assad family's "Iron Lady," and her husband, Asaf Shawkat, a strong, colorful personality who serves in a senior capacity in Syrian military security. Even though matters have not developed into a full-blown squall, it is clear that neither the nuclear family nor the Assad clan has been the source of the unflinching support they represented for Hafiz al-Assad in the early days of his career.
The absence of a close inner circle of dependable senior advisors, and the weakening of family solidarity, simply magnify the effects of Bashar's youth, inexperience, and immaturity. Bashar is being led and directed, and there is no apparatus to assist him in making difficult decisions. Instead, the old guard intervenes whenever Bashar goes too far down a dangerous alley.
A Dangerous Void
Two years after taking office, Bashar has not filled the void his father left, nor has he consolidated his own rule. His image, weak from the beginning, has suffered still further. The implications are potentially serious.
First, should Syria be faced with a domestic or foreign crisis—such as an escalation of conflict with Israel—Bashar's leadership could be in danger. If the entrenched powerbrokers sense that Bashar is mishandling a crisis, and that his behavior might endanger themselves and the country, they are liable to act against him.
Second, a coercive and violent regime such as Syria's cannot abide the appearance of weakness or a long-term void at the top. An interim period—even a prolonged one—is tolerable, but Bashar's weakness will likely invite the forceful intervention of one of the power centers, in a bid to seize control of the country. It is not clear at this stage just who will throw down the gauntlet. It could be one of the Alawite generals or even an Alawite officer of lower rank who has doubts about Bashar. There must be many officers telling themselves that if Bashar can be president, so can they. Such an individual might try to weave a coalition of Alawite generals, Sunni politicians, bureaucrats, and perhaps even businessmen and members of other minorities, who would act together to oust Bashar and the Assad family from power.
The officers' corps in Syria was in a state of suspended animation during the long period of Hafiz al-Assad's rule. Political stability allowed them freedom from the day-to-day management of the state, and they could keep to their comfortable barracks. They only intervened directly in a few instances, most notably the quelling of the Muslim Brethren's rebellion in 1976-82 and putting down the rebellion of Rif'at against his brother in 1983-4. Nevertheless, the same instincts that led the officers of the 1950s and 1960s to intervene in affairs of state time and time again, and even to plot military coups, could well resurface.
In the meantime, it is not clear who is running Syria or where the country is headed. Bashar is ostensibly in charge since he has the formal authority to make decisions, and it is difficult to identify any competing locus of power that poses a real threat to him or makes decisions in his stead. In the meantime, the Syrian state is in the grip of inertia, which is the trademark of Hafiz al-Assad's old cronies. The power of these people lies not only in their seniority and experience, but in the fact that they are the authentic representatives of the real power bases of the regime: the military officers, the government bureaucracy, and party activists. This senior echelon is in no rush to depose Bashar. But at the moment of truth in early 2001, they did not hesitate to intervene when they felt that the young president's reformism threatened their status and the regime in general.
This cadre will undoubtedly retain their clout. Some of them are aging people who will depart the political scene in the coming years, but their younger doubles are waiting in the wings, representing the same entrenched interests. Like their seniors, these younger men are absolutely dedicated to the preservation of the status quo.
So Bashar goes on, cashing the dividends accumulated by his father, and taking care not to threaten anyone. The problem is that Bashar is not accruing any political capital of his own, which he would need in a crisis. He will remain unchallenged only so long as the regime manages to keep Syria's environment completely still. That is best achieved by avoiding difficult decisions in every realm—at home, in Lebanon, vis-à-vis Israel, and in relations with the United States. Unfortunately for young Bashar, Syria may be about to absorb the massive aftershock of a U.S. strike to remove a regime next door. It will be a fateful test, and it will require deft decisions. In the aftermath, it will be much clearer just who rules Syria.
Eyal Zisser, senior research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies and head of Middle Eastern degree studies at Tel Aviv University, is the author of several books on Syrian history and politics.
 Eyal Zisser, "The Succession Struggle in Damascus" Middle East Quarterly, Sept. 1995, pp. 57-64; idem, "Will Bashshar al-Asad Last?," Middle East Quarterly, Sept. 2000, pp. 3-12.
 Patrick Seale's remarks following the presentation of his paper, "Syria's Position in the Peace Process," at a conference on "The Peace Process in the Middle East," Haifa University, Mar. 13-5, 2000; Ha'aretz (Tel Aviv), Mar. 10, 2000.
 Yedi'ot Aharonot (Tel Aviv), June 23, 2000.
 Al-Wafd (Cairo), June 12, 2000; al-Jazira television (Qatar), June 12, 2000.
 Eyal Zisser, Assad's Legacy—Syria in Transition (New York: New York University Press, 2000), pp. 160-3.
 Al-Hayat (London), Oct. 12, 1997; Yedi'ot Aharonot, May 28, 1999; Ha'aretz, Feb. 9, 2001. For Rif'at's reaction to Bashar's election, see al-Hayat, July 14, 19, 2000.
 British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), June 13, 2000.
 Still, toward the end of 1999, and even before his father's death, Bashar had taken steps against Rif'at's supporters in the Alawite region in northern Syria, arresting several dozen of them as a warning signal to his rebellious uncle. Agence France-Presse, Nov. 14, 1999.
 Al-Ba'th (Damascus), Feb. 9, 1998; al-Hayat, July 5, 1998.
 Al-Ahram (Cairo), July 15, 2000.
 Al-Hayat, Sept. 27, 2000, July 2, 2001; as-Safir (Beirut), Jan. 12, 2001; al-Ittihad (Baghdad), Aug. 31, Sept. 15, 2001.
 'Adnan 'Umran, Syrian minister of information, al-Jazira television, Jan. 30, 2001; al-Hayat, Feb. 4, 2001; see Bashar al-Assad, ash-Sharq al-Awsat (London), Feb. 8, 2001, in which he attacked those who called for introducing the democratic system into Syrian political life.
 Al-Watan (Kuwait City), Sept. 6, 2001; az-Zaman (London), Dec. 4, 2001, Jan. 30, 2002.
 Tishrin (Damascus), Dec. 3, 2000; as-Safir, Dec. 13, 2001; Syria: Country Report (London: Economist Intelligence Unit, May 2002), pp. 6-7; al-Quds al-Arabi (London), May 25, 2002.
 Bashar al-Assad, inauguration speech, Syrian television, July 17, 2000; Assad interview, ash-Sharq al-Awsat, Feb. 8, 2001.
 Syrian television, Mar. 27, 2002.
 Radio Damascus, May 5, 2001.
 Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation television, Sept. 20, 2000; MidEast Mirror (London), Sept. 21, 2000; al-Hayat, Nov. 10, 2000.
 An-Nahar (Beirut), Nov. 25, 2000, Apr. 16, 2002; MidEast Mirror, June 18, 2001.
 Radio Damascus, June 10, 2001.
 Eyal Zisser, "The Return of Hizbullah," Middle East Quarterly, Fall 2002, pp. 3-11; Ha'aretz, July 19, 2002; Yedi'ot Aharonot, July 19, 2002.
 Bashar al-Assad, speech to the Arab summit, Cairo, Tishrin, Oct. 23, 2000. See also Ma'ariv (Tel Aviv), July 19, 2002; Ha'aretz, July 26, 2002.
 Ha'aretz, Apr. 12, 2002.
 Bashar al-Assad, speech at the Arab summit, Beirut, Tishrin, Mar. 28, 2002; Tishrin, Apr. 8, 2002; Reuters, Mar. 30, Apr. 9, 2002.
 Akhbar al-Yawm (Cairo), Apr. 6, 2002; al-Jumhuriyya (Cairo), Apr. 10, 2002.
 Ath-Thawra (Damascus), Feb. 17, 2002; Reuters, Jan. 29, Feb. 25, 2002. See also reports published in Israel according to which Syria was helping Iraq to buy and to smuggle weapons into its territory, Ha'aretz, July 15, 2002.
 Agence France-Presse, Oct. 17, 2001; al-Hayat, Mar. 18, 2002; The Washington Post, July 25, 2002.
 Syrian television, Jan. 22, 2002; al-Hayat, Jan. 23, 2002.
 Ar-Ra'y al-'Amm (Amman), Sept. 9, 2001; Tishrin, Sept. 11, 2001; al-Hayat, Dec. 15, 2001.
 Jane's Foreign Report, Jan. 11, 2001; al-Watan al-'Arabi (Paris), July 22, 2001; ar-Raya (Kuwait City), July 24, 2001.
Related Topics: Syria | Eyal Zisser | Winter 2003 MEQ
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