With the death of Syria's President Hafez al-Assad Saturday morning[, June 10], a giant of Middle Eastern politics leaves the scene after almost 30 years in power. His departure means that the chances for democracy within Syria and reconciliation with its neighbours are now much greater.
Mr. Assad had a profound impact on the Levant since taking power in November, 1970. By imposing a police state on Syria, he stabilized a country that had been among the most volatile in the world. His abandonment of Pan-Arab nationalism helped transform the ideological climate of the Middle East. His single-minded emphasis on retaining power transformed Syria into a military heavyweight during the first half of his rule, thereby altering the region's balance of power, remaking Lebanon and protracting the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Clearly, his passing will have an enormous impact on Syria and substantial implications for the Arab-Israeli negotiations, the Syrian occupation of Lebanon and other aspects of Middle Eastern politics.
Before Mr. Assad took power in November, 1970, Syria had experienced an unending sequence of coups d'état. No ruler had managed to establish himself securely. Indeed, one global analysis of the stability of political leaders for the period 1945-61 found Syria tied at the very bottom of the 87 states studied. The regime espoused a form of romantic leftism completely irrelevant to its real problems. Syrian soldiers knew too much about overthrowing leaders in Damascus and too little about fighting on a battlefield (as made evident by their ignoble performance in 1967 against Israel).
Mr. Assad transformed this Middle Eastern banana republic into a stable, Brezhnev-style police state. His consolidation of power finally gave Syria some continuity of rule. He and his aides dominated Syria with an iron fist and made life-and-death decisions for 15 million subjects. Mr. Assad directed 15 separate secret police agencies and tightly controlled anything having to do with military or intelligence matters. No two camels could meet in Syria, it was said, without the president knowing about it.
Further, against all odds, Mr. Assad's political skills made Syria a powerhouse of the Middle East. Before 1970, this fractious and unstable country had a weak international position; Baghdad and Cairo competed actively for influence over Damascus. Since then, Syria has become a regional leader, dominating Lebanon and exerting great influence over Jordan's government. But the Arab-Israeli conflict best demonstrates its power. Until the Syrians agree to close the conflict with Israel, there is no chance of this century-old conflict closing down.
Despite Mr. Assad's achievements, the Syrian polity remains highly unsettled. Take away his strong hand, and - as in the former Soviet bloc - the problems become obvious. The failure of socialism, the militarization of society, political instability, and the Sunni-Alawi divide are all likely to create future problems.
Mr. Assad followed his Soviet allies down the primrose path. Damascus has pursued its own variant of state-imposed socialism, and the resulting centralized economy has been a disaster for agriculture, industry and trade. Nationalization predictably lowered production, reduced quality, swelled the bureaucracy and impeded distribution. GDP is stuck at a dismal US$900 a year and the standard of living resembles that of a typical African more than a Middle Eastern country.
After decades of rule by officers, Syria has become a country dominated by military concerns. The proportion of the workforce employed by the military has increased threefold from about 6% to about 18%. The military's interests permeate Syria's social structure. Officers are the aristocrats of Syria, and woe to him who crosses their path. An oversized military encourages an aggressive foreign policy, harms the Syrian economy and creates social problems.
Those factors that made Syria weak and unstable before Mr. Assad came to power - a fragile national identity, minimal government legitimacy, a legacy of military rule, hostility toward foreigners, irredentism and a predilection for radical ideologies - remain in place. Like Soviet-bloc leaders, Mr. Assad achieved stability by repressing problems, not solving them. When the police state disappears, the hostilities of earlier years will resume, and probably with enhanced rancour. Mr. Assad's passing thus threatens to return the country to its old weakness.
That Mr. Assad and the key leaders during his long rule are all members of the Alawi community, a small and traditionally scorned religious minority, has spawned deep resentment among the majority Syrian population, the Arabic-speaking Sunni Muslims. The intensity of communal tensions overshadows all other political concerns.
Sunnis found the Alawi takeover in 1966 repugnant. They resented government policies, as socialism reduced their wealth, atheism insulted their religion, Alawi rule destroyed the old system of patronage and authoritarian control meant the effacing of political expression. Not surprisingly, Sunnis moved into the opposition, compelling the authorities to maintain totalitarian control over the country; a citizen's daily life takes place wholly within the context of the state's view.
With Mr. Assad gone, will the current regime remain in place or not? Is stability or unrest in the cards? Mr. Assad's son Bashar, a 34-year-old ophthalmologist, has rapidly gained in stature and experience, but he is a rookie who is not even legally old enough to succeed his father. Senior figures - politicians, generals and members of the ruling family - will no doubt try to push him aside - and not least of them his uncle Rifat al-Assad.
If we cannot predict the specific outcome of Mr. Assad's passing, we can follow several trend lines into the future. First, whether stability or unrest is Syria's fate, bedrock Sunni opposition will remain the Asad regime's greatest and most abiding problem. More broadly, ethnic and religious divisions will continue to drive Syrian politics. The Alawi seizure of power only reinforced and deepened the old prejudices, insuring their vitality for many years to come.
Second, the daily and prolonged struggle to come out from under Alawi rule will continue to shape Sunni attitudes. Specifically, it will make Sunnis more likely to look to religious leaders and religious solutions.
Third, Mr. Assad has played a bad hand with patience and flair; it's almost inconceivable that his successor can manage to do as well. For the first time in a generation, neighbours may again play politics in Damascus. A weak Syria eases tensions throughout the Levant. In particular, Israel would find its main military opponent greatly weakened. Lebanon would begin to emerge from the Syrian occupation.
Mr. Assad's death will have repercussions in much of the Middle East. Initially the absence of this strong ruler will probably destabilize both Syria and the region. In the long term, however, most Syrians and most neighbouring countries will gain with this brutal and ambitious autocrat off the scene.