President Hafez Assad leaves a mixed legacy. He brought relative stability in his thirty-year reign to a country which had been wracked with coups and counter-coups in the preceding years, yet it came at an enormous price in terms of basic human rights. He maintained a commitment to socialism and nationalism, yet did so through a cult of personality and insular style which alienated Syrians from across the political spectrum. He successfully curbed the influence of extremist Islamic movements, but at a cost of many thousands of lives in a brutal 1982 crackdown.
Recent years had seen a substantial degree of political and economic liberalization from the totalitarian days of the 1970s and early 1980s. While the country remained autocratic and the state continued to play a major role in the economy, most political prisoners were released and private enterprise was encouraged. There was less fear and far more openness. There was a revival of the country’s centuries-old entrepreneurial spirit, yet without the gross inequalities and excesses found in the Arab monarchies to the south.
While Assad was an Arab nationalist angered at the injustice he saw arising from Western political, economic and strategic domination of the region, he was also a pragmatist, willing to bend his principles to maintain power and avoid isolating his country completely from the rest of the world. Though Assad had many conservative critics, many on the left were angered at his 1976 military intervention in Lebanon on the side of the right-wing Phalangists against the leftist Lebanese National Movement and their allies. Syrian troops remain in Lebanon to this day, and the Syrians have effective control over that country’s foreign policy and some other key government decisions.
As head of the air force in 1970, he refused to support Palestinians and Jordanian leftists in their uprising against King Hussein, even as other segments of the Syrian armed forces prepared to intervene to topple the pro-Western monarch. And, in the fall of 1990, he contributed thousands of Syrian forces in Operation Desert Shield to support the U.S. effort to protect Saudi Arabia and prepare for the war against Iraq soon thereafter. Like many Arab leaders, he manipulated the Palestinian cause to advance his political agenda, often at the expense of the Palestinians themselves, backing extremist factions and sending his army against Fatah and other Palestinian parties unwilling to tow the Syrian line.
Assad’s major ambition in recent years was to recover the Golan from Israel, which seized the territory in the 1967 war. For more than a decade, Assad has accepted the principle of providing security guarantees to Israel in exchange for the return of their land, which are outlined in UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338, which the United States long insisted were the basis of negotiations. Ironically, however, after years of criticizing Assad for refusing to accept 242 and 338, the U.S. more recently criticized him for insisting on its full implementation. Indeed, Israel–with the Clinton Administration’s support–essentially kept moving the goal posts, such as insisting that Assad grant full diplomatic and economic relations with Israel prior to that country’s withdrawal.
The final sticking point was Israel’s insistence that they not withdraw to the 1967 borders, but to a 1923 line drawn by British and French colonialists to the disadvantage of the Syrians. The Clinton Administration sharply criticized Assad in his final weeks for not being willing to accept yet another Israeli demand. Getting Syria’s occupied land back will have to be left to his successor, likely to be his son Bachar, a 34-year old opthamologist. It is ironic that the man who led Syria’s Ba’ath Party, founded on principles of socialism and republicanism, would leave a legacy of dynastic succession. The minimum age for president was recently lowered by six years to make that possible and Bachar is almost certain to assume the post within the next couple of months.
For better or worse, it is doubtful that Bachar will be as strong or effective a leader as his father. Yet the desire to maintain a course independent of overbearing Western influence, the insistence on having the Golan returned and a desire to maintain greater social equality than found elsewhere in the Arab world goes far beyond the late president. It would be naive for the United States to hope that this will change with the passing of Hafez Assad.