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New times for Syria?

Rarely are constitutions changed so quickly. On 10 June 2000, the corpse of President Hafez al-Assad had hardly cooled when the powers that be in Syria changed the age at which ministers are allowed to hold office from 40 to 34, thus enabling his son Bashar to be named as perhaps the sole presidential candidate in a referendum to be held within 90 days.

As is the norm when a president dies, the condolences and tributes flow in. Whilst Israel newspaper Yedioth Aponoth could announce they were "not too sorry over Assad's death… we are happy", the Western line was that he had been "a great statesman", and whilst Hafez al-Assad was remembered as "the Lion of Damascus", the obstinate stance he maintained in the Middle East peace process and the missed opportunities he notched up over thirty years of autocratic rule were enough to earn himself the title "the Donkey of Damascus".

All things considered, Hassad was no first-rate statesman. Never democratically elected, he came to power during a bloodless coup d'état in 1970, was the leader of a quasi-military dictatorship, with a corrupt Ba'athist political faction-religiously an Alawite minority elite who dominated all aspects of Syrian society-whilst overseeing a parlous command economy and a country noted for internal repression and scant civil rights.

In the perennial game of Middle Eastern politics, Hassad upset as many Arab states as he won friends, whilst siding with both superpowers as needs dictated. As well as Israel, neighbouring Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Egypt and Turkey came to view Hassad's Syria as a thorn in the side of Middle Eastern peace. His implacable position on the US pokered round of talks resulted in constant hold-ups with the present round of discussions having been on the back burner since January, with Syria demanding land at the foot of Golan and access to Lake Galilee. Whilst Israel might have contemplated such a move, it was widely viewed in Israel to be part of a wider Syrian game plan to get Israel to withdraw beyond the 1967 borders, and in this respect Israel could no more sell the idea of a Golan withdrawal to its people than Hassad could coerce the Alawite elite into accepting they had no hopes of retrieving this strategic gem.

What path Bashar heads down remains to be seen. Up until now he has held no official party post, though he has been delegated policy piefs such as Lebanon and the rooting out of high-ranking corruption. Whilst he can generally depend upon the support of the military, it is probable his anti-corruption drive against those in power-the chief culprits being those loyal to his father-will make him enemies. Studying ophthalmology in pitain before he was called back to Syria to begin his grooming for leadership, he is said to be "modest, considerate and intelligent", keen on new technology and with ideas on reform and political change, such as more representative forms of government, that will undoubtedly sicken Syria's old guard-an elite made up of the security services, the army and the Ba'athist party hierarchy.

And it remains to be seen just how much of his father's baggage Bashar will inherit. Hafez was after all a staunch anti-zionist, still maintaining 35,000 troops in Lebanon-in which he held sway over the guerrilla movement Hizbullah-after the Israeli withdrawal, reluctant to concede Israel an inch, cautious about investing in new civil and military technology or to reform the country's clannish hierarchy.

Bashar, though, comes with the full backing of pitish Foreign Minister Peter Hain-which perhaps amounts to little, bearing in mind pitain's track record on giving its support to bloodstained dictators for 30 years-and with hopes in Washington that he can make some headway in the Middle East peace process and in time for the United States Presidential elections in which the Clinton clique will be aiming to present some foreign policy success to United States voters.

Waiting in the wings-though at a distance-is uncle Rifaat, younger pother to Hafez and the former vice-president; the same disgraced vice-president who once ordered the bombardment of the town of Hama (a Sunni Muslim potherhood haven) killing 40,000 inhabitants and who attempted a coup d'état when Hafez was ill in 1983. Presently in exile in France with an entourage of 30 bodyguards and threatened with arrest the moment he enters Syria with presidential ambitions, Rifaat has a fortune of $2-$4 billion, looks after 100 companies, controls two newspapers and is therefore more than capable of buying many strategically placed allies. Rifaat maintains that Bashar's ascension to the throne of Syrian power will be "illegal" and many anticipate he will mount some challenge.

Safeguarding interests

The chances are, however, that Bashar will be the sole presidential candidate, if for no other reason than his father's Alawite cronies will close ranks to ease his political ascendancy and safeguard their own interests. And whilst some equate his reformist ambitions with an Israeli/Syrian peace, it does seem unlikely that in the foreseeable future he will advocate the concessions that Middle Eastern peace is claimed to necessitate. If politics is difficult to predict in the West, then it is nigh on impossible to make any forecast as to how events will unfold in this part of the world, where the number of competing factions is only matched by the number of religions, where there are numerous strategic and mineral interests to be fought over and in which the West continue to manoeuvre their pawns as if playing on a gigantic chess board.