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Last Updated: Wednesday, 16 April, 2003, 16:00 GMT 17:00 UK
Syrian president faces tough test
By Gerald Butt
Middle East analyst

Syrian celebrations
President Assad has to balance internal and external demands
These are testing times for Syria's young president, with the Bush administration and the British Government breathing down his neck.

Bashar al-Assad's strength and weakness derive from the fact that, when taking power in June 2000, he had to step straight into the shoes of his father, Hafez - one of the most skilful and adroit Arab leaders of his generation.

On the positive side, Mr Assad will know that his father would be relishing the present crisis that Syria is facing and so will doubtless seek inspiration from the memories of seeing his father extricate his country from other tight spots in the past.

But Mr Assad's weakness is that he never imagined that he would take over the presidency - his elder brother and designated presidential successor, Basil, was killed in a car crash in 1994 - and he is still finding his feet in the job.

Old guard

This has not been easy for him.

When he assumed power, he intended to carry on with an anti-corruption and economic reform programme that he had begun while his father was alive.

But once he had entered the presidential palace he found that he no longer had such a free hand.

The ruling apparatus, made up largely of appointees from the minority Alawite sect to which the Assad clan belongs, blocked a number of moves that they regarded as contrary to their own and Syria's interests.

The same constraints face President Assad when it comes to internal and external politics.

His efforts to ease some of the restraints on free speech were reversed by the old guard - who have looked with equal suspicion on his efforts to develop and expand relations with Western countries as much as those - including his father's old enemy, Iraq - in the Middle East.
President Bashar al-Assad

As part of his policy of opening up the country, President Assad has had to reassess Syria's role and ambitions in the region.

In the sense that the return of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and the ending of Israel's control over Palestinian territory remain the number one goal, Mr Assad is his father's son.

Throughout the Iraq crisis, while the media in the region has relegated the Arab-Israeli dispute to second place, the state-run press in Damascus has given equal space to both.

While the return of the Golan Heights is not, as far as the Syrian leadership is concerned, an issue on which there is scope for compromise, President Assad has probably inherited a sufficient measure of his father's pragmatism to consider giving ground on other issues.

So, for example, he might be able to convince the Alawite old guard that to quietly drop support for the radical Palestinian groups based in Syria would not harm his country's regional interests.

Similar pragmatism is likely to come into play when the Syrian president views the prospect of harbouring former members of the Saddam Hussein regime or other individuals sought by the United States.

For Syria, these are secondary and disposable issues.

On the other hand, it is highly unlikely that he would drop support for Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shia group in southern Lebanon, on the grounds that, in Syria's view, they are engaged in legitimate resistance operations.

Duck and weave

Once Israeli occupation of Arab land ends, the argument goes in Damascus, then there will be no need for Hezbollah or any other resistance groups.

These distinctions sound logical enough in the Arab world. But how will they sound in the ears of the hawks in the Bush administration?
Mr Assad's weakness is that he never imagined that he would take over the presidency
Gerald Butt, Middle East analyst

President Assad knows that he is caught between a rock, in the form of the United States, and a hard place represented by the ruling establishment in Syria.

Finding his father's capacity to duck and weave successfully to avoid being crushed is his major challenge in the weeks ahead.

In the end, it could be that the American warnings work to President Assad's advantage - giving him courage to confront those blocking reform.

For if the US was to go to war against the country, he could argue, then the Golan Heights - and Syrian sovereignty as a whole - could be lost for ever.


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