All Writings
June 12, 2000

Assad’s Legacy and its Impact on the Peace Process

The sudden death of Syria's President El-Asad has dramatically changed the political landscape in the Middle East. It has the potential to complicate the Syrian-Lebanese- Israeli conflict and further destabilize the region, or to create new opportunities for achieving a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace.

The shape of the new political landscape will largely depend on a) how accurately Israel and the United States read Asad's legacy as well as its impact on his son Bashar and the new Syrian leadership, and b) how smoothly and effectively the president designate consolidates his power and assumes his father's mantle. There are three aspects to Asad's legacy to consider:

Ideologically, Asad championed the Arab cause. More than any other Arab leader, he fought with conviction to preserve Arab integrity and rights as he saw them. He was the foremost Arab nationalist and the last Arab leader to concede, and only grudgingly, to a peaceful resolution with Israel. He was fanatical about recovering every single inch of territory lost in the 1967 Six Day War and chose to be remembered as the leader who died resisting any territorial compromises rather than the leader who had forsaken even a small part of what he termed "the national matrimony" to make peace. The pressing question is this: will Bashar maintain his father's inflexibility, or will he chart a path of his own? Based on what is known of Bashar, he would likely want to preserve his father's public legacy in this respect, but he may deviate slightly depending on the changing dynamic of negotiations with Israel. Israel's Prime Minister Barak could, in due course, come to Bashar's aid by declaring publically what he has already conceded at the negotiating table — Israel's willingness to relinquish the entire Golan — without specifying final borders. This is the kind of statement the Syrian public should hear. It will give their new leader the mandate he needs to conclude peace, thereby honoring his father's strategic choice. Once the negotiations resume, an agreement can definitely be achieved — especially since, according to a Syrian source who was involved in the latest round of negotiations, 90 percent of all issues have been resolved.

Asad's second legacy was his personal integrity. He was a man of his word, who often went to great lengths to demonstrate his trustworthiness. He delivered what he promised and maintained the same position throughout his struggle with Israel. However ruthlessly he might have pursued his objectives, Asad was a man of principle. Historically, he adhered to all provisions in any agreement he made, notably the 1974 disengagement agreement with Israel and others. Those who know Bashar believe that he will be even more obsessive about his personal credibility than his father. Bashar understands that he is an unknown quantity and that much of his success in the diplomatic arena will depend on how he is perceived by both friends and foes. In any event, future agreements with Israel will not be based on trust, regardless of how trustworthy Bashar is. The more important question is whether Bashar will offer a peace with mutual security and a peace of reconciliation so that both parties will have a vested interest in its preservation. Bashar knows that peace with Israel is not a luxury but a necessity of critical importance to Syria's national well-being. A man educated in the West, who appreciates globalization, knows that he cannot usher Syria into the 21st century while maintaining a state of war with a powerful neighbor and spending more than 50 percent of the national budget on the military. Peace with Israel is his only option. I believe he will pursue it vigorously once he consolidates his power.

The third aspect of Asad's legacy was his political skills, his tenacity and an uncanny ability to rally opposing groups in support of his objectives. Such attributes enabled him to bring his country unprecedented political stability while also making it a key player in the region. Moreover, Asad was able to persuade the international community that a third rate military power matters and must be treated with respect. This is probably the single most important "inheritance" that Asad has left for his son, who is not likely to squander it. It has now became an axiom that Syria holds the key to a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace and that peace between Israel and the rest of the Arab states is an empty shell without Syria's full participation. One of Asad¹s main concerns was Syria's regional role in the post-peace agreement with Israel. Under conditions of peace, Israel with a GNP seven times greater than Syria's and a formidable military machine, could easily overshadow Syria to become the hegemon of the region. Bashar can be expected to hold dear his father's regional ambition, ensuring Syria a say on all regional security and economic matters. It is likely that Bashar will follow his father's foot-steps, demanding that any peace treaty with Israel be equitable, balanced and mutual. In Lebanon Bashar can be expected to maintain the same policy — a virtual domination over that county's affairs — although he will be inclined to do so in a less heavy-handed manner. It would be in his country's best interest, especially during the transitional period, to keep the Israeli-Lebanese border peaceful, hence he can also be expected to keep at bay the Shiite Irani-backed Party of God (Hizballah). The fact that Syria has accepted the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon as full is indicative of Syria's intentions in this regard.

The peaceful transfer of power and the fact that Syria's military, the ruling Ba'ath Party and all other elements of government have coalesced around Asad's choice, demonstrate that the country has no stomach for instability and turmoil. Syria is in dire need of economic growth and social progress. The public looks up to Bashar to fulfill the long held promise of peace and prosperity. With his father's legacy and with the people's mandate, Bashar El-Asad may just rise to the occasion.