The Legacy Of An Arab Survivor

Hafez Assad was never very good at war. Though he built up a huge army, Assad lost the Golan Heights to Israel in 1967 as Syria's Defense minister and failed to win them back in 1973 as the nation's leader. He later saw his entire Air Force wiped out over Lebanon. Assad was no great shakes at peace either. From the '70s on he found himself outflanked as his old partner, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, made a separate deal with Israel that left him stranded, and his hated rival, Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, paced past him in peace talks. What Assad was very good at was survival. During his 30 years at the top, as his Soviet allies collapsed, Sadat was assassinated and Israeli prime ministers came and went, Assad cunningly managed to consolidate control in Damascus while he waited to get the Golan back. And in doing so he became the key holdout in the protracted Mideast peace process.

This year it seemed that, finally, Hafez Assad's time had come. As the clock ticked over into the new millennium, the lean, wily Arab leader looked ready to reap the rewards of his inexhaustible patience. At long last, the Israelis withdrew from southern Lebanon last month and seemed ready to hand him back the Golan. Assad had all but established his Western-educated son Bashar as his successor. And like Arafat, he had also passed over that invisible threshold from roguehood to respect in Western eyes. Assad's reign was often brutal: in 1982 his Army slaughtered some 10,000 people in Hama, a stronghold of Sunni Muslim fundamentalism. But by this year--despite a fruitless summit in Geneva in late March--Bill Clinton was treating him as a statesman who, the president said somberly on Saturday, had "made the strategic decision for peace."

But Assad fell short, only "an inch from an agreement," as Assad's old interlocutor, Henry Kissinger, put it over the weekend. The death of the ailing Syrian autocrat on Saturday at the age of 69, apparently from heart failure, has left Syria's future and prospects for a comprehensive Middle East peace utterly "frozen," says former Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres. "We are witnessing the death of an entire epoch. Key Middle East leaders have passed away from this world and peace in the Middle East was not achieved." While the Palestinians may still cut a deal with the Israelis by the end of Clinton's second term--an informal deadline for all parties--the emerging conventional wisdom is that the long-stalled Syrian "track" is shut down until at least next year. Indeed, Assad's most lasting legacy may be that he held out for one demand too many. The main obstacle in Israeli-Syrian peace talks is but a few hundred disputed yards on the Sea of Galilee at the foot of the Golan Heights. "Assad was always short of a finger or two in reaching out to touch peace," says Peres. "This opens the way for a period of real instability," a worried top adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak told NEWSWEEK. "The leadership of Bashar is not naturally accepted. There's no consensus on him."

Perhaps. But Assad may confound doubters with his durability even in death. Brutal he may have been, but few Syrians could remember a better leader. Shortly after he died, Damascus Radio broadcast an announcement that addressed Assad: "Your soul is gone, but you are still with us." The streets of Damascus quickly filled with hordes of grievers. Other stunned Syrians gathered around televisions in the Old City souk. Near Assad's home a crowd also grew to several hundred people. Their chants rose above the Qur'anic laments broadcast from every mosque until late at night. One woman beat her chest and wept: "Say that he is not dead!" The loss was felt particularly among the young. "It is like losing somebody very close," said Mohammed Khiyami, a 22-year-old laborer. "I was one of his sons. The first thing I saw when I was born was President Assad."

In other words Assad, who took power in a 1970 coup, earned legitimacy simply by being good at survival. And the early evidence is that he might well succeed--from the grave, as it were--in transferring an aura of legitimacy to his son. To the surprise of some, Damascus showed few signs of the power struggle long expected after his death. The Syrian Parliament, rather than waiting the allotted 60 days before naming a successor, quickly settled on Bashar, passing a special amendment that lowered the minimum age for the presidency from 40 to 34. That's about Bashar's age.

Participants in the peace process talk up Bashar as a savvy, Info Age reformer who, like Jordan's new King Abdullah, is eager to bring Syria into the 21st century (following story). The Israelis were quick to put pressure on him. "If the new Syrian leadership wants to prevent Syria from becoming the North Korea of the Middle East, now's the time to strike a deal," Ephraim Sneh, Barak's closest military aide, told NEWSWEEK.

Even in the best case, that's not likely to happen for months. Bashar may have the OK of the rubber-stamp Parliament, but he still holds the rank of a mere colonel in the Syrian Army. His family includes potential rivals, like his uncle Rifaat, and uncertain allies such as his younger brother Maher, who has made his own career in the military.

Bashar also must worry about threats outside the family. The Assads' small Alawite sect has a tenuous hold on the nation's majority Sunni Muslims, who dominate business and have long felt slighted. Several officials, like Vice President Abdel Halim Khaddam and Defense Minister Mustafa Tlas, are Sunnis. "Obviously the first thing Bashar has to do is establish legitimacy," said another Barak aide. "You don't do that by signing a peace accord with Israel."

Bashar, it seems, has little choice but to follow in his father's hesitant footsteps. Hafez Assad was never in a hurry to make peace, even when he agreed to it in principle. American presidents and shuttling secretaries of State were tested time and again by his refusal to be rushed. Earlier this year Clinton tried to play tough with Assad in Geneva, pulling out a map and seeking to draw adjustments to the 1967 borders. But Assad decided he could wait some more. He wanted every inch of the Golan back--much to the chagrin of the Israelis.

Because Assad had survived a massive heart attack in 1984 and a proliferation of other rumored diseases over the following 15 years, it seemed he might even outwait death--until last week.

Indeed, thanks in part to his durability, Assad was probably the most reliable leader in the Middle East. There has not been a shot fired across the Israeli-Syrian border since 1973, when he agreed to a ceasefire. Assad's goals were straightforward. What he wanted in return for a lasting peace was sovereignty over the Golan, dominion over Lebanon and to leave all that to his son. Now every part of that equation is open to question.

For all that, Bashar will be less lonely in his power struggles than his father was. Bill Clinton is breathless to back him up and get the Syrian peace track moving again. Washington planned to send a high-level delegation to Assad's funeral on Tuesday. And even as Arafat declared three days of mourning for Assad, the Palestinian leader kept plans to fly to Washington to meet with Clinton this week on restarting talks. U.S. officials pointed hopefully to Syria's part in keeping the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon relatively violence-free. But one senior U.S. official conceded that Assad's death "will take Syria out of the peace process for an indefinite period... and probably during the Clinton administration." For Syrians, after 30 years of Hafez Assad's painstaking moves toward peace, that's not a very long wait.