Why Israel-Syria Peace May Have to Wait a Few Years

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He may of a new generation and Western-educated, a healer rather than a warrior by profession and a Netizen rather than a nationalist by instinct, but don't expect to see Bashar Assad even talking to Israel any time soon. No matter how much Washington cajoles, peace with the old enemy isn't going to feature on the agenda of a presumptive president whose priority will be political and even, perhaps, physical survival.

"As a father, I have to wonder what kind of man wishes this on his son," says TIME West Bank correspondent Jamil Hamad. "Hafez Assad has condemned his son to a life of sleepless nights and constant pressure, always looking over your shoulder because somebody wants to kill you." And it's not as if 34-year-old Bashar has exactly coveted the job, telling anyone who'd listen until a few months ago that he harbored no presidential ambitions. But in a scenario eerily reminiscent of India's Gandhi family — in which Rajiv found greatness thrust upon him after Indira's preferred heir, Sanjay, died in a plane crash — Bashar may have had no choice after his elder brother, Basil, died in a car crash. Like Rajiv Gandhi, Bashar had been educated in Britain before returning home to reluctantly fill a deceased parent's shoes. And Syria's brutal authoritarian tradition certainly offers Bashar plenty of reason to sweat over the possibility that, like Rajiv, he could be removed from the scene by an assassin.

His father certainly bequeathed Bashar more than enough enemies to keep him awake nights. For one, there's his uncle Rifaat, exiled since leading a failed coup attempt against his father in 1983 — and against whose supporters Hafez and Bashar, of late, have conducted a campaign of violent harassment. Rifaat made clear Monday that, having held the title of deputy president before his ouster, he, and not Bashar, should succeed Hafez Assad. Syria's security forces have pledged to arrest the outcast uncle should he attempt to come home, but that hasn't stopped him from stirring up trouble.

Then there's the Muslim Brotherhood, whose efforts to rouse the country's Sunni Muslim majority against the minority Alawite Assad regime were brutally suppressed. It was Rifaat, ironically, before his coup attempt, who authored the most notorious campaign of violence against the Brotherhood in 1982, when he leveled the city of Hama following a Muslim uprising there, killing up to 20,000 people. While they're unlikely to accept Rifaat any more gladly than Bashar, in statements since Assad's death they've echoed the exiled brother's criticism of the succession process that has positioned Bashar to take over. And while the military may not have a viable alternative, it may be difficult for the top brass to accept orders from a 34-year-old with no military experience.

"Western media may be taking too simple a view of Bashar by stressing that he's young modernizer and that he's committed to peace," says Hamad. "Bashar's priority will be to save his own head and ensure the loyalty of enough of his people and security forces to stay in power. He won't be able to move on any foreign policy issues for at least two years, and he may actually have to play the anti-Israel card — which still mobilizes the Arab masses behind a leader — to stabilize his rule. That worked for his father, and even though he was the strongest leader Syria ever had, not even Hafez Assad was able to conclude a peace deal with Israel."

Not only must the thirtysomething opthalmologist bachelor muster the requisite skill, experience and — inevitably — ruthlessness to navigate the treacherous waters of Syria's domestic politics, he's also got to modernize an economically decrepit state squeezed between the Israel-Turkey alliance and the hostile regime in Iraq, while sustaining an increasingly complex policing role in neighboring Lebanon. "Bashar's key allies will be Iran and Saudi Arabia," says Hamad. "Iran provides the strategic counterweight to Israel, Turkey and the U.S., while Saudi Arabia ensures the flow of financial support from the Gulf States."

If there are any grounds for optimism in Washington, it has to be qualified by a time frame that will see President Clinton, who had hoped to add an Israel-Syria peace deal to his trophy cabinet, long gone from office. "Bashar is of a different generation than his father, and his education in the West has given him a more modern view of the world," says TIME State Department correspondent Douglas Waller. "It's probable that he doesn't hate the Israelis as much as his father did, but that doesn't mean he'll jump into a peace deal anytime soon — he has to consolidate his grip on power, and it'll be at least a year before he can even think about reopening talks with Israel. But being of a new generation and looking to the future, he may over the long term prove more willing than his father was to conclude a land-for-peace agreement." That's assuming he lasts that long.