Why Assad's Death Dims Hopes of Israel-Syria Peace

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Syria's President Hafez Assad is dead, and with him any chance of peace between his country and Israel in the near term. The ailing 69-year-old died Saturday, leaving the country in the hands of his politically inexperienced 34-year-old son, Bashar. On hearing of the strongman's death, the country's parliament immediately passed a constitutional amendment putting aside the rule that the president had to be 40 or over. However, the arrival to power of Bashar may intensify a power struggle that has bubbled under the surface since Assad, who ruled from 1970, first brought the London-based opthalmologist home two years ago to assume the role of reluctant heir — as late as March, Bashar insisted to a London-based newspaper that he had no presidential ambitions. And in a twist as familiar in "The Lion King" as it was in the royal succession in neighboring Jordan, Hafez Assad has an outcast brother, Rifaat, with presidential ambitions, against whom he'd waged a sometimes vicious power struggle. The fact that the president died before completely clearing Bashar's path to power will certainly raise the temptation for Rifaat to stake his own claim.

Although it's hardly a democracy, power in Syria is a complicated construct given the fact that the Assad clan, and most of its governing elite, are drawn from the ethnic Alawite minority rather than the Sunni Muslim majority, as well as the fact that the primary guarantor of power is not the electorate or even the ruling party, but the military, which propelled Hafez Assad to power in 1970 as a young air force officer at the head of a peaceful coup. Assad proved a masterful strategist, managing his country's internal power struggles, regional conflicts and the Cold War and its aftermath to build Syria into a major Middle Eastern power. Having used Soviet patronage to build a military capability second only to Israel's, he smartly fell in line with the U.S.-led alliance against Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War. Rather than engage his enemies directly, Assad preferred to operate more subtly by giving space and succor to their enemies: For decades the principal expression of his conflict with Israel over the Golan Heights was the space and support he gave to Hezbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon; while Syria's conflict with Turkey over water resources led him to allow the Kurdish guerrillas of Abdullah Ocalan's PKK to make their rear base in Syrian-controlled Lebanon.

But the leitmotif of Assad's presidency, which began soon after Syria's humiliating defeat in the 1967 with Israel, has been the battle to recover the strategic Golan Heights. Having failed to achieve that goal through the war of 1973 or the proxy war in Lebanon, Assad opened negotiations first in 1994, and then again last year, in the hope of resolving the issue rather than leaving it to an heir whose grip on power would be a lot more tenuous. The U.S.-brokered talks, however, failed to produce a deal that even Assad could sell the Syrians, and it may be years before the winner of the coming power struggle is able to command sufficient political authority to deliver peace with Israel.