Bashar Gets Dad's Job, but Not All His Clout

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Power may pass peacefully from the late President Hafez Assad to his son Bashar, but it will be considerably diminished in the passage — which is why nobody's in a hurry to restart the stalled Israeli-Syrian peace talks. The elder Assad, who will be buried Tuesday, had been an air force officer who parlayed his position as defense minister into an iron-fisted presidency that began in 1970, maintaining his power by skillfully playing off the country's power centers against one another and eliminating any challengers with ruthless efficiency. Bashar, the 34-year-old opthalmologist summoned home from London two years ago to be groomed for succession after his preferred brother, Basil, died in an auto accident, doesn't exactly look the part — just three months ago he was insisting he had no presidential aspirations — and a man whose most cited attribute is his enthusiasm for the Internet may struggle to engender the authority necessary to run a power structure whose very foundation has been fear. Syria's acting president may, over the weekend, have named Bashar as commander-in-chief and promoted him from colonel to lieutenant-general, but Syria's military old guard may yet bridle at accepting orders from a military neophyte. And, of course, Hafez Assad also left behind a politically outcast brother, Rifaat, who has long coveted the presidency himself.

Although his election looks relatively certain, Bashar's grip on power is necessarily more tenuous than his father's — and in the fractious political and ethnic tapestry of a state still mired in a five-decades-old Stalinist-nationalist ideology, that's bad news for both his purported modernizing agenda and for the prospects of a peace deal with Israel. It's a brutal fact of Middle Eastern political life that the Arab regimes capable of enforcing peace deals with Israel tend to be authoritarian rather than democratic: Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinians are all governed by leaders who don't exactly face reelection battles every four years, and they're therefore able to override the more hostile sentiments of their populace. For Bashar Assad, military novice and would-be modernizer of a deeply entrenched bureaucratic system — as well as heir to a tradition of minority Alawites lording it over the Sunni Muslim majority — the political authority necessary to sell a peace deal with the hated neighbor may be a long time in coming.