In the Middle East, politics has usually been a waiting game, and Syrian President Bashar Assad, 45, is better than most at playing it. He has outlasted U.S. neocon threats of regime change, and international and Saudi-led regional isolation following the 2005 murder of ex-Lebanese Premier Rafiq Hariri (at the time widely blamed on Damascus), and he deftly mitigated the effects of U.S. sanctions and the Iraq war next door, while strengthening his ties to the region's rising power broker, Iran. Now he may just ride out the youth-led revolts that are sweeping across the region.
The secular, authoritarian Baath Party regime that Assad inherited in 2000 from his late father and former President Hafez Assad is older than he is. In fact, the party is older than the majority of his country's 22 million people. Even critics concede that Assad is popular and considered close to the country's huge youth cohort, emotionally, ideologically and, of course, chronologically.
Unlike the ousted pro-American leaders of Tunisia and Egypt, Assad has a hostile foreign policy toward Israel and stridently supports the Palestinians and the militant groups Hamas and Hizballah. These positions, in line with popular Syrian sentiment, have been keenly pushed by Baathists and state media to the public to explain why other Presidents have fallen and theirs is safe. Much-publicized acts by Assad that have apparently helped endear him to the public include his driving to the Umayyad Mosque in February to take part in prayers to mark the Prophet Muhammad's birthday and his strolling through the crowded Souq Al-Hamidiyah marketplace with a low-security profile.
Yet Syria also shares the corruption, nepotism, high unemployment, widespread poverty, repressive state-security apparatus, emergency law and lack of freedom that contributed to the fall of other Arab leaders and now threatens Libya's Muammar Gaddafi. Still, in a masterful application of "good cop, bad cop" politics, Assad is viewed as a reformer even by some Syrians who may despise the regime, blaming its shortcomings on his father's still present "old guard." In Syria, it's different, says Ammar Qurabi, head of the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria. "The majority want and request that the President undertake reform within the party, the government and the security agencies. That is important."
There are several opportunities on the calendar for Assad to take the initiative and institute real change (which he has often spoken of), from a position of strength rather than the desperate last-minute concessions that other Arab leaders offered only after their emboldened youth were already on the streets and in sight of victory. There are municipal and parliamentary elections slated for this year, providing the President with a chance to transform Syria from a one-party state ruled by the Baath and its various fronts since 1963 with only a weak, fractured and frequently imprisoned opposition into a country with real political parties. The Baath Party conference, expected in the coming months, is another convenient occasion.
Mazen Darwish, who founded and ran the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression until it was closed by authorities in 2009, says Assad has a "golden opportunity" to make core, rather than cosmetic, reforms. "In Syria, we've been talking about reforms for the past decade," he says, "as if we just want to add oil to an engine, to help it function better. Today I think the situation has shifted to the engine itself, to the nature of the government, its foundations."