The parallels between the two Arab nations are striking. Col. Muamar Gadhafi (aka Khadafy aka Qaddafi) ) seized control of Libya in a military coup d’etat in 1969. The next year Gen. Hafez Al-Assad overthrew President Nureddin Al-Atassi in Syria. Gadhafi intervened in nearby Chad, Assad intervened in Lebanon. Both killed their own people to keep power. At the time of the Libyan Revolution, Gadhafi was grooming his sons to succeed him as dictator. Hafez Al-Assad originally groomed his older son Basil to succeed him, but the young man was killed in an auto accident in 1998. (1) He then prepared his younger son Bashar for his job by giving him increasing responsbilities in the government. Bashar become president when Hafez died in 2000. The same year he married a British woman of Syrian birth.
Bashar Al-Assad has an unusual background for an Arab dictator. Instead of a career in the military or diplomatic service, he chose to become a doctor, graduating Damascus University Medical School in 1988. He then studied ophtalmalogy at the Westerm Eye Hospital in London. Bashar returned to Syria in 1994 and entered the military academy. With his father’s blessing, Bashar ascended the ranks quickly, and in 1998 was placed in charge of Syria’s activities in Lebanon.
As president, Bashar has made only minor reforms in his father’s policies of authoritarian rule at home and hostility toward Israel and the United States. He has maintained an alliance with Iran, and supplies arms to Hezbollah, which probably killed the Prime Minister of Lebanon in 2005. On the other hand, Bashar is strongly suspicious of the Muslim Brotherhood, which Hafez Al-Assad crushed in Syria. In 2008 he authorized indirect talks with Israel (through Turkey), which came to nothing.
Bashar’s armed forces have have killed over 3,500 people trying to stop protests against his regime, yet the demonstrations continue. The King of Jordan, the Prime Minister of Turkey and the Arab League have all turned against him. (2) Texas Gov. Rick Perry has called for a “no-fly zone” over Syria. But the real threat is that his military is starting to crack. The Assad family and all important military and security officials belong to the minority Alawite sect, while most of the soldiers are Sunni Muslim. In the Middle East religious differences are crucial, so a major split in the Syrian Army (like the one in Libya) is a real possibility. If that happens, foreign help for the rebels could turn the tide against Bashar Al-Assad and his Alawite Baath regime.
But Bashar is no Muamar. Gadhafi, who was probably mentally ill, resolved to fight for power to the death, and that is what he got. But I do not believe that Bashar Al-Assad will gamble his life for his job. The fact that he chose a career in medicine and lived in England for several years tells me that this man has a far more pragmatic and cosmopolitan view of life than Gadhafi ever had. The Assads are not crazy, they are calculating. If Bashar Al-Assad ever concludes that his cause is lost, he will pack his bags and move back to London, where he could perhaps re-instate his medical license. (A possible International Criminal Court indictment for human rights violations might be an obstacle, however.)
Of course we cannot tell what kind of regime might follow the Assads, but I am willing to bet that it will be better, rather than even worse.
Gerald S Glazer
(2) “Syria threatened with sanctions” by Nada Bakri, NY Times, Nov. 25, 2011.
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