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Syria's Culture of Fear and Stalemate

It is not surprising that the new, young leader of an Arab country should be tremendously concerned, during his first years in office, with establishing his legitimacy and stature. In replacing his father, the late President Hafiz al-Assad, Syria's current President, Bashar al-Assad, urgently needed to demonstrate his command of his country's situation even more than other relatively new Arab leaders, such as Jordan's King Abdullah or Morocco's King Muhammad. For Bashar al-Assad selection as the replacement for his father, within minutes of Assad's death on June 10, 2000, had stunned Syria's entire system, despite the years of preparing public opinion for this succession.

Having failed to put forward a clear and effective program of internal reform, the young President sought to make up for his domestic failure in the realm of foreign affairs. Here, no surprise, the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict provided the most visible opportunity to establish his leadership credentials, especially in the aftermath of the democratic election of Ariel Sharon as Israel's new Prime Minister, a man reviled in the Arab world.