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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.

During the recent Arab Summit in Beirut, the young President capitalized on the absence of the Egyptian, Libyan and Palestinian leaders (among others) to strike a positive chord with audiences in Syria and across the Arab world. In a well-rehearsed, self-assured manner reminiscent of his late father, Bashar al-Assad aimed a provocative lecture at his colleagues, supporting the Palestinians' "right of resistance," calling upon Arab countries to sever their relations with Israel, urging an Iraqi-Kuwaiti reconciliation, and endorsing Saudi Crown Prince Abdallah's peace initiative.

With these demands, the young President emerged in many Syrian eyes as the summit's "Man of the Hour," a leader with a deep understanding of the issues at hand. Through his confident performance, the new President gained in stature. More importantly, his performance deflected attention from any consideration of economic or political reform within Syria, at least for now.