Assad Legacy: A Ruler, Not a Leader

For an individual to merit a foreign policy legacy, he must alter his country’s foreign policy context in basic and lasting ways. A legacy in this realm can result either from achieving something great on the ground—defeating major rivals, building new and important relationships or institutions—or from changing the way the majority of the people living in a society think about basic questions of their country’s role in their region or the world.

By this standard, Hafez Assad, for 30 years the president of Syria, left little in the way of a legacy. The questions confronting Syria today are enormous, and Assad failed to prepare the Syrian people for the answers. This is not to suggest that Assad accomplished nothing positive while in power.

Three things stand out: First, in the aftermath of the 1973 conflict between the Arab states and Israel, he avoided war with Israel. A state of de facto nonbelligerency settled in over the Israeli-Syrian relationship despite important disagreements between the two countries.

Second, Assad joined the anti-Saddam Hussein coalition that was formed in the wake of Iraq’s August, 1990, invasion of Kuwait. Although Syria’s military contributions to the U.S.-led effort were modest at best, the fact that Syria joined at all gave the effort legitimacy in the eyes of many Arabs and helps explain why there were few demonstrations of popular support for Iraq in the Arab world. The result was that Arab governments enjoyed considerable latitude in siding with the United States against a fellow Arab country.

Third, in the aftermath of the gulf war, Assad agreed to send his representative to Madrid in October, 1990, for the first face-to-face summit involving the major protagonists of the Middle East. Syria’s foreign minister and Israel’s prime minister did not get along then or afterward, but the simple fact that they were exchanging words rather than bullets marked an important watershed in the history of this strife-torn part of the world.

But it was what Assad failed to do that most defines his tenure. Syria is a country that has largely remained apart from the major trends of our time.

There is no democracy to speak of, no concept of loyal opposition. Elections were and remain a fraud. The state remains the dominant force in virtually all aspects of society and the economy. Faxes and modems were long banned, lest they make average Syrians aware of the world outside and therefore less content with their dreary lot.

Assad also failed to create a basis for stability in Lebanon. Right now, tens of thousands of Syrian troops remain in Lebanon, despite the fact that the last Israeli soldier left weeks ago. Whatever rationale might have existed for an armed Syrian presence on the territory of its neighbor has evaporated.

Perhaps most important, Assad never succeeded in making peace with Israel.

Several Israeli governments made clear that they were prepared to meet the Syrians at least halfway on basic issues pertaining to territory, water and security. But, in the end, no compromise from Israel was deemed sufficient; any compromise from Syria was deemed too great.

What makes all this worse is that Assad’s failure to make peace with Israel on reasonable terms will make it that much more difficult for his successor to do so. Anyone prepared to accept less than Assad demanded will risk being branded as a sellout; yet anyone who demands more than Assad will be unable to reach an agreement with any conceivable Israeli government.

The likelihood that any future Syrian leader will be weaker than Assad only increases the difficulty a successor will face in building support at home for peace. Assad’s decision not to define the grounds for a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon—for example, the withdrawal of Israeli troops coupled with the demilitarization of the Iran-backed Hezbollah militia—will similarly make it more difficult for his successor to find a formula for leaving.

And Assad’s unwillingness to permit any meaningful opening up at home means that his son and hand-picked successor, Bashar, begins with a unanimous vote from the parliament but no real legitimacy.

He will never have the luxury of not having to worry about consolidating power in the face of rivals, including his uncle, Rifaat Assad, who seek what he has been handed. Bashar is thus the heir apparent but not necessarily permanent. In the end, Hafez Assad proved to be little more than another authoritarian head of an old-fashioned country. He ruled Syria for three decades, but led it nowhere.

Richard N. Haass was a principal adviser on the Mideast to President George Bush.