By Munir K. Nasser
Shibley Telhami, a member of the Palestinian-Israeli Non-Incitement Committee, who also holds the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, believes that Bashar Assad will have a huge task in front of him in consolidating his power base and bringing a coalition around him from the ruling elite.
He told Albawaba.com in an interview in Washington that the moment he becomes president, “he gets involved in the nasty politics of survival, which is different from a protected son running around benefiting from the protection of his powerful father.”
Telhami stressed that the tasks in front of Bashar Assad are very big, challenging and uncertain. “And as a consequence, he noted, “I very much doubt that in any foreseeable future he will jump into making the sort of concessions that his father refused to make.”
The following are excerpts from the interview:
What is the overall impact of Assad’s death on the region and the peace process?
In the short term, the main impact will be slowing down the Syrian-Israeli negotiations. But the bottom line remains the same: the strategic interests of Israel, Syria and Lebanon are to make a deal. The gap between them remains very small. I think they were very close to a deal and I believe the late president Assad was actually close to coming around to making that deal. Nonetheless, I do believe, that in the short term the new President, which is expected to be his son Bashar, will have a huge task in front of him in consolidating his power base and bringing coalition around him from the ruling elite.
But Bashar Assad was preparing for this moment during the last six years?
It is not correct to judge Bashar Al-Assad by the last six years when he was seen to be at the forefront and aggressive in fighting corruption, and forward looking and bringing the internet to the country. All these seemingly aggressive things took place under the protection of his powerful father. The moment he becomes president, he gets involved in the nasty politics of survival, which is different from a protected son running around benefiting from the protection of his powerful father.
So there is no question in my mind that the task in front of him is very big, challenging and are uncertain. And as a consequence, I very much doubt that in any foreseeable future he will jump into making the sort of concessions that his father refused to make. At the same time, it is quite obvious that he will not have an interest in escalation, because he cannot afford matters getting out of control, either in Lebanon or in his relationship with Israel. I would be surprised if in fact negotiations are resumed. I wouldn’t be surprised if in fact gestures are made. But I would assume that there would be delays in clinching a deal.
Do you think he can afford to deviate from the red lines set by his late father?
I think in the short term it will be very hard to do. It would be very hard to explain to the public why he, not his father, is agreeing to this sort of concession that his father refused over a period of 33 years. It is of course very possible, and one might ultimately find that there may be something that his father was just about to do. He might very quickly try to frame his father’s position in a way that is different from the way presented to the public. But in order to do that, he has to have a strong coalition around him, and he must be sure that others are not trying to exploit his weakness. And I can assume that because of the very fact that we know that he was aggressively pursuing pockets of oppositions within Damascus. And as we know, there isn’t a government in the Middle East that does not have a violent opposition awaiting a moment to exploit opportunity.
One of the obstacles facing the new president will be his relationship with Lebanon and the presence of Syrian troops in Lebanon. Do you think there will be a change between Syria and Lebanon under the new regime?
This is going to be an interesting issue. There is no question that we have seen already increasing forces in Lebanon for Syrian withdrawal. Even the US is asserting itself quietly in taking a position on that, it is not pushing for it, but it has gone on the record publicly again of calling for the pulling out of foreign forces. So there is no doubt a coalition that might be emerging in the short term that would push for a pull out. I personally find it very hard to believe that Bashar Assad would move in that direction because of the military. After all, he requires the support of the military. And the military has a lot of say here. The presence of forces in Lebanon is not a mere question of influencing in Lebanon. There is a genuine need for the positioning of Syrian forces against Israeli forces, as long as the two sides in a situation of peace. There is a strategic logic for that deployment. As a consequence I would point it is very hard to believe that he is going to push his military to do something that the military does not believe it is appropriate. So I would very much doubt that he will go in that direction.
What would the passing away of Assad have on the US-Syrian relations in the new era?
Certainly the US would make a lot of gestures very quickly with the assumption that this young man, who most likely would become president, could be swayed. He is already on record for being forward looking for wanting to open up the economy with the US encouraging him. So I would the US will make gestures and extend its hand and we will have to wait and see what comes after that. I would also expect out of Damascus there will be an extension of a hand as well. Not on the question of making concessions of principles issues, but on the keeping the peace process alive. They don’t want to close that door and they don’t want additional pressure to come from Washington.
The last meeting between Clinton and Assad in Geneva ended in failure. Do you think things will improve between Bashar and the Clinton Administration?
There is no question that Geneva meeting did not go as well as it was hoped, but I think it was very badly prepared and probably ill conceived. But nonetheless it sort of reflected badly on Clinton and to that extent it is hard not to place some of that blame squarely on Assad. Since the end of the Geneva meeting, clearly the US has been giving Syria something of a cold shoulder, even as it was going to pursue a deal between Syria and Israel. And I think right now it is going to be a new opening. The US likes civility, but did not like uncertainty. From all the things they did not like about Assad over the years, one thing they did like: he was very predictable. And he met his commitments, he kept his agreements and the US could work with him. Clearly what is on the minds of policy makers in Washington is to assure a degree of stability within Syria and within Lebanon. And in that respect, they will do what they can to help the young leader.
How do you expect Bashar Assad to perform among the old generation of the political elite in Damascus?
Bashar is a very dynamic, educated young man, who probably did not imagine that one day he is going to be president. And yet he is the son of the father. He is crowned by a parliament by reversing a constitution. He is part of the ruling elite that has not seen a serious change over the past 30 years. I believe that he is forward looking and he has much to bring to a new generation in Damascus, but I also believe he cannot survive without the old generation. And how he going to negotiate between the old and the new, is going to be anyone’s guess – Albawaba.com.
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)