Experts: Bashar's Real Problems to Begin once he is President

Published June 11th, 2000 - 02:00 GMT

The way seemed clear Sunday for Bashar Assad to succeed his late father as president of Syria but remaining in power may prove more difficult for the 34-year-old, experts here said. 

The son of president Hafez, who died Saturday, is weak on legitimacy and may succumb to power struggles, diplomats, academics and researchers interviewed by AFP said. 

They all agreed that a president Bashar could only be toppled by those close to power, such as the military and Syria's minority Alawite religious community, to which he belongs. 

And they were unanimous in saying that any mistake he made as president could provoke opposition. 

"The Muslim Brotherhood, the old opposition, was crushed in the 1980s, and potential opponents in the pillars of the regime -- the ruling Baath Party, the Alawite community, the military and the intelligence services, have been removed," a European researcher stationed in the Middle East said. 

Between now and June 25, the day parliament votes to ratify Bashar's candidacy for president, as put forward by the Baath's leadership and before it is submitted to a referendum, "there is little chance of a derailment," he said. 

A researcher at Saint Joseph University in Beirut was more cautious. 

"So far, there has been no damage. Bashar has benefited from his sharply accelerated launch. But in the aftermath of Hafez's funeral Tuesday, the power games will begin," he said. 

Another academic said that "Bashar will have to satisfy the religious authorities and the elites" of the Alawite community, a breakaway Muslim sect which represents 12 percent of Syria's population of 17 million. 

Most military officers are Alawites, and Hafez al-Assad himself had been a general. 

"President Hafez and his wife, who is from the Makhluf family, could count on the support of 60 percent of the Alawites. The first belonged to the Kalbiyeh clan and the second came from the powerful Haddadin clan." 

"Two other clans are influential: the Khayatin and the Mataouira," he said. 

"Bashar isn't married yet, and that weakens him since he has no matrimonial alliance, unlike his father," he added. 

A Western diplomat said, "For now, there is no open challenge, but an appointed successor can be elected and not be able to consolidate his power. 

"Bashar is benefiting from a sort of consensus, in as much as the old guard in the government, the military and the intelligence services were decimated by the recent purge and retirements," he said. 

"Nevertheless, one can fear that with the slightest snag, in a very difficult international environment, Bashar would come under pressure that is too strong for him and be removed from real power." 

In Jerusalem, Hebrew University researcher Avraham Sela said the Baath party is used only as a tool and has "no more than a weak autonomy." "The ministers have no importance," and the "rival intelligence services are neutralizing each other." 

That leaves the military. 

In Damascus today, the second in command is the military chief of staff, General Ali Aslan, Sela said. 

A Beirut researcher emphasized that "power in Syria is very impenetrable and segmented" and that "in Hafez's day, it was also very personal." 

"The big boss held everything in his hands. The officials reported to him and took everything directly to him." 

"If long-term predictions of what will happen in Damascus will be within the realm of political fiction, we can at least say, without risk of being wrong, that in order to establish control, Bashar will have to exhibit a bit more charisma," he added – (AFP) 

© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)

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