Younger Assad could Use Syria's Anti-corruption Campaign to his Advantage

Published June 11th, 2000 - 02:00 GMT

A relentless anti-corruption drive launched by Syrian heir-apparent Bashar Assad over the past months has served as a key tool to help him impose his authority and more liberal sympathies after the death of his father. 

The judicial investigations that have increased over the past month "constitute a prelude to Bashar's nomination" as successor to Hafez Assad, who died Saturday, one Syrian official said. 

The anti-corruption campaign "confers a sense of populist legitimacy" on the nomination of the 34-year-old son to succeed his long-serving father, a western specialist on Syrian affairs said. 

The campaign is also "a sword of Damocles hanging over those who would try to hinder his goals," said the expert, who asked not to be named. 

Especially hard hit have been officials in the government of prime minister Mahmud Zohbi, which Assad dismissed in March. Zohbi himself was under investigation for corruption when he committed suicide last month. 

"But the enquiries could go back to even longer ago and affect other officials; it's a warning message," the specialist said. 

The process of destroying the old traditions began several years ago when Bashar was plucked from relative obscurity as an eye-doctor to be groomed for the presidency following the death of his elder brother Basil, who died in a car accident in 1994. 

In 1998, Bashar was put in charge of the thorny issue of handling Lebanon, a role until then in the hands of Vice President Abdel Halim Khaddam, an old friend of his father. 

Bashar's transition to power was made official after his father's death Saturday when the leadership of the ruling Baath Party proposed him to succeed. 

The parliament will rubber-stamp the candidacy June 25 before submitting it to a national plebiscite. 

"Bashar is going to govern, but he wants to govern as he feels like," said the western expert, who warned that Bashar's liberal views could anger some of Syria's establishment. 

The anti-corruption campaign has been seen as an absolute necessity to reinvigorate Syria's economy with an injection of private, local and foreign capital, in strong contrast to the cronyism that centers on some leaders' economic interests. 

The government's resolve to fight such personal enrichment was on view dramatically last year, when a port operated illegally by Rifaat, the late president's estranged brother, was closed by Syria's armed forces. 

"To attract investors, you need a clean administration," said Patrick Seale, the British biographer of Hafez al-Assad. 

Bashar, who is head of Syria's information technology society, also faces the daunting task of modernizing the educational system of a country where Internet use is still extremely restricted. 

"His efforts to promote the use of computers and the Internet were not accomplished without obstacles; he has to face monstrous and sluggish bureaucracy," the western expert said. 

Bashar's views were made official state policy in March, when the elder Assad named as prime minister Mohammed Mustapha Miro, known for his integrity. 

The anti-corruption campaign has been presented in official Syrian circles as a return to the rightful path preached by Hafez Assad, but which officials diverted without his knowledge,” – (AFP)  

© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)

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