Small World

Jewish World Review Sept. 13 , 2000 / 12 Elul, 5760

Is Bashar Wimping Out?

By Richard Z. Chesnoff -- WHATEVER happened to Hafez Assad's little boy, Bashar?

When the Syrian dictator died last June, it was Bashar, a former London-based eye doctor and Assad's youngest son, who was named official heir and quickly "elected" Syria's new president. Hopes ran high that the Western-educated Bashar would make some serious changes in his long-suffering country's economic and political landscape.

"Bashar will modernize the economy and open Syria to the West," said some experts. The most hopeful predicted that Assad Jr. would facilitate limited democracy and break the 52-year stalemate that has prevented peace with neighboring Israel and cost Syria billions.

No one expected overnight miracles. Hafez Assad ruled Syria with a blood-drenched fist for more than 25 years and the country was tightly set in his ways. If change were to come, 34-year-old Bashar — a shy, inexperienced politician — would have to move carefully.

But Bashful Bashar is proving overly cautious — and if anything, is repeating some of the same disastrous mistakes that his father made.

The Syrian economy, once almost completely dependent on long-gone Soviet aid, creeps closer to death's door. Syrian Gross Domestic Product rose last year by barely 1%, and its gross capital formation is in a free-fall decline (e.g. housing starts are down by almost a third and unemployment has risen to 15%).

With little cash rolling in, the infrastructure is in deep trouble and Syria hasn't even begun to repay its old debts to the United States and Germany of about $1 billion.

Bashar keeps promising socioeconomic progress — and there is an ambitious plan to liberalize the economy and pull in foreign investment. But local bureaucracy remains ridiculously excessive, and there's no serious move toward privatization.

Instead, he's done what his father would have done: He's strengthened the public sector, the main source of Syrian inefficiency, waste and corruption, and raised by 25% the salaries of Syria's most privileged class — those who work in government and the armed forces, the folks on whose good will he is politically dependent.

On the peace front, there's been no sign of any movement toward negotiations with the Israelis. Even after Israel withdrew from Lebanon last July, Bashar made no move to reduce Syrian support for Iranian-controlled Hezbollah, nor did he do anything to stop or damage the operational capacity of other terrorist groups operating out of the Syrian-influenced regions of Lebanon. Murderous gangs like Hamas and the Palestinian Jihad continue to be headquartered in Damascus.

Personally, I was hoping to see Bashar show up at the United Nations Millennium Summit. It would have been the perfect opportunity for him to strut his stuff, to meet and talk with President Clinton and other Western leaders — and maybe, just maybe, even confab discreetly with Israel's Ehud Barak.

Instead, Bashar Assad remained isolated at home, just as his father would have. Perhaps he feared some of his rivals, like his evil Uncle Rifaat, would grab power while he was away. Perhaps he's waiting for the West to come to him.

But it doesn't work that way. Assad's Lebanese neighbors have just elected a government that's less than enthusiastic about Syrian influence. He should take the hint. No one expects Syria to disavow completely any interest in Lebanon, but perhaps the time has come for Syria to understand that the Lebanese want to run their own lives. It's going to require some creative thinking.

It's time for Bashful Bashar to show some strength and be his own man, and show Syria and the world that he's more than just daddy's little boy.

JWR contributor and veteran journalist Richard Z. Chesnoff is a senior correspondent at US News And World Report and a columnist at the NY Daily News. His latest book is Pack of Thieves: How Hitler & Europe Plundered the Jews and Committed the Greatest Theft in History.


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