About Syria, which is no more
The day after Hafez al-Assadʹs death, his son Bashar was installed in power. It is well known that he was never intended for this challenge. His brother, Basil, was the fatherʹs preferred heir. But fate conspired to create a car accident, and Bashar found himself, whether he liked it or not, the much-needed heir for the succession.
It is fair to say that most Syrians were very happy at this turn of events, at the time. Bashar was a shy, polite ophthalmologist. He was seen as more merciful than his late father or his exiled uncle (Rifaat), and people turned a blind eye to the outrageous method of his inauguration (which was revealed when the "Peopleʹs Assembly" met, in a brief session, to amend the constitution, so that the age of eligibility to become president accorded with the age of the heir apparent). Syrians were well aware of the nature of the regime which governed them: "the lion is dead, long live the cub." (ed: a play on the Arabic word for ʹlionʹ – ʹasadʹ).
If things had turned out well, history might have put up with such major falsification. There was optimism within Syria that the country was on the path to reform and opening up.
Arab despots mistrustful
The young Assad emerged as a brilliant star at the Arab Summits. His rhetoric was youthful, lively and anti-Western, and he offered strategic analyses which sounded smarter than they were about the challenges facing the "Arab nation". He did so with an over-philosophical air: "because the challenges determine what the solutions should be". Or so he said.
Most of his fellow rulers and ageing tyrants listened uncomfortably to him, wondering how long this "young mutt" was going to annoy them by talking about "tragedies which multiply, reduce and continue, with a diagram in which the peak indicates the height of Arab misfortune and the trough reflects the real decline in the Arab world..."
When the Damascus Spring movement surfaced in 2000, the young heir responded by relaxing some rules and by raising very slightly the ceiling on free speech and thought. He even allowed the formation of civic groups and showed them how they could criticise the government and the party –without going near the young president, of course.
The Damascus Spring – hopes for reform
Within just a few years, the Damascus Spring movement began to demand the right to political participation and – all too quickly – Basharʹs promises vanished into thin air. He was, after all, his fatherʹs son, incapable of escaping the path that had been laid out for him, even had he wanted to. Maintaining the authoritarian system inherited from his father was of vital benefit to the Assad family and the ruling Alawite elite.
Whether it benefitted Syria was neither here nor there. Thus, the ruling family intervened in a high-handed manner, as Hafez al-Assad might have done. The Damascus Spring was suppressed by the security services, at the behest of the first family, and all intellectual, cultural and political activity was frozen.
The Damascus Spring presented an opportunity for reformist elements within the leadership to take a peaceful and gradual path towards democratic change in Syria, coordinating between the regime and the people. This might arguably have prevented the country from lurching further into the crisis which had been building for decades.