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July 1998
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MER - Washington - 7/9/98:

Among the major weaknesses of Arab States in the nepotistic and sectarian nature of politics, even in so-called "progressive" and secular regimes.  Rather than realizing that repression and nepotism bring weakness, regimes in Damascus and Baghdad nevertheless rely on blood relatives and cronies to keep themselves in power. The end result is that a once thriving civilization is today divided into more than 20 nation-states, many more feuding sub-groups, and all together remains no match -- militarily, economically, or politically -- for the little state of Israel.

The neo-tribal monarchistic "client regimes" -- like those in Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait -- are even worse of course. There loyalty to the King and blood relationships nearly completely determine who will have meaningful power and wealth. In recent years these regimes have grafted on practically powerless "consultative" institutions attempting to present themselves in new and deceptive ways (along with purchasing and controlling the media of course). But real power and wealth remains with the tribal family that rules and those it bestows its favors upon. Not surprisingly, non of these states dares build a strong military for fear the regime itself would eventually be overthrown -- another major reason the Israel has been able to rule the region constantly defeating all the Arab armies singly or together.

In the more "secular" states like Egypt, Syria and Iraq, it is the military from which power flows; but even then those who take power resort to neo-tribal ways of governing and in many cases attempt to push their sons to power after them. In the process much of the energy and political capital available to these societies is drained off into sectarian feuding while the serious social and economic problems that plague modern-day Arabdom are left largely unresolved.

The following article describes what is today going on in Syria as long-time strong-man (and former General) Hafez Assad attempts to prepare the way for his remaining son Bachar.


By Robert Fisk in Beirut

On the posters in Damascus, the legend is simple. "Basil, the Example: Bachar, the Future." But the message on the walls of the Syrian capital is now made manifest, as President Hafez Assad prepares the way for his son, Dr Bachar Assad, a British-trained ophthalmologist, to become his successor.

In advance of Bachar Assad's appointment as head of the Regional Command of the Baath Party - and full colonel in the Syrian army - President Assad has pensioned off his chief of staff and fired his head of intelligence. Basil Assad was the beloved son of the 78-year-old Syrian president, a genuinely popular horse riding champion, who was chief of presidential security while running a powerful anti-corruption campaign within the regime.

In 1990, President Assad allowed himself to be called "Abu Basil" - father of Basil - a sure sign that the presidential mantle was supposed to fall upon the 31-year-old soldier.

In January 1994, driving his own Mercedes at speed through fog to Damascus Airport, Basil Assad collided with a motorway roundabout and died instantly. Bachar, a more reticent and less public figure, was projected as a scientist rather than a soldier, fascinated by computer technology, he is head of Syria's computer science department. But by 1994, at the age of 28, he graduated as a captain at the Military Academy at Homs after a course as a tank battalion commander.

Within two months he was a major in the Presidential Guards, continuing his brother's campaign against corruption. By May of 1995, he was visiting President Elias Hrawi of Lebanon, where Syria keeps 22,000 troops, accompanied by two of Syria's top generals.

The way was cleared for Bachar in February when President Assad dismissed his wayward brother Rifaat from the vice-presidency. Rifaat Assad had ordered his T-72 tanks on to the streets of Damascus in 1984 after his brother had a heart attack. In full uniform, and accompanied only by Basil, Hafez Assad drove in his private car to confront the tanks. Rifaat's men left the streets and the Basil-Bachar dynasty was secured.

Officially, President Assad's successor is chosen through the constitution, but the army remains a frighteningly powerful institution. Last week, President Assad got rid of his allegedly corrupt head of civilian intelligence, Major- General Bashir Najjar, and retired 67-year-old General Hikmat Shehabi, who had been chief of staff for 24 years but who did not get on with Bachar.

General Shehabi has been replaced by General Ali Aslan, an interesting figure whose reticence has tended to obscure an important military career. In 1973, it was Aslan's Syrian 5th Division which almost recaptured the Golan heights from Israel by driving Israeli troops from the southern and central plateau.

Major-General Mahmoud Al Saqqa, who commanded the Syrian contingent to the Allies in the Gulf War, has been appointed to succeed Najjar.

The Syrian regime may, however, suffer from a sectarian divide. President Assad is an Alawi, as is Bachar. So are General Ali Aslan and General Ali Douba. General Shehabi, meanwhile, is a Sunni as is General Najjar, his successor, Major General Al Saqqa, and the Defence Minister, General Mustafa Tlass. The regime's enemies will no doubt be working on that equation for years.




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