Will Bashar Assad chart new course

The conventional wisdom in Washington says the death of Hafez Assad is a setback for Israeli-Syrian peace talks, but it's hard to tell how much more it could set back something that was already comatose.

After President Clinton's failed meeting with Assad in Geneva in March, Israeli leaders concluded the chances for peace with Syria were probably dead as long as Assad lived.

Thus nothing was lost with his death. If anything, the old dictator breathed new life into the peace process with his dying gasp.

Negotiations won't resume any time soon. His son and heir, Bashar Assad, has the fast track for the job, but it will take at least a year to tell if he has the right stuff to hold the presidency-cum-dictatorship.

In the short term, Assad's passing should be good news for the Israeli-Palestinian talks resuming this week.

Yasser Arafat, who is to visit the White House following Assad's funeral, won't be shedding any tears over the man who tried to have him killed more than once, was encouraging radical Palestinian elements to overthrow him and strongly opposed the Palestinian leader's decision to negotiate with Israel. Just last year Assad's defense minister — who could also be a powerful figure in Bashar's government– called Arafat the "son of 60,000 whores."

Without Assad around to spark opposition to any deal with Israel, Arafat could find more room to maneuver, making an agreement more likely.

Not much is known about Bashar. He is fluent in English, began listening to pop music's Phil Collins while studying ophthalmology in London and wants to link Syria to the Internet to drag the nation into the 21st century.

But his views on public policy issues remain enigmatic. He is said to be keen on combating the corruption of his father's government, and that could bestow him with a lot of very powerful enemies he doesn't need right now.

Perhaps the biggest decision confronting Bashar is whether he should follow in his father's footsteps or chart a new course. What is important is not what he said when his father was in charge, but what he says now that he is No. 1 and his words are no longer his father's echo.

Will his father be a role model or object lesson?

Hafez Assad, the self-declared "Lion of Damascus," turned out to be a cowardly lion.

President Clinton has said Assad "made a strategic commitment for peace," but A. James Rubin, the former State Department spokesman, pointed out that "he refused to walk through the door he opened."

Assad reluctantly made that "commitment" only after a series of humiliating military defeats by Israel and the loss of his Soviet patron left him little alternative. But even if he was willing to talk the talk, he lacked the courage to walk the walk.

He was praised for being "consistent" in his negotiations with Israel, but that was just another weakness; in actuality, he was inflexible and uncompromising to a fault, never able to move beyond his own rhetoric or rise above his visceral hatred of the Jewish state.

As for confronting Israel, he preferred to let others do his fighting and dying in Lebanon, especially after his air force and air defenses were pulverized in the 1982 Lebanon War.

He turned Syria into a regional power, brought the stability of a repressive police state, survived assassination attempts and had American presidents and secretaries of state pay homage to him. But the fact remains he was never able to translate that into respect or international leadership.

He died the head of an isolated pariah state, branded a sponsor of international terrorism and narcotics trade. He left an ailing economy and a military far inferior to those of Israel. He lost every war with Israel, failed to get back even an inch of the Golan Heights and blew repeated chances for peace and territorial recovery with Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak. He failed to win recognition as leader of the Arab world. And he had a knack for picking the wrong friends, most notably, the collapsed Soviet Union and another Mideast outcast, Iran.

Assad was also a brutal murderer. He slaughtered tens of thousands of his fellow Syrians in Hama, and there's no telling how many thousands of other Syrians, some of them Jewish, he imprisoned, tortured or killed. And he would have annihilated millions of Jews if he thought he could get away with it.

A former Israeli intelligence expert pointed out that Bashar has to decide whether he wants to be the "Little Lion of Damascus" and continue his father's legacy of economic, social and political stagnation or institute fundamental changes.

He also has to answer some tough questions.

Will he stay in Lebanon or withdraw? Will he take Barak's offer and terminate the conflict with Israel or let it fester? Will he seek to smooth relations with Turkey, Jordan and Iraq? Will he continue to play host to international terrorists? Will he try to block an Israeli-Palestinian settlement? What will he do about Iran? Will he adopt economic reform, social change and greater rights for ordinary Syrians?

Bashar is unlikely to deviate from his father's policies right away, but American and Israeli officials will be looking for subtle signals as he consolidates his power.

The wars in 1967, 1973 and 1982 were personal disgraces for his father, but Bashar is said not to have the same compulsion for avenging them, nor is he believed to be blinded by the same intense hatred for Israel. It remains to be seen whether the young eye doctor will demonstrate more vision than his father and be able to see beyond the elder Assad's narrow, parochial limits.

Clinton had hoped to conclude an Israeli-Syrian agreement before he left office, as had Barak, an event that was not likely even had Assad lived.

Assad's death assuages the fears of many Israelis who were uneasy making a deal with a dying man who might not be around to keep his end of the bargain. Some of those concerns will be transferred to Bashar until it is clear that he is firmly in charge.

When the new Syrian president is ready to break with the past and chart a new course for his country, don't be surprised if he decides to start with a gesture towards Israel. The peace process can be a key to his breakout because, short of a dramatic rupture between the United States and Israel, the road to Washington goes through Jerusalem for the Syrians.

The writer is a Washington, D.C.-based commentator for American Jewish newspapers.

Douglas M. Bloomfield

Douglas M. Bloomfield is the president of Bloomfield Associates Inc., a Washington, D.C., lobbying and consulting firm. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.