Syria's Cautious Son


By David Ignatius

DAMASCUS -- Syrian President Bashar Assad sat down for a rare interview here yesterday. The ground rules don't allow me to quote directly from our conversation, but I can offer a snapshot of what the young Syrian leader is thinking on the eve of a possible U.S. war against Iraq.

A simple way to sum up Assad's comments is that his father, Hafez, one of the toughest hard-liners in the Arab world, would have found little to disagree with. While recognizing the need for political change, Syria's new leader remains tied to the traditional Arab political consensus. In that sense, the Arab future may be unstoppable, but so is its past.

The 37-year-old Syrian president expressed strong and sometimes scornful opposition to U.S. war plans. He likened American policy to a car hurtling toward a big concrete block and said the coming weeks will test which is stronger -- the car or the concrete block.

Even if America's military power allows it to drive through the concrete block, Assad asked, what will it find on the other side? Will it be a beautiful road paved with roses, as optimistic U.S. policy planners seem to believe, or a cliff off which the American car will tumble into a deep and dangerous valley?

As for the Bush administration's hopes that a quick victory in Iraq will open the door to a new future for the Arab world, Assad was dismissive. He views such talk as a mask for America's true strategic goal, which he suspects is control of Iraqi oil. But he noted that the lack of clearly articulated American objectives was unusual in the history of warfare.

Assad fears that rather than moving the region forward, an Iraqi war will set it back for decades -- reinforcing old attitudes and ideologies. If war comes, he fears that terrorism will increase and events may spin out of control. The Arab region will be boiling, he believes, and when water boils, it's bound to spill over.

  This practical science analogy is typical of Assad, who was trained as a doctor and spent two years in Britain practicing his specialty of ophthalmology. He's an articulate man who speaks good English but preferred to conduct most of the interview in Arabic through an interpreter.

 Despite his youth and interest in modern technology, Assad is his father's son. He speaks in a similarly didactic style -- mixing references to science with comments about Syrian history and culture. This straddle of past and future can be seen in the twin portraits of father and son that appear along every Syrian highway and in every public place. The son's legitimacy clearly depends in part on the continuity of his father's policies.

 Assad knows that there's ferment in Syrian society, with younger people yearning for more openness and economic opportunity. But he governs with the support of his father's old guard of military and intelligence officers, and he needs to move carefully. He doesn't want to link his own modernization plans to America's military campaign in Iraq, viewing that as a potential kiss of death.

Instead of "democracy" or "liberalization," Assad talks of political development in Syria. In modernizing the country, he wants to work on its weak points, which he says include the lack of a modern, scientific approach to solving problems. He thinks Syria was too cautious in its approach to the Internet during the 1990s. Syria's basic Internet backbone should be finished in about a year, he says.

 Looser political controls would be good for Syria, Assad says, and not simply as a price to be paid for economic development, Chinese-style. But the transition must take place under a ceiling of stability. Characteristically, Assad offered a mathematical formula: Stability plus freedom equals a stronger region.

 Certainly, Syria could use a makeover. Damascus, once a wealthy crossroads of the Middle East, seems a bit threadbare these days. During the Cold War, Soviet guns and money propped up the socialist regime here, but that era is long gone.

Behind the scenes, there are hints of movement. Assad confirmed, for example, that Syria's intelligence services are quietly helping the United States and Europe in the hunt for al Qaeda terrorists. Syria also joined in the U.N. Security Council's 15 to 0 vote last October to authorize Resolution 1441 demanding Iraqi disarmament.

Critics would argue that Assad is being too cautious -- that the moment to embrace political change is now, and that if Syria hangs back it will lose a crucial opportunity. But the Syrian leader clearly feels that right now the risks of being too openly connected with America's war in Iraq far outweigh any potential gains.

What the Bush administration doesn't understand about the Arabs, Assad said, is that above anything else -- even food -- they value dignity. Unless U.S. policy recognizes that reality, he warned, it will fail.


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