The fate of Syria was in good measure determined on January 21, 1994. That's when, driving at a too-high speed to the Damascus airport for a skiing trip abroad, Basil Al-Assad crashed the Mercedes he was driving, killing himself and his passengers.
The accident had great consequence because Basil, then 31, was being groomed to succeed his father, Hafez Al-Assad, as dictator of Syria. All indications pointed to the equestrian, martial, and charismatic Basil making for a formidable ruler.
After the car crash, his younger brother Bashar got yanked back from his ophthalmologic studies in London and enrolled in a rapid course to prepare as Syria's next strongman. He perfunctorily ascended the military ranks and on his father's demise in June 2000 he, sure enough, succeeded to the presidential throne.
(This made Bashar the second dynastic dictator, with Kim Jong Il of North Korea having been the first in 1994. The third one, being Faure Gnassingbé of Togo, emerged earlier this month. Other sons waiting in the wings include Gamal Mubarak of Egypt, Saifuddin Gadhafi of Libya, and Ahmed Salih of Yemen. Saddam Hussein's pair never made it.) [later addition: readers have pointed out other republican princes: Jean-Claude ("Baby") Duvalier succeeded his father François ("Papa Doc") Duvalier as ruler of Haiti in April 1971; Ilham Aliev succeeded his father Heidar as prime minister of Azerbaijan in August 2003.]
The possibility existed that Bashar, due to his brief Western sojourn and scientific orientation, would dismantle his father's totalitarian contraption; Bashar's early steps suggested he might do just that, but then he quickly reverted to his father's autocratic methods - either because of his own inclinations or because he remained under the sway of his father's grandees.
His father's methods, yes, but not his skills. The elder Assad was a tactical genius, even if his rule ultimately failed (he never regained the Golan Heights, never came close to destroying Israel, and rode Syria's economy and culture into the ground). The younger Assad combines strategic blindness with tactical ineptitude.
Within months of Bashar's accession, questions arouse about his ability to retain control over Lebanon; not long after, his ability to hold on to power in Syria itself came under doubt. The Syrian government's rush to the side of Saddam Hussein just as he was ousted made eyebrows rise with wonder. Bashar's pattern of promising one thing to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, then instantly breaking his word caused general bafflement.
These mistakes prompted passage of two landmark anti-regime measures. In December 2003, the American government passed the Syrian Accountability Act which punished Damascus for its malfeasance. In September 2004, the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 1559 which called on all "foreign forces" to withdraw their troops from Lebanon, a clear reference to the Syrian troops that arrived in 1976.
These steps encouraged leading Lebanese politicians to demand the withdrawal of Syrian forces. Most notably, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and Sunni leader Rafik Hariri took this fateful step, thereby threatening to deprive Damascus of both its sense of territorial achievement and its golden Lebanese economic goose.
There can be little doubt that Mr. Assad was behind the massive (probably underground) blast on February 14 that gouged a 20-yard-wide crater, killing Hariri and 16 others. With his flair for incompetence, Mr. Assad presumably decided that the former prime minister had to die for this betrayal. But, quite contrary to Mr. Assad's presumed expectations, far from reducing pressures on Syria to leave Lebanon, the atrocity magnified and intensified them.
Mr. Assad's response – pretending to denounce the murder, putting a relative in charge of the intelligence services, purchasing SA-18 anti-aircraft missiles from Russia, and announcing a mutual defense pact with Tehran – points to his cluelessness about the trouble he has stirred up for himself. For the first time in three decades, Lebanon now seems within reach of regaining its independence. "I don't see how Syria can stay now," observes Lebanon's former president, Amin Gemayel.
The reassertion of Lebanon's independence will fittingly reward an unsung steadfastness. The Lebanese may have once squandered their sovereignty, starting with the Syrian invasion of 1976 and culminating in the nearly complete occupation of 1990, but they showed dignity and bravery under occupation. Against the odds, they asserted a civil society, kept alive the hope of freedom, and retained a sense of patriotism.
Lebanon's independence will also serve as a large nail in the coffin of the brutal, failed, and unloved Assad dynasty. If things go right, Syria's liberation should follow on Lebanon's.
Thus can a mere traffic accident influence history.