At last count, only two totalitarian leaders have succeeded in passing power on to their sons. In 1994, Kim Il Sung of North Korea managed this unlikely feat. And precisely a year ago this Sunday, president Hafez al-Assad of Syria repeated the trick. In both cases the youngish "revolutionary princes" have had a tough time following their formidable fathers, to the point that one wonders whether these rookies can hold on to power.
The case of 35-year-old Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is particularly interesting because he tried to get out of the family business. His career in ophthalmology took him to London and to the worlds of science and hi-tech. Only after his elder brother's death in 1994 was Bashar called back and enrolled by his father in a fast-track tutorial on dictatorship. On the death of Hafez last June 10, the regime's grandees then flawlessly ushered Bashar to the presidency.
This background suggests on the one hand that the would-be eye-doctor Bashar is cut from a very different cloth than his megalomaniac father. On the other, it points to a neophyte ruler unable to cut loose from his father's men. And Bashar's first year in office has indeed reflected this duality.
For example, he started to open the country and then back-tracked. Lectures and discussion groups temporarily were allowed to convene, then organizers had to provide full details of each event (participants, subject matter, etc.) 15 days in advance to get a government license, effectively closing down this small step toward civil society.
In foreign affairs, too, Bashar wends an erratic path. One moment, he talks about resolving the conflict with Israel, the next he spouts an extreme anti-Zionism (calling Israeli society "even more racist than Nazism") and alienates Israelis with an obnoxious anti-Semitism (Israelis try "to kill the principles of all religions with the same mentality with which they betrayed Jesus Christ").
Bashar talks tough and acts weak. After Israeli aircraft hit Syrian radar stations in mid-March, killing three Syrian soldiers, his spokesman boasted that "Syria - leadership and people - will not stand idle against continued Israeli attacks against the Arab nation." But then Bashar proceeded to do exactly that - stand idly by. He even instructed his Lebanese allies to cool it.
Speaking of Lebanon, although Bashar continues to deploy an estimated 35,000 uniformed soldiers and 25,000 intelligence officers in that country, what the New York Times calls "the icy menace of his father" has evaporated. Even the Lebanese president, hitherto a Damascene lapdog, dared call the Syrian occupation "temporary." One wonders how long the occupation can continue.
As for the United States, Bashar asks for American sympathy toward his government, but then undercuts his standing by dramatically expanding diplomatic and economic relations with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. In the words of one senior US official, this is "a dangerous game by Syria and a big mistake."
With such a record, no one can figure out whether Bashar intends to continue in his father's footsteps or to effect fundamental changes in the system of government. Trouble is, both paths currently appear unattainable. Maintaining Hafez's perverse masterpiece of a Syria - where the leader dominates every aspect of his country's life, occupies neighboring Lebanon and plays a game of brinkmanship with Israel - is probably beyond Bashar's cunning or ruthlessness. Likewise, making a real break with the old system - by opening Syria to normal economic and political life, withdrawing from Lebanon and ending the conflict with Israel - also demands more skill and initiative than he has shown.
Foreign leaders have unusually harsh things to say about Bashar. "Garbage" is how Edward S. Walker, Jr., the recently retired US assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, described his rhetoric. "Ghastly" is how German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder characterized his talks with Bashar.
At his first year's anniversary, in other words, Bashar gives the impression of not being up to the job, but of bumbling through from one day to the next. Of course, he might evolve into a more decisive and effective ruler, but that can only happen if he manages to remain the ruler. Bashar's incompetence risks frittering away Hafez's hard-won power. Unless he is a whole lot craftier than he has so far shown, the days of the Assad dynasty may well be numbered.