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Leadership Transition

Hafiz al-Asad ruled in Damascus longer than any leader since Mu'awiyah founded the Ummayad dynasty in 661, but he was very much the exception in Syrian politics. According to one historian, the period from Syria's independence in 1946 until Asad seized power in 1970 was marked by "one of the world's highest records for military putsches and coups." While destabilizing, most of these coups were, fortunately, relatively bloodless with violence confined to the players and their immediate supporters.

Until his sudden death in January 1994, Hafez al-Assad’s heir-apparent was his oldest son, Basil al-Asad. Assad had been grooming Basil to succeed him. This had not been an easy task. The average Syrian was unwilling to see the office of president manipulated in this way. Syria's military leaders were not much taken with the idea either. Hence, Assad invested considerable capital in positioning Basil to inherit the rulership. Principally, he cultivated the Syrian power elite, promoting individuals who were disposed toward Basil, and sidelining those who were not. It was widely perceived that Assad hadsucceeded in his mission. The public appeared ready to accept Basil. They recognized his good qualities, which, in fact, were numerous.

The President's oldest living son, Bashar, took up fully his deceased older brother Basil's former role as the President's eyes and ears in Syrian society. By 1999 Hafiz al-Asad's effort to prepare son Bashar to assume eventually the presidency was increasingly the prism through which political developments were viewed and interpreted. The prospects for a smooth succession were a direct function of how much time Asad had -- and how much aptitude Bashar showed. Given his age and health, President Asad could die at any time; his early departure would likely revive the long-dormant struggle for power in Syria. Eldest son Bashar was far from a sure bet to follow in his father's footsteps, and, in any case, would never enjoy his father's absolute grip on power. Vice-President Khaddam would likely have a key role in succession. Ultimately, however, multiple power centers seemed likely to emerge. As the internal power struggle develops, the Syrian leadership's primary focus will be on consolidating power.

Given President hafiz al-Asad's age (i.e., officially 69 in 1999 and possibly older) and health concerns (i.e., heart disease and diabetes) a succession could realistically take place at any time and possibly within the timeframe of his just-started seven-year term of office. There are also indications that Asad's mental acuity and attentiveness were being gradually eroded by the combined effects of age and disease. Pervasive security in Syria made it difficult if not impossible to establish independent powerbases. Therefore, in the short and medium terms, a constitutional transition, by providing organizational time, would likely serve the interests of those who may be inclined to or be positioned for a grab for power. While it is possible and perhaps likely that the succession will play out initially in constitutional channels, extra-constitutional scenarios, including coups and counter-coups, cannot be ruled out.

Syrian succession was clouded by the passing from the scene of many Asad-generation powerbrokers and the emergence of new leaders from within a power structure with which Westerners had little or no contact. If Asad died in office or became permanently incapacitated, the first Vice-President would play a key role. According to the constitution, in such circumstances, the first Vice President Abd al-Halim Khaddam, holds full Presidential powers for up to 90 days, during which time a Presidential referendum must take place. In this period, the Ba'ath party would recommend a candidate to the parliament which "debates" the candidacy and then votes on whether the candidate's name will move forward to the final step of a national referendum.

Behind the constitutional process, however, the Alawi-dominated military and security serVices would play the key role and likely determine the outcome of succession in conjunction with the senior Ba'ath party leadership (i.e., the 20-member regional command, which has military representation). The serVices were the primary pillar of the Asad regime, followed in descending order of importance by the Ba'ath party, government, parliament, government-controlled professional organizations and the Sunni merchant class.

Colonel Bashar al-Asad: President Asad appeared to be betting that his final term in office will allow sufficient time for an orderly transition to power for his son Bashar. If Asad made it through his seven year term, Bashar would have reached the constitutionally mandated Presidential age of 40. The transition effort began in earnest during 1998, as witnessed most dramatically in the military- security serVices, through a decision to minimize career extensions at rank, thus allowing for increased military retirements. Retired officers, including some regime heavyweights, were replaced with younger ones believed to be loyal or at least not a threat to Bashar. Bashar was also increasingly being positioned as a Syrian statesman, holding separate high-profile meetings with lebanese officials, Jordanian King 'Abdullah and Iranian President Khatami.

Assuming the military transition was moving reasonably well, Asad seemed likely to make parallel changes in the senior Ba'ath party membership. Only after these two steps were successfully underway would Asad move to consider constitutional and other changes to allow for Bashar to assume a Vice-presidency or an outright early assumption of power. The success of this scenario was predicated upon Asad having the time and health to complete the preparations and on Bashar's ability to seize on the head start his father is attempting to provide.

Bashar still faced some resistance among the Alawi elite, some of whom doubted that Bashar was capable of maintaining the system that has long benefited this ruling minority. Interestingly, Christians and most other religious minorities expressed open support for Bashar in the fervent hope that he will maintain Asad's "live and let live" approach towards minority religious groups. While it was no longer taboo to speak openly about Bashar as a successor to his father, even supporters fretted that he lacked a title and an official place in the government/party structure.

First Vice-President Abd al-Halim Khaddam: With the departure of chief-of-staff Hikmat al-Shihabi, VP Khaddam (aged 67 in 1999) remained arguably the most trusted Sunni in the Asad regime. There was much talk and some evidence that some of Khaddam's portfolios -- e.g. Lebanon -- were gradually being transferred to Bashar. At the same time, Khaddam still held a special place in the closed circle around the President. As long as Khaddam remained first Vice-President, he enjoyed pride of place in any constitutional succession scenario. Khaddam has no independent power base, and his thinking probably aligns very closely with Asad's and with the military- security leadership. Various sources indicate Khaddam might be open to economic reform but, on the other hand, he is considered to be very hard-line on the peace process.

Khaddam, therefore, could fulfill several roles from a 90-day overseer of transition to a transitional President in a quasi-collective leadership scenario. Collective leadership in post-independence Syria has usually served as a period for the emergence of multiple power centers vying for dominance. History may well repeat itself. If Asad's death takes place four or five years from now, Khaddam might be able to finish out Asad's succession plans for Bashar, assuming Bashar had risen to the occasion. If not, Alawi powerbrokers may already have begun looking at alternatives in whom to entrust their future.

BGg 'Asif Shawqat: One of the alternatives may be Presidential son-in-law Shawqat (aged 53 in 1999). An Alawi, Shawqat might well be called the comeback player of the regime. He was once one of SMI chief LTG 'Ali Duba's most trusted subordinates, but fell from grace and was actually retired and imprisoned (1993), supposedly because of reported dealings in smuggling and narcotics, but more likely because Asad did not approve of Shawqat's plans to marry his only daughter Bushra. The Shawqats since provided President Asad with his only grandchildren and all appeared to be forgiven. Shawqat held a shadowy but powerful position as head of an independent security service that can investigate anyone, "from civilians to military officers to the prime minister." Shawqat was tough, extremely intelligent, well-read, quiet and a self-starter. He obviously also had the moxie to stand up to Asad himself and follow through on his marriage to Bushra. He was also reported to come from a relatively minor 'Alawi family/clan, which means he cannot automatically command a strong 'Alawi support base.

Rif'at al-Asad: Black sheep Presidential brother Rif'at had to be considered a long shot, but his name and tough-guy reputation still resonated with many Alawis. He was also ambitious, not only for himself but for his sons. Sunnis, however, reviled him for his role in the Hama/Aleppo massacres of the early 80's. He was a symbol of divisiveness, ethnic conflict and repression. Rif'at's fortunes could nevertheless improve if Alawi supremacy appeared threatened and the need for a heavy hand was felt and, particularly, if succession occurred earlier rather than later and Bashar was not deemed ready. Rif'at himself is plainly still interested in leading Syria after Asad's demise. He reportedly made the Hajj in 1995, which was seen as a mockery by Sunnis here, and he was an in-law of Saudi Crown Prince 'Abdullah.

Major Mahir al-Asad: Asad's penultimate son, aged 33 in 1999, was described alternately as more like his father (than Bashar) or like his uncle Rif'at. The bandying about of Mahir's name may be an indication of dissatisfaction with Bashar's progress.

On 10 June 2000 Syrian radio and television at 1800 broadcast the official Syrian government announcement to parliament that President Hafiz al-Asad had died. The speaker of the parliament Abd al-Qadir Qqaddura announced a few minutes later that a special parliamentary committee had been formed to discuss amendment of the constitution. At approximately 1900 an amendment was passed unamimously which amended the constitution to say that a presidential candidate must be a Syrian arab of at least 34 years of age, but did not need to be a member of the Ba'th party. Previously the constitution required the president to be a Syrian Arab Muslim at least forty years of age and, if not receiving an absolute majority in a national referendum, be selected by the Ba'th party for formal nomination to the people's council. The amendment was clearly intended to allow President Asad's son Bashar to be nominated as president.

Syrian television reported the afternoon of 11 June 2000 that Vice President Khaddam had signed decree numbers 9 and 10, promoting Colonel Bashar al-Asad to the rank of General and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. The most obvious effect of this is that Bashar had officially assumed one of the president's "three hats," i.e. head of the armed forces, head of the party, and head of state. The Syrian succession proceeded as smoothly and calmly as possible. In return for this, Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam stayed on as vice-president, though mainly in a ceremonial role, and President Assad halted a high-profile anti-corruption campaign that he had been directing against the regime's old guard.

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Page last modified: 23-03-2012 18:30:17 ZULU