A Chance for Syria

Ahead of schedule, the last of the Syrian troops in Lebanon withdrew today. There's no word yet on the intelligence agents that may still be left in Lebanon, but symbolically, the final departure today was important. The more or less orderly fashion in which it had progressed, and the fact that it had been completed earlier than scheduled, will allow tensions between Lebanon and Syria to dissipate somewhat. Syria will continue to have influence over Lebanon, but no longer as an oppressor, perceived or otherwise.

Much has been said in the blogosphere about Bashar al-Assad, the successor to the formidable and wily Hafez al-Assad, his father. Because Bashar is the head of the Syrian Ba'ath Party, which is, in essence, an Arab Nazi party (Ba'ath is Arab for National Socialist, and Nazi is short for Nationalist Socialist, and they're both fascist), it is tempting to dismiss him as just another autocrat.

The picture was different, however, when Bashar succeeded his father five years ago. At the time, there was hope that he would bring about a sea change in the political culture of Syria, since he was far more steeped in civilian culture than was usually expected of Arab princes. However, his failure to do so was a disappointment to reformers, and was attributed to his incomplete control over the military and the hardliners from his father's reign.

Moreover, in the wake of 9/11 and the renewed focus on dictatorships throughout the world, he hasd been compared far more often to Kim Jong-il, another autocratic successor. As the North Korean dictator has continued the obstructionist stance of his father's regime (with his own idiosyncracies mixed in), and as Syrian behavior hardly changed during Bashar's rule up until now, it was assumed that Bashar would be more like Kim Jong-il.

There is, however, another example for the son of a hard-line military dictator in a developing area: Chiang Ching-kuo, son of Chiang Kai-shek. In 1987, Chiang Ching-kuo ended martial law over Taiwan, and in so doing set the stage for the political modernization of the Republic of China. For this act, he is still fondly remembered, and it is his greatest legacy.

In a similar light, Bashar al-Assad might now take this chance to purge the military establishment of hardliners that he can say got Syria into trouble with the United States to begin with. From there, it will remain to be seen whether the current al-Assad will constitute a new hardline rule of his own, or, as I think is more likely, he'll take cues from his neighbors and set into motion the march toward pluralism and representational democracy. To be sure, it will most likely not have an American flavor to it; but it will still be a liberalizing democracy, and it will have been achieved without invasion and without assassination. What a great example it will then be to the Arab world, and with Iraq and Lebanon, the Cradle of Civilization might yet be brought forward to the 21st Century.

[Cross-posted at Between Worlds]

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