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Sizing Up Syria

Bashar al-Assad was never meant to be president of Syria. That role had been reserved for Basil, his dashing, rakish elder brother whose death six years ago—in a high-speed car crash—was the perfect illustration of character as fate. Basil looked every inch the natural heir to his father, Hafez al-Assad, who dominated his country for 30 years until his death this June. Bashar still looks like the ophthalmologist he was trained to be.

Bashar managed to seem solid and dignified at his father's funeral. He also did a pretty good job of looking the part of head of state at his swearing-in as president in July, an occasion that, in this nominal republic, took on the cast of a coronation. Yet he can't quite hide the gangly, slightly diffident young man that he is. His most trumpeted quality in the local press is his love of computers: a techno-nerd taking over what in many ways is still a tribal state.

To some, Bashar seems like an unlikely candidate for the job. The Syria he inherits has yet to make peace with Israel. Its economy is in the tank. And after 30 years as a police state, the intellectual leadership it once shared with Egypt is merely a memory. What's more, Bashar is surrounded by his father's cronies, many of whom have done very well under the status quo and may not respond kindly to undue shows of independence from the son.

But Syria also has a youthful population that is burning to be part of the wider world. Because of the Arab-Israeli peace process and the slow modernization of the economy, a shift had begun even before 34-year-old Bashar took over. Since his accession, Bashar has talked of greater economic freedoms, a massive expansion of Syria's Internet access, and securing "peace with honor"—in other words, the restoration of the Golan Heights—exactly the kind of future many young Syrians would like to see.

This could be Syria's moment. Yet, if Bashar is to win over the old guard and drag his country into the present, he'll need more than a love of computers and a European education. He may need to be as famously astute and hardheaded as his father—or at least appear to be.

Illusions are one thing Syrians know all about. Their modern history tells of little else. The Baath party that came to dominate the country after independence in 1946 was led by idealistic young nationalists who theorized endlessly about carving out a new identity, not just for Syria but for the wider Arab world. It didn't work out that way. The country's union with Egypt in 1958 was short-lived and unhappy. The idealists who had co-opted the military to gain power became its pawns, and Syria was soon trapped in an almost comically predictable game of coup and counter-coup. Finally, in 1967, came the Six-Day War, in which Syria, looking to play the part of the Arabs' savior, arrived on the scene after Egypt and Jordan had been defeated by the Israelis. Syria promptly lost the Golan Heights to Israel, and with it much of its self-assurance.

The defeat came as a shock to a people brought up on the triumphalist rhetoric of the Baathists. It marks them still. "There is a big difference between my generation of writers and the generation before us," says Akram æatrib, a young poet, amid the din of a garden restaurant in Damascus filled with young Syrians and embassy staff. "We were born at a time of disintegration, when dreams had failed. My generation has no idealism." His friend Usama Esber, a writer and translator in his thirties, nods in agreement. "With the previous generation, politics was so important," he adds. "They wrote about heroes and saviors and dreams of a better world." And what does Akram write about?Usama glances at Akram and laughs. "Killing his father," he says.

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