Colonel Bashar al-Assad, the son of Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, arrived in Kuwait on Sunday for high level talks with the Kuwaiti Emir and Crown Prince. The trip is part of a larger tour of the Gulf region and is further evidence that Bashar is being groomed to succeed his father as president of Syria.
The 34 year-old Bashar has had many high-level talks with Middle East leaders in the past years. Trained in London as an Ophthalmologist, Bashar returned to Syria in 1994 following the death of his eldest brother Basil in a car accident. Since then, President Assad has appointed his son a colonel and dismissed potential threats to his son's future rule including a brother Rifaat (who was serving as one of Syria's three vice presidents) and the army chief of staff, General Hikmat Shehabi. Both men reportedly did not get along well with Bashar, according to Douglas Jehl writing for the New York Times (NYT) on May 9.
While Assad, in power since 1970 but suffering from chronic ill health, has remained largely out of the public spot-light, he has sent his son on several diplomatic missions. In his latest trip, Bashar has so far met with leaders in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain and Kuwait and will soon travel to United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Oman, according to ArabicNews.com.
Indicative of the esteem Assad holds for his son, Bashar has recently been placed in charge of all matters concerning Lebanon, a country sometimes described as Syria's proxy in the conflict with Israel. As evidenced in an August 23 report in Lebanon's Daily Star, Bashar seems to be proving himself as a balanced negotiator and through his attempts to reconcile opposition forces in Lebanon and achieve a lasting peace between different factions. Bashar's efforts in Lebanon and elsewhere have earned him the backing of several key Middle East leaders such as Lebanese President Emile Lahoud and several Gulf Arab leaders. While Bashar is reputed to have become enamored with the West during his studies there, Syrian Information Minister Muhammad Salmah, in an August 6 interview with Jehl of the NYT, said the Syrian people appreciated Bashar's attempts to modernize the country. Bashar's attempts to fight corruption in Syria are also no doubt perceived favorably by the people.
And Bashar seems to have so far deviated little from his father's uncompromising stance towards Israel. In a February interview with Lebanon's Al-Kifah Al-Arabi, reported by the NYT, Bashar criticized the attempts of Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinians to make peace with Israel. Speaking to the Daily Star on August 23, Bashar said Syria's efforts to secure peace with Israel were "not linked to any compromises."
But despite whatever popularity Bashar has garnered within Syria and the Arab world, President Assad faces difficulties in ensuring the smooth succession of what appears to be his heir apparent. The Syrian constitution says a person must be 40 years old to hold the office of the presidency. A Western diplomat said of Bashar that, "I don't think anyone thinks he's ready," as quoted in Jehl's May 9 NYT article. And there are fears that if President Assad dies before his son can take power under the current constitution, there may be a struggle for power since the Baath party still has the exclusive power to nominate a new president in Syria. In his August 6 NYT article, Jehl quotes one Syrian official as saying, "There are hard-core elements in the Baath establishment and the military leadership that might not see in Bashar the caliber of leadership that they believe is required." Bashar himself betrayed the recent trend in Arab politics towards Arab unity when he publicly condemned the Iraqi regime for holding its people prisoner, despite a recent normalization of relations between Iraq and Syria.
President Assad has been careful to make no direct allusions to the succession of his son in public addresses. Assad insists he has held power since a bloodless coup in 1970 through the will of the people and fair democratic elections. With such an emphasis on the will of the people, it may be difficult for Assad to ensure the succession of his son, since dynastic succession to power could be perceived as contrary to the country's socialist ideology.
But President Assad has demonstrated by his actions that he intends to have Bashar succeed him. On May 9, Jehl quoted an unidentified Western official as saying Assad was fixated on the succession question: "It is the filter through which everything is filtered," the official reportedly said. Despite Assad's rhetoric of Syria's leadership being a result of the will of the people, President Assad seems to have every intention of seeing his son instated as his undisputed heir. Regardless of Bashar's qualifications for leadership, or lack thereof, it is unseemly for Assad to become fixated on the outmoded principle of dynastic succession prevalent elsewhere among Arab states.