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Analysis: Syria's Leader Remains an Enigma

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad says his government will cooperate with a United Nations probe into the death of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. However, he also warned the cooperation could abruptly end, if Syria feels threatened. Mr. Assad is facing intense international pressure only five years after inheriting power from his father.

Had it not been for the premature death of the eldest son of the Assad clan, Bashar al-Assad might well be enjoying the quiet life of a private medical practice in Damascus, or London, or perhaps Paris, as he speaks both English and French.

But when his brother was killed in an automobile accident in 1994, his father, Syrian President Hafez al-Assad called him home from studies in London and began grooming him for a political life. Six years later, Hafez died and Bashar al-Assad was Syria's new president.

At the recent annual conference of the Middle East Institute in Washington, journalist and political analyst Hisham Melhem of al-Arabiya TV said that was one of the few mistakes by the wily Hafez al-Assad.

"But I would argue that one of his biggest mistakes, if you will, was to bequeath the realm, so to speak, to his son, a 35-year old inexperienced young man," he said. "Now, Bashar's era shows, I would argue, the pitfalls of political inheritance in the Arab world. And it's very hard, five years after he began his rule, to point out to a single domestic, regional or international decision that this regime made that was wise or farsighted. And I'm not being harsh on him."

Originally trained in the West as an ophthalmologist, President Assad, 40, finds himself navigating treacherous political waters. His government is accused of, at least, some involvement in the February 14 car bomb in Beirut that killed former Lebanese President Rafik Hariri. The assassination sparked widespread protest in Lebanon, forcing a withdrawal of Syrian troops and intelligence agents from that country. On Thursday, Mr. Assad grudgingly promised to cooperate with the U.N. investigation, led by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, in the face of a Security Council resolution and threats of greater international condemnation, if Damascus did not cooperate.

U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said recently that the United Nations is solidly behind efforts to force Syria to cooperate.

"The use of threat, intimidation, violence or terror is something that the international community will not tolerate," said Mr. McCormack. "And we think that this resolution is an appropriate mechanism to make that very clear to the Syrian government. And also, we hope to compel Syrian cooperation, which has not been to this point forthcoming, to compel Syrian cooperation with the Mehlis investigation, which is ongoing."

But speaking at the Middle East Institute, investigative journalist Seymour Hersh warned against any rush to judgment of Syria, saying the United States has an agenda in the region.

"I'm exceedingly skeptical, and I have been all along, of the point of view of what happened to Hariri," said Mr. Hersh. "The American point of view is that it was Syria with the aid of some people in Lebanon. Despite all the back and forth about how the American press corps was totally manipulated, to its embarrassment, about WMD, I would still argue, we're still being totally manipulated by this administration about Syria and Lebanese involvement."

Before he died, the late President Hafez al-Assad was in something of a competition with now-ousted Iraqi President Saddam Hussein for leadership in the Arab world. He backed Iran in its war with Iraq, and joined the U.S.-led coalition to expel Iraq from Kuwait in 1990. Mr. Melhem said the elder Assad could manage a balancing act that his son could not emulate.

"He [Hafez] was the only man in the region who could have good, warm relationship with the Saudis, and good, warm - well, not warm, but good, practical marriage of convenience with the Iranians," he explained. "Only Hafez could pull something like this. Now, under Bashar, this veneer of Sunni Arab nationalist regime began to disappear. In its place, we saw the rise of a crude dynastic rule. It's all about the family. It's a family affair."

Bashar al-Assad has been pointedly against the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. The United States has repeatedly complained about cross-border infiltration from Syria into Iraq by insurgents.

Theodore Kattouf, president of America-Mideast Training Services (AMIDEAST), says Bashar al-Assad has no doubt made mistakes. But he says, the United States has made some missteps with Syria, as well, especially right after the defeat of Saddam Hussein.

"Right after the war, we should have told Syria, 'you've screwed up terribly. You've not just angered the administration, you've angered the American public, you've angered the media, Congress. And you need to make amends, and here are some things you could do concerning Iraq, and you need to do them quickly. And if you do them, then we can get into a dialogue.' But we didn't do that," he said. "And the regime in Syria has continued to show that it has a lot of ignorance of how its actions play out on the world stage, and it's paying a high price for that."

Analysts say it is not clear just how much power Bashar al-Assad actually wields in the murky backwaters of Syrian power politics.