11/17/2011 01:59 EST | Updated 01/17/2012 05:12 EST

Democracy Unlikely in Syria After Assad


Likely, the next Mideast dictator to lose his job will be Bashar al-Assad, the ophthalmologist-trained president of Syria (since 2000) who has provoked civil war in his country.

Assad has been a considerable disappointment to many who initially viewed him as a cultured, reasonable man with a good education who would lead Syria into common sense reforms.

To a degree he's been "progressive" -- as was his father, Hafez Assad, who ruled Syria for three decades and brought in reforms like women's rights, expanded literary, education and industrial know-how. All under the eye of the secret police, which has always been a Syrian fixation.

Hafez died in 2000 at age 69 (heart attack), and when his first son Basil died in a car accident, he appointed Bashar as heir apparent and brought him back from London, put him in the army (colonel) and groomed him to inherit the dictator role.

Hopes (if not expectations) were that Assad might be open to recognize the existence of Israel and be more accommodating towards America and the West.

He and his British-born Syrian wife Asma were comfortable speaking English and familiar with Western ways.

Assad liked neither Palestinians, nor a Palestinian state. He disliked and mistrusted Iraq (Saddam Hussein), and he apparently sanctioned the 2006 assassination of popular former Lebanese President Rafik Hariri. He rejected recognition of Israel.

All the while he depended on the secret police and army to keep him in business. Syrians were cowed, submissive, fearful.

After this year's rebellions in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and Libya, contagion spread to Syria -- and has increased dramatically in spite of (or because of) savage repressive measures that have killed thousands.

When the Arab League, whose favours Assad has courted, turned on him it signaled a change in the West's attitude. Pressure is on him to quit, to resign, to seek sanctuary somewhere in order to escape the sort of fate that awaited Libya's Muammar Gaddafi.

Democratic countries like Canada don't realize the pervasiveness of a police state replete with spies and informers.

As a journalist, one of my fond memories of Damascus is entering a souvenir shop looking for a bargain. I found a small, metal, devil's head with horns, that was unusual.

The price was too high, so I left.

Later I returned to the store, and asked again. The price was still too high, and I left.

The third time I returned, the shop-keeper became extremely agitated. "The secret police keep asking why you keep coming here and not buying," he said. "Pay whatever you wish and take the object and please don't come back!"

And that was before the Assads ruled Syria.

While his willingness to slaughter protesters may doom Bashar, his father managed to quell a rebellion in 1982 orchestrated by the Muslim Brotherhood in the region of Hama that resulted in up to 35,000 being killed.

Dad got away with it. The son hasn't.

Assad is a more sophisticated and skilled tyrant than Gaddafi, and the Syrian people are more oppressed and constrained (unable to travel) than Libyans.

Does Assad have a date with the war crimes tribunal at the Hague awaiting him if he quits? Probably not if he leaves willingly. Almost certainly if he's forced out -- and isn't assassinated.

The choice is his, but don't hold your breath for our sort of democracy to come to Syria after Assad.