It appears that Bashar al-Assad, mild-mannered ophthalmologist, genetic cousin of Beaker and accidental president of Syria, was the mastermind behind the wave of Muslim rioting that followed the publication of the Danish cartoons of Mohammed in 2006. If the Wikileak cable that revealed this information is to be believed, Bashar kicked off the demonstrations with a direct instruction — and, even more strikingly, it was his word that brought the chaos to a halt.
Bashar is widely perceived as but a faint shadow of his father Hafez (who never, in fact, intended him to be president; that role was meant for Bashar’s elder brother Basil, who died in a car crash). Gangly, soft-spoken, always slightly bewildered-looking, and rarely the generator of the kinds of hysterical headlines that characterize this region (purple proclamations are not his style), Bashar gives the impression of weakness. Yet here we have him orchestrating a series of events that inflamed the entire Arab world and put the rest of us on notice that we’d damn well better toe the line when it comes to Muslim sensitivities: mock us and die, infidel.
That’s just not the kind of thing many of us would have expected from quiet, blinking Bashar. Remember that he is a secularist, allegedly pro-democracy, and far from an intimate friend of Islamic fundamentalists. If he was indeed behind the rioting over the cartoons — a risky move that could have backfired within Syria — it suggests not only that he is controlling his home-grown Islamists with an iron hand but that he is capable of one hell of a slick double game. It suggests a rather impressively Machiavellian ability to straddle allegiances to further one’s own political ends — a talent we in Israel would do well to note.
Bashar has not performed acts of widespread ruthlessness on a par with his father (yet), but I’m starting to wonder what else he might be capable of. Note that he was almost certainly also involved in the assassination of Lebanese PM Rafik Hariri, and will probably get away with it. (The Hezbollah trigger men are on the UN hot seat, and that’s fine by him.) He might be a much more cunning leader than he’s been given credit for. If Bashar is able to light up — and, more importantly, cool down — the whole Arab world with a quiet word, he is worth a much more concerted courtship by Israel. Any substantive developments on that track would require tremendous bravery on Bashar’s part — no Arab leader can make peace with Israel lightly — but he may well possess it. And if he does, he could be a formidable ally.