The grooming of Syria's Bashar al-Assad

For much of the world beyond the Middle East, the funeral today of Syrian President Hafez al-Assad marks the debut of the late leader's son and chosen successor, Bashar.

But for Syrians, this mild-mannered eye doctor first appeared with the flourish of a presidential campaign, Syrian style, last autumn. Bashar visited the city of Aleppo and mingled with people in the main souk for several hours. He sat for coffee, witnesses recall, and gave people he met this message: "Here's my number. If you need anything, give me a call."

While speaking to one elderly woman, the president's son and heir apparent bowed and kissed her hand. It didn't make the newspapers, but the outing flashed by word of mouth throughout the country.

The signal was plain: "Put yourself in Bashar's shoes," says a Western diplomat. "He wants to emerge as the bright new hope. A little pressing the flesh shows a marked change of style without being critical."

During the three decades of his authoritarian rule, President Assad had not wandered among his people so easily for many years. And the choice of Aleppo for the younger Assad's visit has added significance, since it was the site of clashes between the Sunni Muslim majority and the Alawite minority of the Assad family.

Today, a critical transition is under way with Bashar - at just 34 years of age - gathering the many reins of power required to rule Syria. Despite the nature of the regime, however, the future is still unclear.

Some question whether Bashar - if named president by the parliament in the next few weeks and then approved in a popular referendum - has enough political moxie, military support, and financial acumen necessary to lead this complex nation into the 21st century.

But as tearful mourners marched through the streets of Damascus with black cloth streaming from posters of the father, they are sending another message too, with chants, banners, and portraits that support the son.

"He was born into this house of Assad, and the talk there is of nothing but politics," says a Syrian analyst who asked not to be named. "He is not as quiet as you think. Remember that President Assad himself started at the age of 39. He was shy and withdrawn - nobody expected his rule to last more than a few months."

An avid technocrat

Political maneuvers like Bashar's Aleppo walk are one of a myriad of other carefully calibrated moves meant to prepare him for leadership. In recent months, he has spearheaded a high-level corruption campaign, opened Syria to the Internet, and preached about Syria's desperate need to enter the computer age. Meanwhile, he also met with a host of other young leaders across the region.

Though Bashar's official title until this weekend was only head of the Syrian Computer Society. But his reforming influence was strongly felt in a recent Cabinet shake-up. By Syrian standards, Bashar has helped initiate unprecedented criticism of Syria's stagnant economy, its isolation, and he has called for more accountability and change.

Bashar's message has been backed by young entrepreneurs who would benefit from a chipping away at the corrupt liaison between state enterprises and political dinosaurs. His voice also resonates with Syria's youth.

Some analysts wonder if all the changes add up to a new "corrective movement," the rubric under which Assad first seized power in a coup in 1970.

The first moves meant to reassure Syrians that there will be stability have already been taken - a critical ingredient to win the support of those who remember the spate of coups and violence in the 1950s and 1960s.

But despite some grumbling months ago - with one senior general essentially asking, "Why Bashar?" - the son on Saturday was promoted from Colonel to Lt. General, and on Sunday was made commander in chief of the armed forces.

A congress of the ruling Baath Party is expected to provide him the necessary party credentials, and parliamentarians have already shown that they are likely to vote for him as president, by amending the Constitution by reducing the age limit to make Bashar eligible for the president's post.

Reluctant heir

British-educated and far more in tune with the West than his father, Bashar was in fact never meant to be president. Assad's elder son, Basil, a dashing military man and accomplished horseman, was the president's first choice. His death in a 1994 car crash prompted Hafez al-Assad to recall Bashar from his ophthalmology work in Britain, to serve as the "reluctant heir."

Scripted by a tiny coterie of top-level officials loyal to the wishes of the father - including long-standing defense minister Mustapha Tlas - the plan to bring Bashar to power appears so far to have gone seamlessly.

Official posters - in a country where the cult of the personality is an art form - were amended to show Syria's own trinity: "Basil the example, Bashar the hope, and Assad the leader," reads one.

But there have been other challenges. Assad's brother Rifaat staged a coup in 1984, rolling tanks of the 30,000-strong "Defense Brigades" that he commanded onto the streets of Damascus.

Those troops withdrew when challenged by the Army, then largely disbanded into the armed services. From exile in France and Spain, however, Rifaat allegedly has run smuggling and other lucrative operations from the Syrian port of Latakia, and kept many of his supporters on his payroll.

Challenges at home

For years it has been difficult to assess Rifaat's support among the Alawites, some of whom believe that only Rifaat can keep the family dynasty intact. But in a show of mettle that helped convince many Syrians that Bashar can play hardball, some 1,000 of Rifaat's supporters were rounded up last fall - along with all the files for payment of Rifaat loyalists.

When those loyalists were released, Rifaat called on them to gather to demonstrate their muscle. Syrian forces - apparently working at Bashar's bidding - reportedly moved in with a coordinated air, ground, and sea assault that destroyed Rifaat's base there.

"He sent in the tanks, and the message was: If you want to play hard, I will play hard," says the Syrian analyst."It was very important, and showed Bashar's strength." Border guards have been given new orders to arrest Rifaat if he tries to return for the funeral.

Those moments may have been defining ones that could allow Bashar to deal with Syria's other troubles, and maybe even eventually the peace process with Israel.

"He's the young man, the modern man, the man interested in what so many Syrians want for their country," says a Western diplomat. "His forte really has been the future, and getting Syria the skills needed to do well in it."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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