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SYRIA - June 10 - Pres. Assad Dies.

Pres. Hafez Al Assad, 69, dies of a heart attack in Damascus. Parliament, convened quickly, unanimously amends the constitution and lower the age requirement of the presidential candidate from 40 to 34 years to permit the succession of his son Bashar. Hundreds of residents also gathered in front of parliament, which broadcast its proceedings live. Members of parliament weep openly at news of Assad's death. A 40-day period of mourning is declared. Later the Baath Party's Regional Command announced that Vice President Abdel Halim Khaddam signed parliament's amendment decision into decree, in his capacity as interim president, and set the date of the funeral at June 13. On June 11, the Baath Command nominated Bashar Al Assad as its sole candidate to the presidency, proclaimed him as commander in chief of the armed forces and elevated his rank from colonel to full general. Roads and squares in Damascus and other cities witnessed demonstrations, as wailing crowds gathered at the hospital where the president's body lay. The Baath Regional Command is scheduled to hold a 3-day congress from June 17 to elect a new leadership under Bashar. Bashar is expected to be named president by parliament on June 25.

(Assad, a member of the Alawite minority who converted into Sunnism in order to be president of predominantly-Sunni Syria in 1971, was a unique leader in the Arab World. With rare analytical capabilities, he ruled Syria with an iron fist and never tolerated any kind of opposition to his regime. He insisted on the full return of the Golan Heights by Israel and, as part of a peace deal, a regional role to be recognised and backed by both the US and Israel. That regional role, including control over Lebanon, was to guarantee the safety and longevity of Bashar's regime after him. Under Assad, Syria had carved the regional role beyond what might have been expected from its weak economy and under-equipped army, such as dominating Lebanese policy. Assad's death came shortly after Bashar's campaign against corruption had taken a new turn as former chief of staff rtd Gen. Hikmat Shehabi fled Syria to Lebanon and from there left to an unknown destination out of Beirut airport. Shehabi, until a few years ago considered one of Assad's top inner circle men, was implicated in a big corruption scandal along with former premier Mahmoud Al Zou'bi who is said to have committed suicide - with some rumours that he was actually shot dead by someone related to the scandal. Bashar's campaign had affected Rifaat Al Assad, a very corrupt younger brother of Hafez whose private but illegal port in Lattakia was closed down by the authorities. The authorities recently issued a warrant to arrest Rifaat, who for years has been living in self-exile in France.

But it is speculated that Rifaat's popularity remains strong among the Alawites and in some segments of the armed forces. Rifaat, who continues to finance a private armed force out of his wealth, still regards himself as being a key partner of Hafez's regime rather than a mere younger brother. This is because it was thanks to Rifaat that many of the regime's Baathist rivals and opponents were eliminated in the 1970s and 1980s. Rifaat was directly involved in the massacre of the Sunni religious opposition in Hama in 1982 and in several other violent campaigns. It is said that Hafez was actually behind the anti-corruption drive, with the aim of eliminating those inner circle men who could become threats to Bashar in future. It is rumoured that Khaddam was to be the next target in the anti-corruption drive, after the elimination of several Alawite and Sunni figures who included long-serving heads of intelligence networks).
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Publication:APS Diplomat Recorder
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:7SYRI
Date:Jun 10, 2000
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