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Syria: an unlikely dynasty.

Syria's President Hafez Assad is not a well man - or so rumour has it. With no clear successor waiting in the wings, there is speculation in Damascus that his son, Basil, is being groomed to take over. He is an unlikely candidate unless he is being pushed forward by more shadowy figures.

"HAFEZ AL ASSAD: Our Leader Forever!" is a tiresome and ubiquitous slogan in Syria. But increasingly there are irreverent doubts about Assad's immortality, raising nagging fears about the prickly question of succession in the post-Assad era. Rumours are rife in Syria that President Assad is not well. Sources in the Jordanian capital Amman insist he is dying of cancer and has only a little time left. In recent public appearances Assad has looked frail and drawn.

Ailing or not, Assad is in his sixties and can hardly be expected to last "forever" as exhorted by the slogans. He has publicly endorsed no-one to take over the reins of power, although there are presumably plenty of prominent contenders in the senior ranks of the ruling Baath party.

A less than obvious candidate, but one widely tipped in Damascus political circles, is his son Basil Assad, a 32 year-old career air force officer like his father when he seized power in 1970. For years the slight, bearded Basil has made the headlines for his exploits as a horseman, earning him the title of the "Golden Knight". (Interestingly, his father is frequently referred to as the "Knight of Arabism" in official propaganda). The sports pages of the government-controlled newspapers regularly feature glowing accounts of young Basil's seemingly endless equestrian triumphs - all, not surprisingly, in Syria.

If Basil were only the darling of the sports crowd he would not be the focus of much attention. Ominously, however, one emerging bastion of "Basilism" seems to be the omnipresent secret police, the mukhabarat. Their cars are often adorned with large colour photographs of Basil in military uniform standing next to his father. Many mukhabarat agents wear short, neatly cut beards intriguingly like Basil's.

According to Western diplomatic sources in Damascus, Basil is being put forward as a front man for more publicly reticent figures within the Alawi-dominated security apparatus. Anxious to maintain the sect's grip on power, they see Basil as a potential rallying point for regime supporters. While a nasty power struggle cannot be ruled out in the event of Assad's death, diplomats believe many in power would like Basil to assume a high profile position in the regime after Assad dies, with real power remaining in the hands of the mukhabarat and Alawi Baath party officials and army officers.

One past contender for power, Assad's unruly younger brother Rifaat, made a surprise appearance in Syria this summer, reviving vivid memories of a turbulent past. Notoriously corrupt and rumoured to be one of the richest men in Syria, Rifaat came to attend the funeral of Naisa, the aged mother of the Assad boys. He normally resides in Paris, where he is the principle financial backer of Al Fursan ("The Knights"), an Arabic newspaper that claims to speak for "democratic" forces in the Arab world. Rifaat, looking fit and trim (and also sporting a carefully trimmed beard), officially shares the post of Syrian vice-president with the Baath party functionary, Zuhair Musharqa, and the former foreign minister, Abdul Halim Khaddam.

In November 1983 Rifaat brought Syria perilously close to civil war when he led troops of the 20,000-30,000 strong (now disbanded) Saraya al Difaa or Defence Brigades in a failed attempt to grab power when Assad fell ill, reportedly with a heart attack. Soon afterwards Assad dispatched him on a mission to Moscow, without a return ticket. Since then he has made brief visits to Syria, but he spends most of his time abroad.

While allowing his brother to attend the funeral, Assad clearly wants to steer him away from trouble. During his visit, Rifaat was not mentioned by name in the press and apparently returned to France without fanfare.

There have been reports subsequently that Rifaat has been brought back to Syria and placed in charge of the intelligence services. According to these reports, Major General Ali Duba, one of the president's closest aides, has been edged aside from job as chief of military intelligence. If there is any truth in such rumours, it will only serve to increase the eagerness of his opponents to find a substitute for the succession to the president.

If the Assad family is to continue in power and Rifaat is to be kept off the list, Basil seems an odd choice. Although on several occasions he has stood in for his father at official functions, Basil has little experience of statecraft. Furthermore, his character may not be well suited for the job.

According to an Alawi source close to the president's family, Assad's offspring are uncommonly well-behaved and distinctly averse to exploiting their connections for personal profit. Basil reportedly shuns the intense security which surrounds most prominent figures in the regime. The Alawi source describes Basil as "courteous, modest and unassuming" - laudable traits in a friend or neighbour, but hardly what it takes to run Syria's Baathist regime.

Talk of Assad's ill health comes at an inconvenient time for Syria. After a long period of stagnation during the 1980s, the economy is beginning to pick up steam. Almost every week brings news of another government decision to ease trade regulations. In early August the government announced that many of the tight import restrictions on raw materials would be scrapped. Many businessmen expect the laws banning dealings in foreign currency will be discarded before the end of the year.

For the moment Syria watchers should resist the temptation of writing pre-mortem epitaphs for Assad, rumours notwithstanding. Middle Eastern leaders lucky enough to escape the assassin's bullet have an annoying tendency of living far too long. Ayatollah Khomeini took forever to die. Lebanon's arch-feudal lord-cum-gangster Suleiman Franjieh died only last June at the age of 82. Anyone hoping that Muammar Gaddafi might be cut off in his prime should recall that his father lived to be over 100 years old. Assad's mother was reportedly well over 100 when she passed away. Given the level of uncertainty about the post-Assad era, many Syrians are probably hoping Assad is immortal after all.
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Title Annotation:Current Affairs; political succession
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Dec 1, 1992
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