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Syria: Bashar Aims To Consolidate Power In The Short-Term & To Open Up Gradually.

*** French FM Vedrine Is Reported To Have Said That 'It Is Questionable Whether He (Bashar) Will Be Able To Exercise Power In The Long-Term'

*** Rifaat Al Assad's Son Sumar Says His Father Is Not Attempting To Replace Bashar; Rather He Wants The Syrian People To Be Able To Choose Their Own Leaders

*** One Key Query To Be Answered Is This: Who Will Get The 'Lebanon Desk'?

BEIRUT - APS sources well informed about the latest developments in Damascus say that, with Hafez Al Assad's death marking the end of an era in the Middle East, his son and heir apparent Bashar will first concentrate on consolidating his power base within Syria - as he is too young, relatively weak and inexperienced. Bashar's immediate priorities will be to boost his position in the armed forces, in the ruling Baath Arab Socialist Party, in the various overlapping intelligence networks, in the government and in the country's provinces. The sources add that, when Bashar begins to make bold moves in the Middle East peace process or in terms of domestic reforms, it will be an indication that he has fully stepped into his father's shoes.

In the immediate phase, at least between now and late July 2000, Bashar will be under the influence of a 9-man committee which is overseeing the transition. The committee was formed within hours after Assad's death. It is headed by First Vice President Abdel Halim Khaddam. The other 8 members include the top officials in the ruling Baath Party and the armed forces - such as 2nd Vice President and Baath deputy head Zuhair Musharqa, Baath Assistant Secretary General Abdullah Al Ahmar, Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Mustafa Tlas, Prime Minister Mohammed Mustafa Miro, and Chief of Staff Gen. Ali Aslan. It is this committee which on June 9 proclaimed Khaddam as "Interim President" and nominated Bashar as the sole candidate to the presidency.

So far only one challenge to Bashar's position has come into the open - the claim by the late president's younger brother, Rifaat, that the nomination of Bashar was not constitutional. On June 12, Rifaat was quoted by his private TV network in London as condemning the 9-man committee for having "violated the constitution" and for having refused to allow him to travel to Syria to attend his brother's funeral. He vowed to escalate his struggle and to lead a "corrective movement" - i.e., a coup attempt to seize power in Damascus.

According to the sources, Rifaat would now try to revive his private army in Syria. But for the time being his likelihood of success seems to be quite remote as his power base within Syria has been weakened considerably. Yet, they add that Rifaat could cause trouble to Bashar's regime, especially if the latter finds it hard to consolidate his power and some members of the Baath Party and the military begin to view Rifaat as a viable alternative.

To avoid such a possibility, the sources believe, Bashar will not make any internal or external move that could cause discomfort among the top Baath leadership or the military establishment. On the external front, they say, this would mean Bashar will be ver cautious in handling the stalled peace process between Syria and Israel. He will not accept to make any territorial concession to Israel. He will insist on the position formulated by his father: the full return of the Golan Heights to Syrian sovereignty. Judging from the response, so far, from the US and Israel, they may give him some latitude in terms of time to strengthen his position. Yet the sources are clear that what is said in public and what is preferred in private can be very different. They also concur that it would be difficult for many forces, including the US and Israel, to not take advantage of Syria's current vulnerability to outside influences.

The sources also point out that, because of the delicate internal situation in Syria, the Lebanon-Israel frontier could be heated up by those trying to weaken Bashar. He may not be able to stop the Hizbollah guerrillas from launching attacks against Israel from across the Lebanese borders with a declared aim to liberate the Golan. But Israeli counter-attacks on Syrian targets will weaken Bashar's power base and strengthen that of his potential opponents. What adds to the complications for Bashar is that, after Israel's sudden withdrawal from South Lebanon on May 22, Lebanon's Christian militants began to demand the withdrawal of the Syrian troops from their country. This demand is openly backed by the US, with Secretary of State Mrs. Madeleine Albright asking for a Syrian pull-out when she met Foreign Minister Farouk Al Shara in Cairo on June 9, one day before Hafez Al Assad's death.

Domestically, Bashar will have to slow down his anti-corruption campaign, which began shortly after he returned to Damascus from London following the death of his elder brother Basel in a car accident in 1994. He may even freeze the planned arrest of corrupt former officials who used to be part of Assad's inner circle, because otherwise Bashar may face armed unrest - especially if those targeted decide to create a formidable internal front grouping Rifaat, his allies, those affected by the anti-corruption campaign and those remaining members of Assad's elite who suspect they would become the next targets in Bashar's clean up efforts.

The sources feel there is also the remote danger that, for complex internal reasons, someone or a group may assassinate Bashar before he has consolidated his power base. In that case Syria could plunge into chaos, because there is not likely to be a consensus on another leader. Latent problems in the multi-ethnic and multi-sectarian society will come to the surface, the sources note, with the minority Alawi community (which is well entrenched in power) having to deal with the majority Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, etc - who will be fighting among themselves as well.

Yet this negative scenario does not have a high probability, according to the sources. They point out that there was genuine outpouring of grief for the late president among the public, though there were orchestrated demonstrations as well, and real expressions of support for Bashar. They say that it reflects the public desire, above all, for stability and security. They add that the top ranks of the military as well as the Baath know that, for the time being at least, their best bet is Bashar.

The sources say that if Bashar plays his cards right in the immediate phase and consolidates his position, then he will be able to become Israel's partner in the peace process as well as initiate the process of political and economic reform in Syria. If the signals are right from the American perspective, the US could well encourage Israel to return the whole of the Golan Heights to Syria. The US will be ready to lead an OECD campaign to aid the Syrian economy. The pace of Syria's economic integration with the European Union would accelerate.

If this positive scenario materialises, the sources say, then Bashar would become strong both regionally and within Syria - where he would be proclaimed a national hero - in a different mould from his father. Although widely respected for his toughness and skills as a strategist, Hafez Al Assad was not really trusted or liked by the West. This was partly also due to the fact that Assad was not "Westernised" in the current sense.

Bashar is different. He is highly educated, modern and speaks fluent English and French. He is well versed in computers, information technology, the Internet, etc., whereas Hafez only allowed the fax machine to be used in Syria as from 1993. His comments on the economy and society have revealed reformist leanings, whereas his father was an entrenched old guard hardliner. Hafez was part of the old politics/old economics, whereas Bashar is part of the new politics/new economics.
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Publication:APS Diplomat News Service
Geographic Code:7SYRI
Date:Jun 19, 2000
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