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Last Updated: Tuesday, 29 May 2007, 11:46 GMT 12:46 UK
Jeremy Bowen diary: Syria's son shines
By Jeremy Bowen
BBC Middle East editor

When I arrived in Damascus the other day, they were in the last stages of getting ready for the referendum on whether or not to give Bashar al-Assad another seven-year term as President.

President Assad's supporters greet him
Assad's regime appears to have renewed confidence

When the result came in, it was no surprise. There was only one candidate, and he got more than 97% of the vote.

Pictures of Bashar were everywhere, usually staring sternly into the distance, occasionally smiling more informally, almost always in his dark suit, dark tie and white shirt.

When he inherited power after the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad, in 2000, most of the posters showed the two of them together.

In the referendum campaign images of the first President Assad, though never far away, were massively outnumbered by pictures of the son.

If the UN investigators can find a link between the assassination and Syria, then any dreams that President Assad may be harbouring about becoming the Middle East's necessary man will fracture.

And I mean outnumbered. I have never, anywhere, seen as many posters of one man as in Damascus in the last few evenings before the vote.

All the dusty towns between the capital and the borders with Israel and Jordan that I drove through had their own mini celebrations.

'Confident regime'

Damascus itself looked as if a very popular football club had just won a huge victory.

The streets were snarled up with cars on a slow cruise round the streets, plastered with more portraits of President Bashar, with passengers hanging out of the windows, yelling slogans and drumming on the roofs.

Party in Damascus
Public support for President Assad has been given a festive air

Every few blocks there was a tent for speeches and folk dancing.

What is it like to be the president of Syria, to drive through the city to see so many pictures of... yourself? Do you believe your own publicity?

If you see enough posters that say "we love you", do you start to think it is true?

Or do you get as cynical as some of the Syrians I spoke to, who were disparaging about what they called a Baath Party circus?

It was no time for Syrians to be critical of the ruler. But a few were, discreetly.

I will not identify them. After a flirtation with freer speech Syria has been locking up dissidents again.

Some suggested it was a crude message to the west to show that the people were behind the ruler.

The reality, they suggested, is a country where corruption is endemic and the state uses its muscle to deny the people the chance to express themselves openly.

Another said the Assad regime was feeling pretty confident and wanted a celebration.

Daring to dream

Things for them are starting to look up. A few years ago the American hawks, Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary, and John Bolton, the ambassador to the UN, put Syria into the axis of evil, and encouraged speculation about regime change.

But now Mr Bolton and Mr Rumsfeld are history and the speaker of the US House of Representatives, the Democrat Nancy Pelosi, has been to Damascus to visit President Assad.

In a turbulent region, where political Islam is providing the answers for more and more young people, Syria is presenting itself as an island of secular stability.

President Hafez al-Assad made himself into the man the west, Israel and other Arab leaders could not ignore.

Perhaps Bashar al-Assad and the people around him are daring to dream that the son, at last, could be following the father.

Hariri's shadow

One nasty problem lies ahead. It looks as if Syria will not be able to stop the establishment of an international tribunal to try the people responsible for assassinating the former prime minister of Lebanon, Rafik Hariri.

Damascus street
Syria has presented itself as a secular, stable country

He was killed by a huge bomb in the centre of Beirut on St Valentine's Day in 2005.

Syria denies any involvement. One senior Syrian ambassador even told me that its security services were not capable of such a sophisticated operation.

But plenty of people in Lebanon believe that only Syria could have done it.

The UN Security Council has authorised an investigation, which is still going on, and one of its early reports contained allegations linking Hariri's killing to President Assad's inner circle.

He has already said that he will not co-operate with a tribunal, if it is established, because it would undermine Syria's sovereignty.

But if the UN investigators can find a link between the assassination and Syria, then any dreams that President Assad may be harbouring about becoming the Middle East's necessary man will fracture.

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