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Saturday, 10 June, 2000, 19:45 GMT 20:45 UK
Analysis: Assad's Arab legacy
Arab summit in Libya
A hard job to fill the chair left by President Assad
By BBC News Online's Martin Asser

Even though it had been expected for years, Hafez al-Assad's death still comes as a tremendous shock and it adds a major new element to the uncertainties which already dominate the Middle East.

The dead president, whose surname means "lion" in Arabic, ruled his own country with an iron fist and was a figure of authority throughout the Arab world.

A tough but cautious leader who held his country together
His death therefore leaves a huge gap, one which his son and probable successor - a relative political novice - can only fill with difficulty.

Hafez al-Assad's admirers say it was his cautious, uncompromising approach which saved Syria from the kind of ignominy imposed on some other Arab peoples in recent decades.

He was also, through the Jewish state's entanglement in Lebanon, the only Arab leader able to get the better of Israel militarily, not in a straight fight between armies, but through the Hezbollah guerrilla resistance which Syria supported.

For these reasons he will be mourned by many Arabs in a way that other recently-deceased members of the old guard were not.

The old guard

President Assad's demise is just one of an as-yet incomplete series of deaths and successions which the Arab world has faced and still has to face.

Geneva summit with President Clinton
Last gasp: Meeting President Clinton in March
The late Kings Hussein and Hassan II of Jordan and Morocco were succeeded by their sons in 1999.

Other long-serving leaders, in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iraq, and Libya, will not last for ever. Nor will the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

With the exception of Mr Arafat, who has no son, the presidents among them have all aped their monarchic counterparts by lining up their own son as successor.

The success or otherwise of the dynastic succession in Syria will therefore be an important precedent in other republics across the region.

Beating heart

Under the late president, Syria has consistently punched above its weight in the international arena.

After the first swathe of pro-US Arab regimes made peace with Israel - Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinians - few other Arab capitals were prepared to consider full normalisation with Israel until Syria got back the territory it lost in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Crown Prince Abdullah and President Assad
Syria had Saudi Arabia's support in peace talks
This influence was achieved without the help of economic might, mineral wealth or a large population.

The challenge of peace with Israel remains, as does the uncertainty in Lebanon, where Syria holds sway, in the aftermath of Israel's recent sudden withdrawal.

A popular, and not entirely far-fetched, Arab political slogan identifies Syria as "the beating heart of Arab nationalism".

It remains to be seen how strong that heart will continue to beat now that the old lion of Syria's heart has stopped.

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05 Jan 00 | Middle East
The Golan: Territory and security
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