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Sunday, 11 June, 2000, 00:08 GMT 01:08 UK
Bashar al-Assad: Eyeing the future
Bashar and Chirac
Bashar met President Chirac of France in Paris last year
Hafez al-Assad's son Bashar looks poised to succeed the late Syrian president, but only in recent years has he developed a prominent political profile.

Bashar's life was changed in 1994 by the death in a car crash of his older brother Basil, who was being groomed for the highest office.

Bashar, 34, is known to be passionate about the internet and his modernising credentials have been further bolstered by his role in a domestic anti-corruption drive.

In a sign that he is now president-in-waiting, the Syrian parliament on Saturday voted to amend the constitution to lower the minimum age for presidential candidates from 40 to 34.

Popular support

Tall, with blue eyes and sporting a small moustache, Bashar bears a strong likeness to his late father.

mourners
Mourners in Damascus: The president ruled with an iron fist
Hundreds of Syrians showed their support for him on Saturday by rallying in central Damascus and chanting "By our soul and our blood we will sacrifice ourselves for you, Bashar."

He speaks fluent English and French, having studied at the Franco-Arab al-Hurriyet school in Damascus before going to medical school in the Syrian capital.

Public profile

Between 1988 and 1992 he studied ophthalmology at the Tishrin military hospital in Damascus, before going to London for further studies as an eye doctor.

But the death of Basil al-Assad catapulted him into the world of Damascus politics.

Bashar entered the military academy at Homs, north of Damascus, and rose through the ranks to become a colonel in January 1999.

The army plays a key role in Syrian politics - Hafez al-Assad headed both the army and the air force.

Bashar now heads a Syrian scientific society for information technology and, according to his friends, he is determined to bring the country into the age of the internet, which is still in its infancy in Syria.

Foreign travel

Bashar's first official trip abroad was to Lebanon in 1995, where Syria wields enormous influence.

He is reported to have played a key role in the accession of General Emile Lahoud to the Lebanese presidency in 1998.

Lebanese villagers
Lebanon: A crucial and sensitive policy area for Bashar

In February last year he met Jordan's King Abdallah in Amman, then in July and August he visited the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait. He also visited Oman in October.

According to Kuwaiti press reports, he controversially referred to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein as a "beast" during his visit to the oil-rich Gulf state invaded by Iraq in 1990.

In November he met French President Jacques Chirac in Paris.

On the domestic front, Bashar was expected to receive his first formal leadership job at a Ba'ath Party congress on 17 June.

Anti-corruption drive

But although Bashar still holds no formal political post, he has spearheaded a drive to weed out corrupt government officials - thereby also eliminating potential rivals in the old guard.

Several senior army officers have been retired and powerful intelligence chiefs dismissed.

The Syrian press has been publishing more and more articles about graft within government and frequently reports arrests.

Former intelligence chief Brigadier Bashir Najjar was jailed for 12 years for corruption.

Mahmud al-Zohbi, prime minister since 1987, was fired in March and committed suicide two months later rather than face arrest in a corruption investigation.

Bashar was quoted by the London-based Arabic newspaper Al-Hayat as saying he had "recommended competent people" for the new cabinet after Mr Zohbi's government resigned.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Jim Muir
"For the time being the emphasis is likely to be on stability and continuity"
Sami Glaiel, Syrian ambassador to London
"He will follow the same line as his father"
See also:

05 Jan 00 | Middle East
10 Jun 00 | Middle East
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