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Tuesday, 13 June, 2000, 06:13 GMT 07:13 UK
Analysis: Bashar's challenges
(Left to right: Gen Mustafa Tlas, Bashar al-Assad, Ali Osman
Bashar mourns with defence minister and army chief of staff
By BBC News Online's Martin Asser

It took ruthless determination, a shrewd political mind and nerves of steel for the late President Hafez al-Assad to rule Syria for 30 years.

I'm a believer in democracy and respect of others' opinions

Bashar al-Assad
What we know of his son Bashar is that he is a mild-mannered 34-year-old former eye doctor whose grooming for the presidency began when his brother Basil died in a car crash six years ago.

Syria today faces momentous challenges - war or peace with Israel, economic stagnation and internal instability after the death of a powerful autocrat.

It will take Dr Bashar, as he is known in Syria, more than just a famous surname to succeed.

Enemies within

The shaky legitimacy of his dynastic succession in the nominally socialist Syrian Arab Republic is Bashar's first challenge.

One of President Assad's last public appearances in March
Hafez al-Assad kept a firm grip on power until the end
The late president's rule was bolstered by a feared security and intelligence regime whose hand is now felt in every aspect of Syrian life.

All political and religious opposition ruthlessly having been eliminated during the last 30 years, any threat to Bashar will come from within Hafez al-Assad's own power base.

But recent "anti-corruption" purges, implemented by Bashar himself in the months before the ailing president's death, have undermined potential opponents and placed Bashar loyalists in key positions.

Peace prospects

While the late president established himself in conflict with Israel and through Syria's rapid Soviet-backed development, his son enters a very different arena.

Middle East issues are now a US domain and Bashar faces the challenge of a stalled peace process with Israel in which Syria is seeking a return of all the territory captured by the Israelis in 1967.

Syrian troops with Assad poster in Beirut
A threat could come from the army
How he will deal with Israel's determination - apparently backed by Washington - to retain at least part of the occupied Golan Heights could be a make-or-break issue for Bashar.

If peace does materialise, the new landscape could allow the industrious Syrian workforce to trade its way out of the current stagnation.

It might also allow Syria's totalitarian-style government to be relaxed, in line Bashar's self-declared instincts towards democracy, transparency and openness.

But what if things move the other way? Syria - not Israel - would undoubtedly be given the blame by Washington and Bashar could easily find himself consigned to America's "enemies of peace" bracket.

That could spell political and economic disaster for Syria, and for Bashar.

Exiled pretender

A loose canon on the horizon is Rifaat al-Assad, the late president's half-brother, who lives in exile, having been sacked as vice-president in 1998.

Mourners in Damascus
If things look bad now, they could get far worse
Rifaat - a charismatic strongman with some internal support - believes he is the rightful heir to power Syria.

At the moment he lives in Europe, with some of the riches he amassed during his brother's rule being poured into a loss-making Arabic TV station, whose output in the coming months will provide further important clues to Rifaat's intentions.

In all, Syria's challenges are significant ones and Bashar al-Assad faces an upill climb.

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See also:

11 Jun 00 | Middle East
Iran loses a staunch ally
10 Jun 00 | Middle East
Lebanon mourns 'great Arab leader'
11 Jun 00 | Media reports
Media reaction to Assad's death
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