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Monday, 12 June, 2000, 21:55 GMT 22:55 UK
Pinning hopes on Bashar
Syrian soldiers
Like many mourners, these soldiers are supporting Bashar al-Assad
By Jeremy Cooke in Damascus

Even as final preparations are being made for President Hafez al-Assad's funeral, there is growing pressure here for his son, Bashar, to be named as Syria's new leader.

Man with placard of Bashar al-Assad
Syrians are looking to Bashar al-Assad for stability

Thousands of grieving Assad supporters have been filing past the Shami hospital in Damascus where the man who led his country for 30 years died on Saturday.

But as well as chanting their last respects for their dead president, they are also pledging their support for 34-year-old Bashar al-Assad, who is now undoubtedly his father's heir apparent.

Many were dressed in black as they marched in orderly groups along the long avenue from the city centre to the hospital. They carried as many pictures of Bashar as of his father.

"God wants Bashar and the people want Bashar," they chanted. "Bashar is our hope."

Best hope?

There is still raw grief here. Both men and women were in tears, some were overcome with the emotion of the occasion.

The international community may also welcome Bashar as the new Syrian president

One man told the BBC: "We can't believe that our president is dead, but we have great hopes for the new president. It will be Bashar.

"The people want him because he will be the same as his father."

Even his supporters know that President Assad was ruthless with enemies, both abroad and at home. But they also know that Assad was a strong leader in a volatile part of the world.

What Syrians want most, it seems, is a continuation of the stability which Assad's hardline Ba'ath Party has brought them.

Bashar al-Assad
Bashar al-Assad is seen as a moderniser

The international community may also welcome Bashar as the new Syrian president. He is, it seems, the best hope for a smooth transition and has a reputation as a moderniser.

In President Assad's home village of Qardaha, in the northern highlands, final preparations are being made for his burial. The dead leader will be buried in the same mausoleum as his son, Basel, who was killed in a car crash in 1994.

People are already arriving for the funeral, among them Abel-Fattah al-Nayef, a Bedouin who travelled across the desert with his wife and three children.

"Assad gave us everything, roads, electricity," he said. "He is still with us.

"The future of Syria is with his son."

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See also:

12 Jun 00 | Middle East
Assad brother claims leadership
12 Jun 00 | Middle East
Analysis: Bashar's challenges
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
12 Jun 00 | Middle East
A funeral from palace to village
12 Jun 00 | Media reports
Israel 'held back' report on Assad death
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