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Wednesday, 21 June, 2000, 13:56 GMT 14:56 UK
Analysis: The rise and rise of Bashar
Posters show Hafez (left) and Bashar
Has Bashar (right) got what it takes to succeed his father?
By Barbara Plett in Damascus

Syria's ruling Ba'ath Party congress marks a signficant step in Bashar al-Assad's rise to the presidency.

He now holds all of the titles he needs to replace his late father as the country's leader, including head of the party and head of the army.

And he has the public support of the power structure that surrounded Hafez al-Assad.

"The political machinery was clearly in place for a smooth transfer of power," said one Western diplomat.
Rifaat al-Assad
Bashar's uncle Rifaat says he is the country's legitimate leader
"We expect the crunch to come later. A lot depends on Bashar's performance in the coming months."

Before he died, Hafez al-Assad purged the army and intelligence of senior officials who might have opposed the succession.

But Bashar is still young and relatively inexperienced in a country with a history of violent power struggles.

Opponents

The only public sign of opposition has come from the late president's brother, Rifaat, who was banished after a clash with President Assad in the 1980s.

A lot depends on Bashar's performance in the coming months

Western diplomat
He has denounced Bashar's presidential nomination and declared himself the country's legitimate leader.

Rifaat is no longer considered a serious political force in Syria, but the authorities are not taking any chances and have issued a warrant for his arrest if he tries to enter the country.

Analysts do not expect any other challenges to Bashar's authority in the short term, as there seems to be a consensus among the political and military elite to avoid instability at all costs.

The army has already pledged its allegiance.

Traditional opposition from the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood was effectively crushed by Hafez al-Assad.

Reforms

But the ultimate test of Bashar's leadership will be his ability to deal with the powerful officials who have rallied around him at the moment - especially as he faces the daunting task of modernising a country emerging from 30 years of rigid political control, saddled with an inefficient command economy and riddled with institutional corruption.
Bashar at Ba'ath Party congress
Bashar needs a power base before embarking on political reform
"Opposition would come from those profiting from the closed economic system," said another diplomat, "and this is not a small group. Maybe the money comes in at the top, but it trickles down to a lot of people."

The new Ba'ath leadership just elected at the party congress includes key figures who sympathise with Bashar's mandate to reform the economy.

But he will have to walk a fine line between trying to shake up an entrenched system and accommodating the old guard.

Analysts say that to avoid making enemies he will probably also need to tone down an anti-corruption drive that has been targetting senior officials.

Peace moves

Bashar would probably be better advised to put peace talks with Israel on hold for a while as he sorts out affairs at home.

But prominent Syrian writer Sadik al-Azm says the new president "may decide to put the peace process on the front burner, because this will make him the centre of international attention, which could shield him from criticism at home".

He's got the right instincts, but he's an unknown quantity

Syrian analyst
At any rate, it is clear that Bashar will stick to his father's demands that Israel return every inch of occupied Syrian territory.

As for political reform, that will almost certainly have to wait until he has established his own power base.

The political climate has eased in recent years.

According to one observer: "You can speak out more, as long as you're not organised and don't attack sacred cows".

But there is no sign that standard institutional change is being considered during this crucial transitional period.

"Can the boy do it just because he's the son? That's the question everyone's asking," said a Syrian analyst.

"He's got the right instincts, but he's an unknown quantity, and he's very young. I wish him luck."

See also:

20 Jun 00 | Middle East
17 Jun 00 | Middle East
13 Jun 00 | Middle East
17 Jun 00 | From Our Own Correspondent
13 Jun 00 | Middle East
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