- The Washington Times - Monday, June 12, 2000

DAMASCUS, Syria Bashar Assad, son of the late Syrian leader, was unanimously nominated as the only presidential candidate yesterday, another indication he will succeed his father as president in a country where most people have known no other ruler.

The ruling Ba'ath Party also appointed Bashar commander of the armed forces. President Hafez Assad, who died Saturday, was the previous commander.

In anointing Bashar Assad, the hierarchy is opting for a smooth, stable transition instead of the uncertainty and violence that characterized power changes in Syria before Hafez Assad took over in a bloodless coup in 1970. Hafez Assad's strong-willed, strong-arm stewardship ended a series of coups that followed independence from France in 1946.

It remains to be seen whether Bashar Assad, who has held no major political office, will be tough and canny enough to hold onto the power he is inheriting. But the British-educated eye doctor was a favorite with ordinary Syrians, many of whom seemed incapable of imagining their country without an Assad at the helm.

Abdel-Halim Khaddam, one of two vice presidents, declared as law yesterday a constitutional change that parliament made Saturday, lowering the minimum age for president from 40 to 34. Bashar is 34.

It had long been clear Hafez Assad was grooming his son to rule after him. The political apparatus the autocratic Mr. Assad, 69, left behind began preparing to carry out those wishes soon after he died.

All that is left is for the rubber-stamp parliament, which is scheduled to meet June 25, to approve the nomination and for elections to be held. Hafez Assad routinely ran as the only candidate in presidential elections, and just as routinely recorded "yes" votes of close to 100 percent.

"We have full confidence in Bashar because he's the only one who can carry his father's torch, and the Syrian people don't want anyone else," said Kawkab Fares, a 24-year-old civil servant who joined crowds yesterday at the Damascus hospital where Hafez Assad's body was believed being kept until his funeral Tuesday.

"Bashar, we are with you," the crowd chanted.

Defense Minister Gen. Mustafa Tlass and military officers met with the younger Mr. Assad yesterday to offer their condolences and "pledged their loyalty," Syria's official news agency reported. The agency gave no further details on the meeting, significant because it showed the powerful military has thrown its support behind a smooth transition.

Syrian workers in Lebanon thronged to Syrian military bases and offices to receive condolences. Syria deploys 30,000 soldiers there. About a million Syrian workers also reside in Lebanon.

Meanwhile, Arab analysts are closely watching Syria, hoping for stability in the wake of Mr. Assad's death.

In yesterday's Kuwaiti daily Al-Watan, columnist Fouad Hashem wrote, "The struggle for power between the old guard and the new will not be a picnic or a walk in the park. The price will be dear, very dear. May God protect Syria and its people from all evil."

The Jordan Times, an Amman-based English-language newspaper, said that whoever assumes the Syrian presidency also will have domestic concerns.

"Hafez Assad's successor will inherit a country with the diseases that are almost typical in this region: Corruption, a struggling economy in need of modernization and liberalization, and the challenges of democratization lying ahead," it said.

The "Lion of Damascus" Assad means lion in Arabic was one of the region's longest-serving leaders and seen as key to a comprehensive Israeli-Arab peace settlement. He tried to rally his fellow Arabs to counter what he saw as Israeli influence in the Middle East, only to see them one by one enter peace negotiations or sign treaties with the Jewish state.

Mr. Assad's death could slow already stalled Israeli-Syrian peace talks. Though Mr. Assad resumed talks with the Israelis last year after a hiatus of nearly four years, the talks were suspended in January when Syria insisted Israel commit to returning to prewar 1967 borders.

Mr. Assad's funeral ceremonies will stretch from the capital, Damascus, to his home village of Qardaha, 125 miles northwest.

Lebanese officials President Emile Lahoud, Prime Minister Salim Hoss and parliament Speaker Nabih Berri three leaders who needed Mr. Assad's crucial backing to run Lebanon arrived here yesterday, the first of a long list of dignitaries to travel to Syria to pay respects.

Among the world leaders expected to attend the funeral is U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright.

President Clinton spoke briefly by telephone yesterday with Bashar Assad.

White House Chief of Staff John Podesta said Mr. Clinton had decided Mrs. Albright should attend the funeral rather than the president or Vice President Al Gore.

"I think that is respectful," said Mr. Podesta, speaking yesterday on CNN's "Late Edition." "She is our leading diplomat, and we look forward to continuing on the strategic path that President Assad made for the Syrian people, which is to try to find a comprehensive peace solution in the Middle East."

In the past year, Mr. Clinton has attended the funerals of state leaders not as well known or as long-serving as Mr. Assad, who took power in 1970. Just last week, Mr. Clinton made a marathon 36-hour trip to Tokyo for the funeral of Keizo Obuchi, an unassuming ruling party stalwart who served less than two years as Japan's prime minister.

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