- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 13, 2000

Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright predicted yesterday a "smooth" transition of power to Hafez Assad's son, Bashar, before departing for Syria to attend the late president's funeral today.

But while the 34-year-old heir apparent tightened his grip on the secretive, authoritarian regime his father led for 30 years, his exiled uncle threatened to mount a challenge.

Rifaat Assad "is ready to put himself in the hands of the people in a presidential election immediately," said a spokesman yesterday by telephone from Spain, where the late president's brother is living.

Analysts doubted that Rifaat Assad, 63, who led a failed attempt to overthrow his brother in 1983, has enough backing within Syria to prevent his nephew, Bashar, from succeeding his father.

The son is already completing a ruthless and rapid consolidation of power that began in earnest months before his father's sudden death on Saturday, Middle East experts say.

Dozens of political and military officials have been ousted or jailed on corruption charges that are seen as an excuse for replacing anyone whose loyalty was suspect. A former prime minister committed suicide.

Mrs. Albright said she was going to Mr. Assad's funeral, even though the State Department lists Syria as a state sponsor of terrorism, because of its importance in the Middle East peace process.

"I think that it's totally appropriate that we pay our respects to a historic figure, and that we express our condolences to the people of Syria," she said at the State Department yesterday.

"There is no question that we need to work with the Syrian leadership in order to accomplish a comprehensive peace."

Apparently unwilling to speak ill of the dead, Mrs. Albright stressed Mr. Assad's "strategic decision for peace" at Madrid in 1991 over his legacy of attacking Israel in 1973, invading and occupying Lebanon, backing terrorists opposed to Israeli-Palestinian peace, threatening Jordan and repressing dissent at home.

Mrs. Albright also called for stability in Syria, which flirted this spring with a peace deal with Israel but finally backed away, rejecting an Israeli offer conveyed by President Clinton in Geneva to return all the Golan Heights but not the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee.

"I think that it's important for Dr. Bashar Assad to take on the mantle and for the transition process to be pursued," Mrs. Albright said of the president's son, a London-trained ophthalmologist.

"I think that from what we've seen in the last 24 hours, it seems to be smooth, and we hope it will continue in that vein… . It looks like a peaceful transition."

Asked if she would use her visit to raise accusations that Syria supports terrorism or suppresses civil rights, Mrs. Albright said, "I am not sure that as I'm offering condolences, which is the purpose of a funeral and a memorial service that is exactly the time to have that discussion."

While Mrs. Albright cited Bashar Assad's interest in the Internet and his Western education as signs that he might bring Syria into closer alignment with the West, analyst Eyal Zisser said the strongman's son was proving as ruthless as his father.

"Former Prime Minister Mohammed Zubi became the scapegoat in the struggle against corruption [led by Bashar Assad] and committed suicide last month," said Mr. Zisser, of Tel Aviv University.

"Bashar will survive only if he shows determination, leadership capabilities, charisma and, finally, the necessary degree of brutality toward his enemies at home.

"The first mission that Bashar must accomplish is securing the support of the family, the Alawi community, the military and the security forces for him and his regime."

Paul Jureidini, a Syria expert, also said Mr. Assad will need some time to "prove himself and remove from power those who might stand in his way."

"Hafez Assad's brother, Rifaat, has a following in Syria, but not enough to challenge Bashar. He will become a factor if there is political trouble or upheaval."

Mr. Jureidini, who works for the international consulting firm Armitage Associates, noted that Mr. Assad has already replaced the head of military intelligence with his own brother-in-law, Asif Shawkat.

The former army chief of staff was also replaced with a Bashar loyalist.

"People who have met Bashar say he is impressive thoughtful, a good listener, a workaholic, a fast read," said Mr. Jureidini. "But he is quite tough… . All who oppose him are in jail or restricted to their homes. There is no question. This is all Bashar.

Mr. Jureidini added, "Those who will try to test him will regret it."

Mr. Assad will have little time to involve himself in the Middle East peace talks during the next 40 days of mourning. He will be formally nominated as the sole Ba'ath Party candidate for president on June 25, and he will likely win an unopposed referendum shortly afterward.

"By mid-August, if someone puts a compromise on the table that will save face, definitely Bashar could deal with it," Mr. Jureidini said.

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