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Syria's likely new leader likes windsurfing and the Web -- but change still likely to be slow

By Brent Sadler
CNN Senior International Correspondent

June 15, 2000
Web posted at: 12:03 p.m. EDT (1603 GMT)

This news analysis was written for CNN Interactive.

image
Syrian women cry and carry portraits Sunday of the late President Hafez Assad and his son Bashar in Damascus  

In this story:

Balancing information

Managing change

RELATED STORIES, SITES icon



DAMASCUS, Syria (CNN) -- President Hafez Assad is dead. Long live his son Bashar, the heir apparent and rising star in Syria's ruling elite.

That seems to be the view shared by many Syrians who poured into the streets of Damascus for the state funeral Tuesday of the late Syrian leader.

Along with pictures of the dead president, many of the mourners carried photos of the young Bashar, his visage looking every inch a president and Syrian tough guy. Bashar in military fatigues, his eyes shaded by designer sunglasses. Bashar the diplomat, in somber suit and serious pose.

The Assad family name, as many Syrians will proudly tell you, means "lion." While at 34 years of age he may be relatively young and politically inexperienced, Bashar Assad is hardly a defenseless cub. He is now commander-in-chief of Syria's armed forces and well on his way to the top of the country's pyramid of power.

Balancing information

Six years ago, Bashar was studying in the United Kingdom to become an eye surgeon. The death of his elder brother, Basil, in a car crash meant Bashar had to be plucked from relative obscurity and groomed to succeed his father.

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Two Syrians clean their shop in Damascus Wednesday as shops reopened after the funeral  

"Dr. Bashar," as he is widely known among people at all levels inside and outside Syria, is tall and lean. He likes to windsurf and play volleyball. I joined several CNN colleagues at an informal meeting with him earlier this year, and I found him to be extremely courteous with visitors, thoughtful and measured in conversation.

From an early age, he watched his father study the regional and international press on a daily basis. He understands the power of information. As head of the Syrian Computer Society, he is a champion of greater Internet access for Syrians, though he said he did not have an electronic mailbox because he has no time to answer e-mails.

For the 30 years of his father's iron-fisted rule, information in Syria was handled with scrupulous care. The international media were carefully monitored. Some journalists were blacklisted for what was deemed to be anti-Syrian reporting.

President Assad's death Saturday seemed to take the Syrians by surprise. The modern media world banged at the information ministry's door. Television satellite dishes headed for Damascus within hours of the death announcement. Legions of electronic journalists came from Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, Europe and the United States.

The Syrian authorities were deluged with visa and transmission requests. The slow-moving bureaucracy crashed from the weight of global interest. Television transmission dishes sprang up with and without official clearance. In an unprecedented move, the Syrians disregarded the rules and let the news pour out.

After the funeral, one overwrought official whose job was to count all journalists as they came in and out of the country admitted defeat. "I have lost track of where they all are," he said.

Managing change

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Syrian soldiers carry the coffin of Hafez Assad draped in the Syrian flag on Tuesday  

Such press freedom is unthinkable under normal circumstances and is unlikely to last, even though Syrian officials seemed satisfied with international coverage of the death of their president and the elevation of his son.

Syria is a country bogged down by economic recession and suspicion of the outside. In assuming the role of heir apparent, Bashar Assad must take on the job of dragging Syria into the modern world.

Mobile telephones were introduced only this year. Each phone costs about $1,500, way beyond the reach of most people in a country where the average monthly income is around $300.

Businessmen cry out for authorities to loosen the state's grip over key sectors of the economy so that the private sector might flourish.

  MESSAGE BOARD
 

As it is, they must contend with numerous restrictions, including a tightly regulated foreign exchange system that restricts the amount of money going in and out of the country. There is no private banking system. There are no loans, not even mortgages. And there are no government incentives to invest, such as tax relief.

Syria has yet to embrace the information and technology age. "Dr. Bashar" appears to want innovation: He personally attends business seminars and speaks with Internet experts.

At a press conference Thursday, Information Minister Adnan Omran said that on behalf of the authorities, he was thanking the international media for bringing Syria's loss to the attention of the outside world.

He went on to say that the upcoming Baath Party general conference, the first in 15 years, will discuss all aspects of Syrian endeavors and change anything that needs to be changed. Bashar is expected to be elected party leader at that meeting, which begins Saturday. He already is the party's choice for president, which the country's parliament is expected to vote on when it meets on June 25.

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A Druse Arab arranges a shrine dedicated to the late president Tuesday in the Golan Heights town of Madjal Shams  

"Everything which proved to be right will continue," Omran said. "Everything which did not work well supposedly is to be changed."

For now at least, Bashar is enjoying the visible support of the military and political establishment. But there are some elements within Syria's ruling bodies that might resist change.

Diplomats and observers close to Bashar say he will need reliable and trustworthy advisers in a cutthroat world where corruption and the set ways of the old guard may clash with attempts to make radical social and economic improvements.

And Assad's son will not be a one-man show. Syrian institutions such as the dominant Baath Party, the military and the intelligence services that were built up by his father remain firmly entrenched and are expected to endorse and guide the new leader.

President Assad is dead and buried, but Damascus looked the same this week, with more pictures of him plastered on the capital's streets than ever. Syria is on the threshold of a new era of leadership, but no one expects overnight change.

The late president was a cautious, slow-moving tactician, and while his son's style may appear modern, he was still schooled in the old Assad family way.




RELATED STORIES:
CNN.com: World News
   •Middle East

RELATED SITES:
Syrian Embassy in Washington, D.C.
ArabNet -- Syria, Government
Syria -- CIA World Factbook 1999
AL-Baath Daily Political Newspaper Organ of Arab Socialist Party

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