Regional Outlook : The Graying of Arab Leaders : Speculation about succession is becoming an obsession in the Mideast.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On a foggy morning a year ago, Syria's vice president and a senior security aide telephoned President Hafez Assad and suggested, tentatively, that they come around for coffee.

The aging president was wearing a long, Arab robe and his face was drawn when his visitors arrived.

"He opened the door and said, 'Is it the army in revolt?' " said one Damascus palace watcher, recalling the now often-told account.

Apparently, neither man answered for a moment. "No one wanted to tell him, you see."

In a region where an army revolt can spell instant death and even civil war, the real news was just as bad, maybe worse: Assad's eldest son, Basil, was dead, killed in a car accident earlier that morning.

Dead with him was any dream Assad may have had of smoothly handing over his rule to the young man who had for several years been carefully cultivated and raised through the top echelons of politics and power in Syria.

In the year since, a Cult of Basil has deepened. The dead man's face can be seen on posters in shop fronts and car windows, on Basil watches, belt buckles, hats, plates and black velvet oil paintings.

And now, in recent months, a new face has appeared, if only here and there. This time it is Assad's next-oldest son, Bashar: a shy, soft-spoken ophthalmologist brought back from medical school in London to preside over his brother's mourning and--by some accounts--begin the long process of grooming for the Syrian leadership.

An officially sanctioned tribute to Basil declares that nothing can stop the rising young generation of Syrians "from clinging to the second brother, Bashar Assad, and accompanying him . . . toward the third millennium A.D."

Throughout the Middle East, a generation of Arab leaders who rose to power in the turbulent coups d'etat and revolutions of the 1950s and 1960s is growing old.

The peacemaking with Israel that has been the hallmark of the last few years is largely the peace of old men entering the twilight of their violent reigns. The one-man regimes of the most decisive years of the modern Middle East are beginning to wrinkle and age.

From Syria and Jordan to Morocco, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, quiet talk of succession has begun, and its outcome will have much to say about the future landscape of the Middle East--and whether the peacemaking of the fathers can be visited placidly, in the decades ahead, upon the sons.

Even discounting monarchies with a constitutional line of succession--whose real futures are in reality anything but certain--a recent Arab League survey showed that future leadership is uncertain in at least 10 other Arab countries, including Algeria, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Sudan and Tunisia.

The outcome of the leadership debates ahead will determine not only the success or failure of Middle East peace but the course of the tide of Islamic extremism that has swept the region. And, of course, control of the majority of the world's oil.

Nowhere is the succession drama more precarious than in Syria, where the 64-year-old Assad holds the key to a final and comprehensive peace with Israel, even as the prospect of his demise raises fears of possible chaos, even armed conflict, in Damascus.

It was Assad who was able to bring an end to years of political turbulence and regular coups d'etat in Syria when he ascended to power in a bloodless coup in 1970. Now, his tiny sect of Alawite Muslims has tight control over the massive military-security-intelligence apparatus that governs Syria and its Sunni Muslim majority.

But no one in the Syrian capital is ready to predict what would happen if Assad, who suffered a heart attack a decade ago and who has looked visibly weaker in recent years, were to die now. Many predict that Syria's most influential Alawite generals, in a bid to protect their individual fiefdoms, would unite around a common new figurehead and attempt to maintain the status quo.

But it is just as possible that they would begin feuding among themselves, sparking a dangerous conflict that could touch off the Sunni Muslim resentment that has been at a low simmer since the Alawites took control. History is no comfort. Assad's own brother, Rifaat, took tanks into the streets after Assad's heart attack in 1983 in an apparent bid to seize power, a move that earned him years of exile. Now he's back in Damascus and presumably just as ambitious as ever.

"If Assad died, (Vice President Abdel-Halim) Khaddam would immediately take over the presidency until a new president was chosen. But you'd have to move extremely quickly, because if it wasn't held very firmly, then everybody would go for it. This place is an armed camp. Everyone has guns. Damascus is run round with guns," said a Western envoy.

Analysts say Assad's cultivation of his sons may be an attempt to provide a figure around which the nation can unite. Basil was hugely popular, in part because of his father's carefully cultivated image of him as a corruption-buster.

Basil was frequently dispatched on missions to clean up smuggling by army generals on the Lebanese border or to arrest the wayward sons of powerful officials. Since his brother's death, Bashar has begun to take on some of the same popular tasks.

A few months ago, when the son of a powerful general broke down the door of a woman who had refused his advances and carried her away, Bashar went with several officers of the secret police to the man's door and arrested him.

Like his brother, he has begun to appear publicly in military uniform, having graduated from a high-speed course at the military academy as a tank commander with the rank of captain.

Unlike Basil, who was believed to own about 40 fast cars and died when his Mercedes 500 plowed over an embankment in the fog on a rushed trip to the airport for a skiing trip, Bashar drives a modest Japanese car. He is frequently seen strolling through the neighborhood of the presidential palace, alone.

"We are ready for him. He is a young man with a high morality, high eduction, very humble. He likes everybody," said Marwan Kassem, 22, a Damascus University student who is one of many who appear ready to embrace the younger Assad.

At 29, Bashar is too young to ascend as president, who under the constitution must be at least 40. But analysts say Assad could either amend the constitution or live long enough to give his son the proper grooming needed for the succession.

"A lot will depend on how successful Assad is in building a base of support for Bashar between now and his death," one Damascus political analyst said. "If he's successful in creating a base of support, then Bashar may very well come out on top. If not, then the whole game is open for some intense bargaining, perhaps rivalry, perhaps fighting."

Elsewhere in the Arab world, the future is equally in doubt:

* In Jordan, peace with Israel has already been established with the treaty signed last year. Yet the future of one of the region's most stable monarchies is by no means certain. King Hussein's younger brother, Crown Prince Hassan, has been designated crown prince and heir apparent. Yet Hassan's close sympathies with native Jordanians have caused grumbling among the large Palestinian population, and there has been talk in the last year with the 59-year-old king's failing health about another successor, perhaps his son, Prince Ali, who has been making occasional public appearances at his father's side.

* In Egypt, a nominal democracy, a single party and, for all intents and purposes, a single military regime has governed since the bloodless coup of the Free Officers movement propelled Gamal Abdel Nasser to power in the early 1950s. President Hosni Mubarak became head of the ruling National Democratic Party after Anwar Sadat's assassination, and last year he broke his pledge to serve only two six-year terms by standing for a third term, swearing again it will be his last. Now, Egyptians are wondering: Will Mubarak, who is 66, seek a fourth term? Or will Egypt provide a new test case for the Arab world, a case where an Arab leader retires peacefully from power--alive--and hands over the reins of authority to a freely elected successor? With the growing militancy of the Islamic movement, most bets are still against that latter scenario.

* In Iraq, President Saddam Hussein, like Assad, has often seemed to be grooming his son, Uday, to assume power when Hussein himself departs, almost certainly in a coffin. But the fractious ethnic and religious nature of Iraqi society makes bloody turmoil a virtual certainty unless a powerful force within the military grabs quick and complete authority.

* In the Palestine Liberation Organization, veteran and aging Chairman Yasser Arafat, 65, faces his first-ever election in the occupied territories, probably sometime this year. The autocratic leader has never allowed anyone to rise within the Palestinian ranks to rival him, and it is considered likely that Arafat will assure that any elections guarantee his dominance despite rising opposition from the Islamic fundamentalist group Hamas and other factions opposed to the peace with Israel. Yet what happens when Arafat dies is anyone's guess.

* In Saudi Arabia, the desert kingdom that sits atop the world's largest reserves of petroleum, King Fahd, believed to be 73 years old, is steadily declining both physically and mentally. The line of succession is clear, with Fahd's brother, Prince Abdullah, long designated as crown prince. Yet Abdullah himself and the next in line after him, Sultan ibn Abdulaziz, the defense minister and another of Fahd's brothers, are both in their 70s as well.

Abdullah is likely to be a bit of a shock after mild-mannered Fahd. His views are more nationalistic; he is more of a religious conservative. He is rumored to have disagreed with his brother over the handling of the Gulf War, when Saudi Arabia hosted hundreds of thousands of foreign troops. With a rising swell of Islamic militancy providing the most important challenge to the royal family, some analysts say it is likely the Saudis will look soon to a younger heir apparent.

Most likely nominees are Riyadh Gov. Salman ibn Abdulaziz, another brother of Fahd who is only 58, or perhaps even one of the younger sons of King Faisal, such as the respected Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al Faisal, or of Fahd himself, such as Mohammed, governor of the oil-rich Eastern Province.

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The Leaders:

* Egypt

Name: Hosni Mubarak

Age: 66

Career: Became vice president in 1975. Assumed presidency after Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981. Serving his third six-year term.

Possible successor: Unknown

* Iraq

Name: Saddam Hussein

Age: 57

Career: Designated leader by the Revolutionary Command Council in 1979.

Possible successor: Uday, his son.

* Jordan

Name: King Hussein

Age: 59

Career: Proclaimed king in 1952, crowned in 1953.

Possible successor: Crown Prince Hassan, his younger brother.

* Palestinian Liberation Organization

Name: Yasser Arafat

Age: 65

Career: Named chairman of PLO Executive Committee in 1968.

Possible successor: Unknown

* Saudi Arabia

Name: King Fahd

Age: 73

Career: Leadership confirmed by royal court after the death of King Khaled in 1982.

Possible Successor: Crown Prince Abdullah, his brother.

* Syria

Name: Hafaz Assad

Age: 64

Career: Came to power in bloodless coup in 1970. Approved as president by popular referendum in 1971.

Possible successors: Bashar, his son, or Rifaat, his brother

Source: Political Handbook of The World

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