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Exiled Uncle Challenges Younger Assad Over Syria

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

As foreign dignitaries and the world’s media poured into this insular capital Monday on the eve of President Hafez Assad’s state funeral, the first public challenge emerged to the well-oiled plan for passing the mantle of leadership to his son Bashar.

Assad’s ambitious younger brother Rifaat, who held the title of vice president until two years ago, gave a series of interviews from exile in Spain to say that he had a right to run the country, could do it better than the 34-year-old Bashar and would transform Syria into a democracy.

“There will be a new ‘corrective movement’ for a new path that will include all political, social and economic sectors,” said Rifaat Assad, 63. “There will be freedom in Syria--and the citizen will take up his role in building the country,” he said on his family-owned Arab News Network, which can be received in Syria.

“Corrective movement” was the name used for the bloodless coup that brought Hafez Assad to power in 1970.

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Rifaat Assad also pledged to return home “at the appropriate time” to vie for power, despite official warnings that he would be arrested if he set foot in the country. Once Hafez Assad’s closest political ally, Rifaat fell out with the late president after trying to usurp his power in 1984 when the president was recovering from a heart ailment. He has not lived in Syria since 1986.

Nevertheless, rumors circulated that he would try to attend his brother’s burial in their family’s native village of Qurdaha. One diplomatic source suggested that it might be religiously forbidden, or haram, to keep Rifaat Assad from the rites.

It is unclear if the exiled Assad commands meaningful support among Syria’s byzantine military and political elite. The powerful Syrian military has appeared to line up behind Bashar Assad, newly promoted to lieutenant general and commander in chief of the armed forces, whose photograph in fatigues was plastered throughout Damascus on Monday.

A government spokesman insisted that Syria is united in its time of national mourning. “I don’t think Bashar will face any difficulties in continuing the policies of his father,” the spokesman said.

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No Real Threat Seen

Murhaf Jouejati, a Syrian political analyst based in Washington, said he sees no way a challenge by Rifaat Assad could succeed.

“The Baath Party is the ruling party in Syria. It and the parliament [members] have the right to amend the constitution. So the candidacy of Bashar Assad is cloaked in legitimacy,” Jouejati said. Rifaat, on the other hand, was formally dismissed from his government post in March 1998 and is living abroad.

“He can issue all the statements he wants, but Rifaat is not a legitimate person,” Jouejati said. “I think he has very, very few human resources on the ground.”

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In an article published Monday, Assad biographer Patrick Seale said he believed that Bashar Assad has already curbed the influence of his uncle among the country’s Alawite elite, the religious sect to which the Assad family belongs. He said the showdown occurred in October when Rifaat Assad’s luxury marina complex in the port city of Latakia was stormed by government troops on grounds that it was being used for smuggling. At that time, many of the uncle’s supporters were hauled off to prison.

“The would-be challengers have been neutralized or discredited [and] the Old Guard has been edged out of the political arena,” Seale wrote in the pan-Arab Al Hayat daily.

Since Assad’s fatal heart attack was announced Saturday, the government has moved quickly to install his son, an eye doctor who has never held political office. Syria’s rubber-stamp parliament immediately changed the constitution to lower the legal age of the president from 40 to 34, and the ruling Baath Party declared Bashar Assad its candidate for national leader.

In keeping with the customs of grieving in the Arab world, Bashar Assad has not spoken publicly since his father’s death. But the son’s image has appeared continually on state television, posters and billboards alongside the deceased leader’s. Throughout the country, mourners dressed in black and wailing in grief have been chanting the father’s and son’s names in unison.

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“Now we have a sole candidate for the presidency and there is popular unanimity and this is clear from the demonstrations and the people’s emotions,” Defense Minister Mustafa Talas told the Lebanese television station Future on Monday. “People see in Bashar Assad a continuity of Hafez Assad.”

For all intents and purposes, a constitutional requirement that the country’s first vice president take over when the president dies has been ignored. The vice president, Abdel-Halim Khaddam, is officially in charge but has hardly been seen or heard from.

Khaddam is a Sunni Muslim, like the majority of Syrians. Because Khaddam has maintained such a low public profile, it is unclear if his support for Bashar Assad’s candidacy for president is enthusiastic or begrudging.

A congress of the Baath Party this weekend is expected to name Bashar as its leader and official candidate for president. The parliament is to ratify that choice June 25, and a referendum to demonstrate support for the new president is to follow within 90 days.

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Talas, the defense minister, said the succession process will be completed by July 30, when the results of the referendum are announced.

Bashar Assad is being publicly portrayed in Syria as having Washington’s seal of approval. A telephone call to him from President Clinton late Sunday was reported on the front pages of newspapers in Syria and its client state, Lebanon.

“Bashar affirmed to Clinton that Syria will remain sincere to President Assad’s policy in achieving a just and comprehensive peace in the Middle East,” a report by the official Syrian news agency said.

Syrians seemed disappointed that Clinton would not be attending Assad’s funeral, as he did King Hussein’s last year in Jordan.

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Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who is heading the U.S. delegation to Assad’s funeral, urged Bashar Assad to “open up” Syria. She said she would seek a meeting with the president-to-be while she is in Damascus.

“I think it’s very important for Syria to open up,” Albright said before leaving Washington for the Middle East. “I think it’s essential for Syria to be a part of a regional solution in the Middle East that we’ve all been looking for.”

Although the United States viewed Assad as a stubborn obstacle to a full peace with Israel, he was also seen as a pillar of stability whose word could be trusted. Syria is officially at war with Israel, although no shots have been fired on their common border for almost 30 years, a situation the U.S. government attributes to Assad.

But Assad refused to sign a peace accord with Israel unless the Jewish state returned all of the Golan Heights, which it captured from Syria in 1967. Most political observers believe that his son is unlikely to budge from that position before he consolidates his power, if ever. Some suggest that it could become Assad’s inviolable legacy--a national line in the sand never to be defaced.

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Whether Bashar Assad has the will and strength to open the one-party state politically and economically remains to be seen.

Nation Grieves

In an unprecedented move that may herald changes to come, the government did open its hermetic borders to more than 400 foreign journalists for the funeral, allowing unmonitored filming of soldiers, street interviews and uncensored television satellite feeds for the first time.

The government clearly wanted the world to witness the nation’s genuine grief. More than half the country is younger than 25 and has never known a leader besides Assad.

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“We got our power and strength from Assad,” said mourner Manal Abu Alaya, 19, marching through the streets of shuttered shops and black banners declaring Bashar the “hope” of the future.

“Assad was our pride,” added law student Rafik Darwish, 27, trembling with emotion. “He raised our standard of living.”

World leaders continued to arrive throughout the night, including French President Jacques Chirac, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami and Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi.

Assad’s shrouded body was to be paraded through the streets of Damascus before lying in state at the People’s Palace while dignitaries pay their condolences to Bashar Assad. Later it was to be flown to the family’s hometown for burial.

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