Iran Press Service


By Nina Kamran, IPS Diplomatic Editor


As a shocked Syria prepares the official funerals of President Hafez el Asad on Tuesday, Iranian observers expects meetings to take place on the side line between President Mohammad Khatami with his French and Russian counterparts, the three non Arab Heads of States to be present in Damascus for the event.

However, while they generally rule out any encounter between Mr. Khatami with Mr. Yaser Arafat, the "President" of the Palestinian Authority (PA), they do not rule out a possible meeting with the Egyptian leader, President Hosni Mubarak.

If such a meeting ever take place, it will certainly pave the way for the resumption of official relations between Tehran and Cairo, cut on orders of Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini after the proclamations of the Islamic Republic and in order to "punish" the late Anwar el Sadat who had recognised Israel, the observers pointed out.

Both Iran and the PA expressed "deep sorrow" at the death of the Syrian dictator who died Saturday of a heart attack and announced a three-day mourning period.

Iranian political analysts said they do not expect Tehran to change it's present "double standard" policy concerning the Middle East Peace Process, as in the one hand it harshly criticise Mr. Arafat for talking with Tel-Aviv under the US patronage for the creation of an independent Palestinian State while on the other it accepts the Syrians to keep "open" the doors to a possible recognition of the Jewish State in exchange of their occupied lands.

Never very good, relations between the two men have been very strained ever since Mr. Arafat signed his own separate peace deal with Israel, leaving the Syrian leader alone. Hence Asad's reinforced backing to the Palestinian groups opposed to the Peace Process and urging non-Arab Iran, it's "strategic ally", to do so.

While the death of Asad would not change much in relations between Tehran and Damascus, Palestinians hope that their ties with Syria will improve under the new leadership.

"We hope that the next Syrian president will open a new page in Syrian-Palestinian relations, and that we will enter a new era of co-operation and co-ordination on the peace process and that hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in Syrian jails, most of whom belong to the Fattah, the largest of myriad of Palestinian organisations led by Arafat would be released.

But Mr. Bassam Abu Sharif, an adviser to Chairman Arafat warned about possible power struggle erupting in Syria, as Rif'at el Asad proclaimed Monday himself as the "legitimate" successor to his brother Hafez, hence an immediate arrest warrant issued by the authorities against him.

"The Moslem Brotherhood which was brutally smashed by Assad after the 1982 rebellion in Hama, some senior "apparatchik" officers in the powerful army or from the sprawling and fearsome intelligence officers as well as the Sunnis who form the largest majority in Syria and regards the minority but ruling Allawites, an offshoot of Islam's Shi'a sect to which belongs the Asads, as heretics, may attempt to create instability", he pointed out.

For the time being and to officialise Bashar, who is 34, as President, a decree by Mr. Abdel Halim Khaddam, the interim president has both nominated him as the Armed Forces Commander in Chief and elevating his rank from Colonel to Lieutenant-General, while the rubber-stamp parliament prepares a draft to amend the Constitution to lower the legal age for becoming president to 30 instead of the present 40. The parliament is scheduled to meet on 25 of June to approve the nomination and for elections to be held.

It remains to be seen whether the British-educated ophthalmologist Bashar Assad, who has held no major political office, will be tough and canny enough to hold onto the power he is inheriting.

Dr. Alireza Nurizadeh, a London-based Iranian journalist who runs the Centre for Arab-Iran Studies (CAIS) and is a noted Arab affairs specialist suggests a "wait-and-see" approach, pointing out to the fact that Bashar's grooming by his father was far from being finished.

Dubbed "the Hope" by Syria's media, Bashar has clearly attempted to assert his authority domestically by bringing some young technocrats into the administration and initiating an anti-corruption campaign that led to the resignations of former Prime Minister Mahmoud Zoubi, and the surprise removal from office of former military chief of staff Hikmet Shehabi.

Accused of corruption and embezzlement of public funds, Zoubi committed suicide at his home last month as security officials arrived to arrest him while Shehabi flew to Los Angeles from Beirut airport last week after having received permission to travel to Lebanon for medical treatment.

"Even if f he does survive, Bashar's room for manoeuvre in regard with the peace negotiations is likely to be extremely limited, at least for quite a time and here, both the United States and Europe can play an extremely important role by showing a public support for him", Mr. Nurizadeh observed. ENDS BASHAR 12600


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