By Safa Haeri


As the Syrian ruling Ba's Party officially nominated Saturday Dr. Bashar el Asad as successor of his father for both the presidency and the leadership of the ruling Party, prominent specialist on Arab affairs said the new Syrian leader should be able to lead smoothly unless he is faced with a major crisis coming out of Lebanon.

"The best loyalty for the late President is to hand the flag to Dr Bashar el Asad, the ablest to shoulder the responsibility", pointed out Mr. Suleiman Qaddah, the Assistant Regional Secretary of the ruling organisation.

Hafez el Asad, the man who ruled over Syria for the past 30 years with an iron fist died suddenly exactly a week ago of a heart attack at the age of 69.

In the past 15 years, this is the first time that the congress's 1021 members and 138 observers of the Ba's is convened. Two previous conferences on 1990 and 1995 were cancelled because of the Persian Gulf War against Iraq and the engaging of the first rounds of Syria-Israeli peace negotiations.

At the Saturday meeting, all party secretaries pledged loyalty and support for Lt. Gen. Dr Bashar for the leadership of both the nation and the Party.

Syrian Minister of Information Adnan Omran said in Damascus that the convention could last up to five days.

Prime Minister Mohammad Mostafa Miro and veteran Foreign Minister Farouq al Shara', both friends and supporters of the new strongman, are also expected to be elected to the Party's new national directorate.

The election of Mr. Bashar, a British-educated ophthalmologist will then be put to a referendum, at a yet undisclosed date. According to Syrian law, the referendum must be held within 90 days of the president's death.

Moves to consolidate Bashar's power commenced within hours of the public announcement of the death of his father. The rubber-stamp parliament voted the same day to amend the constitution to lower from 40 to 34 the minimum age for being president as to fit Bashar's age and the next day, Bashar, on proposal of vice President Abdol Halim Khaddam, he was declared commander of the armed forces with the rank of Lieutnant General and nominated as Party's president.

"The death of the Syrian Hafez el Asad marks both the end of an era and a dream: That of creating a regional power under a regional leader", says Bassam Abu Sharif, an adviser to Yaser Arafat and one of the best observers of Arab scene.

In an exclusive interview with Iran Press Service from his office in Ramallah, Mr. Abu Sharif, a special Adviser to Palestinian Authority's Chairman Yaser Arafat says all his life, Asad tried to make Syria a regional power, by bringing Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine under his control, but after the Arabs defeat at the hands of the Israelis, it was the Palestinians who, without having a nation or an army, but a cause, emerged as the political power and focal point of the region.

"The death of Asad is the death of a regional power and as a result, the Palestinians, Jordanians and Lebanese will have a larger role to play in the regional decision-makings", he predicts.

Mr. Abu Sharif revealed that in order to mark the importance of Arafat's presence, Bashar had refused anti-Arafat Palestinian leaders opposed to the Peace Process to form their own separate delegation, urging them to form one single delegation under the Chairman Arafat or not to come at all", Abu Sharif said, adding that the PLO's office is expected to be re-opened a new in Damascus .

Both Mr. Abu Shari and Mr. Patrick Seale, a veteran British journalist known as one of the best biographer of Hafez Asad agrees that Rif'at Asad, Bashar's uncle who pretends at the presidency would not pose a dangerous challenge.

"Rif'at is a "yesterday's man". His recent statement claiming the power for himself is "a theatrical gesture void of any political significance and had no echo in Syria itself", he told IPS.

In his view, the Syrian do not want to go back to the ruthless times of Rif'at. "One must realise that the new team is already there and ready to work. The essential is that the transition, the passing of power is taking place smoothly, without brutality, as Bashar has already placed his own men in all key and strategic positions", Mr. Seale pointed out.

Both the Palestinian and the Western analysts agreed that though Rif'at has a "capacity for nuisance", however Bashar has already "put himself on the Agenda of the Americans and the French.

Though observers agrees that Rif'at has "certainely" some backing in the army, the intelligence machine and among the ruling Alawite minority, an offshoot of the Muslim's Shi'a sect, but they doubt he could do much harm to Bashar, as, for the time being, all key major international and regional powers such as the US, the EU, Jordan, Palestinians, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel all supports him, hoping for to a smooth transition.

"If Rif'at persist in making life really difficult for the young Asad, he face the confiscation of all his properties and assets in European, Swiss and US banks and London could find a way to shut down the Arab News Network that belongs to his son Sumar", one leading Arab analyst told IPS.

But Abu Sharif says in case Dr. Bashar now turned "Dr. Hope" could not deliver the good, then Rif'at may "got a chance".

"Americans are very much interested on the reactivation of the Syria-Israeli peace track and would like stability and continuity. Bashar has given them the impression this impression plus that of flexibility", a Syrian journalists close to Bashar told IPS, warning at the same time that on the issue of recuperation of the Syrian occupied lands, the new leader would be 'as though and intransigent" as his father.

In a commentary on the opening of the Ba's congress, Tehran Radio hoped Saturday that Syria's new leader would follow the policy of his father in dealing with the "Zionist Entity", meaning Israel.

With economic issues, pursuing anti-corruption drive, fighting unemployment and poverty are topping Bashar's priorities, he is expecting to concentrate more and more on domestic issues such as economic development, ending Syria's isolation, improving people's life under the so-called New Democratic Leadership and above all, creating a climate that would attract foreign investments

"He badly needs the American and the Europeans help in order to get them write off Syrian debts, as they did for Jordan, increase foreign investment to create jobs in a country where unemployment stands at more than 20 per cent of the population", an Iranian analyst observed. ENDS BASHAR PRESIDENCY 17600

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