Inside File: Cult of Assad's son Basil keeps on growing

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The Independent Online
DAMASCUS - On some facades of the Syrian capital, the posters of Basil Assad now outnumber those of his father. In death, the President's son has achieved what one diplomat described as 'a talismanic quality he never had in life. Then, you would see only the occasional sticker in a Mukhabarat (secret police) car.' Three months after the fatal car crash, the grieving for Basil far exceeds the traditional Arbain, or 40 days of mourning.

When sadness climbs the throne, none in the realm can escape contagion. 'How much longer will we have to stand in a minute's silence at every function?' complained one foreign diplomat. 'Is it a faction in the party that is keeping this going? Is it the army? It's not necessarily the President's own wish. He should put a stop to it.' The mystery deepens should you attempt to purchase any of the Basil paraphernalia. 'You can't really buy them,' muttered one official. 'They are distributed as propaganda.'

Unlike the North Korean duo of the Great Leader and the Dear Leader, it was never established in Basil's lifetime that he would succeed his father; yet his posthumous stature has created a need to replace him. His brother Bashar, who had been training in London to become an eye surgeon, has broken off his studies and returned to Damascus for good to perform public duties. 'They even create functions especially to wheel him out,' said one source. Last Friday, Dr Assad opened the Syrian equestrian championship. The audience observed a minute of silence in memory of his brother.

The same day, the African Students' Union in Syria attended a seminar on 'the Life of Basil Assad'. According to the Syria Times, 'the first part tackled the life of Basil in the sport field, while the second part tackled his life in the military field, and the third dealt with his patriotic and human aspects'. The Basil cult does make the most of any sympathy that may be washing around for President Assad's rural Alawite clan. 'The Shami (Damascene) people feel they should run the country,' said one diplomat. 'In the Middle East, it is the people of the capital that rule. Not like in the US, where you have a president from Nebraska or wherever he comes from.'

Some of the rhetoric here, albeit much of it in self-defence, is reminiscent of the langue de bois of 25 years ago. At the moment, the Syrians are particularly wounded by President Clinton's failure to strike Syria off the list of drug-trafficking nations. This was Israel's doing. Israel, the Syrian Information Minister tells us, was solely responsible for revealing the Whitewater affair to discredit Mr Clinton; Israel was also the biggest facilitator of drug trafficking in the world.

Official visitors, as a political requirement, are still taken routinely to the Golan city of Quneitra, devastated by the Israelis before they left in 1974 and kept that way by the Syrians as a monument. Not only to the hospital which was 'destroyed by the Zionists and changed into a firing target'; but to the Ain Tineh border post where Syrians conduct stilted conversations by shouting in megaphones across the mined valley to their relatives on the Israeli-annexed side. One woman born in 1968, who said she had never met close-up her elder sister living in the occupied village of Majdal Shams, said she came about three times a year. Whether the scene is orchestrated or not is hard to tell. 'Visits to Quneitra are themselves a contrivance,' said one insider.

It is rumoured now, after three months of stalemate following the Clinton-Assad summit, that Israel is about to offer a package deal. The principle of total withdrawal from the Golan is no longer in question; it is the terms, such as the timetable, that have to be finalised. The Israeli defence committee has spoken of 12 to 20 years. Yitzhak Rabin said on Tuesday that its ideas were not politically feasible.

Three years - the timetable for the withdrawal from Sinai - is the more likely figure. Although Farouk al-Sharaa, the Syrian Foreign Minister, told me that this was far too long 'because Sinai is much bigger than the Golan', insiders say the Syrians have privately accepted it. One added: 'The other thing they want is US troops on the Golan' - another point proudly denied by Mr Sharaa - 'because it would institutionalise the role of the US as honest broker.' Behind the rhetoric there is much realism.

(Photograph omitted)

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