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Syria mourns death of a 'golden son': Basil Assad's fatal car crash throws open the question of who will succeed the president, writes Robert Fisk in Beirut

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AT A STROKE, President Hafez al-Assad's succession and the future stability of Syria were thrown into doubt yesterday when the 31-year-old son of the Syrian President was killed in a car accident while driving in fog along the motorway to Damascus airport.

The death of Basil Assad, a cavalry major in the Syrian army and widely regarded as the heir-apparent to his father, is not only a family tragedy for the Syrian leader but a blow to all those who hope for a peaceful succession to the President, aged 63, who has ruled Syria since 1970.

Basil Assad's death came only five days after his father met President Bill Clinton in Geneva for a summit that brought Syria to the very centre of Middle East peace-making and may have paved the way for an Israeli-Syrian peace in return for a total Israeli withdrawal from the occupied Golan Heights. Basil Assad was known to support every step of his father's policy towards an Arab-Israeli peace. What the Syrian leader regarded as one of his greatest triumphs has thus been followed by personal calamity.

The Syrian constitution provides for a vice-president, the most important of whom is Abdul-Halim Khaddam, to take over temporarily when President Assad dies; in any event, Basil could not have become president until he reached the age of 40. But Syrians were in little doubt that Basil - a gifted equestrian and head of his father's personal security force - was being groomed for the leadership. For more than three years, Damascenes have been encouraged to paste his photographs - in the uniform of a Syrian army officer, wearing a beard and sunglasses - on their walls and car windows.

Since his last election victory in 1991, President Assad has been publicly referred to, on Syrian television and wall posters in Damascus and Beirut, as 'Abu Basil' (Father of Basil). The Baath Party press in Syria long ago eulogised Basil as 'the golden knight' for his prowess in horsemanship. And, it was said by officials in Damascus, Basil Assad was uncorrupt and honest.

Several military road-blocks manned by his soldiers were set up near the Syrian frontier with Lebanon - 'Basil checkpoints', they were called - to hunt for smugglers. The message was obvious: unlike other, less trustworthy Syrian luminaries, Basil could be trusted.

Israelis, as well as Assad's fellow Arab leaders, will therefore watch with the deepest concern what effect Basil's death may have on his father, who suffered a heart attack in 1983. Basil Assad was said to be wholeheartedly in support of his father's policy of land-for-peace in the Arab-Israeli dispute and his death will reawaken fears that President Assad's unreliable and philandering brother Rifaat will once again covet the Syrian leadership. When the President travelled across Damascus to confront Rifaat during the latter's attempted coup in 1984, Basil drove his father, without bodyguards, through the city.

According to Lebanese sources, Basil was driving through heavy fog in the early hours to catch the morning Lufthansa flight to Germany when his car skidded off the highway. He was an enthusiastic sports car driver and, despite the usual crop of rumours that at once went the rounds in Beirut, there seems no reason at present to think there was anything suspicious about his death.

A fluent francophone who was being slowly introduced to European and Arab leaders, he was close friends with the children of King Hussein of Jordan, had been introduced to King Fahd of Saudi Arabia and had befriended Lebanese leaders of all sects. He is to be buried today in the Assad family's home village of Kardahah in the Alawite mountains.

In Beirut, President Elias Hrawi and his Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri - who lost his own favourite son in an American road accident almost five years ago - were preparing to leave for Basil's funeral. More than 35,000 Syrian troops in Lebanon mean that Beirut's future peace is intimately bound up with Syria's fate. Basil Assad had been visiting the famous cedar groves of northern Lebanon only a week ago as a guest of the son of Sulieman Franjieh, who was himself a close friend of President Assad.

President Assad has three other sons but he will have to prove in the coming days - in both his words and his bearing - that his regime will one day be able to survive without him.

(Photograph omitted)