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

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)

News
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Arts and Entertainment
Highs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
News
news
New Articles
i100... with this review
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Cover Supervisor

£75 - £90 per day + negotiable: Randstad Education Group: Are you a cover supe...

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam