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)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
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

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Executive

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Retail Buyer / Ecommerce Buyer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working closely with the market...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - CAD Software Solutions Sales

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A reputable company, famed for ...

Ashdown Group: Client Accountant Team Manager - Reading

Negotiable: Ashdown Group: The Ashdown Group has been engaged by a highly resp...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

War with Isis

Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

A spring in your step?

Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
10 best compact cameras

A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

Paul Scholes column

Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?