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)

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
Barn owls are among species that could be affected
charity appeal
News
Sarah Silverman (middle) with sister Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman (right) and sister actress Laura Silverman (left) at Jerusalem's Western Wall for feminist Hanuka candle-lighting ceremony
peopleControversial comedian stages pro-equality Hanukkah lighting during a protest at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
Sport
After another poor series in Sri Lanka, Alastair Cook claimed all players go through a lean period
cricketEoin Morgan reportedly to take over ODI captaincy
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
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: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas