Syrians see human face of Assad at funeral: The Lion of Damascus betrayed a streak of vulnerability as he buried his son, writes Robert Fisk

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IN SYRIA, nothing important happens without the approval of the Lion of Damascus - save for the act of God which took his eldest son away. And it must have been President Hafez al-Assad who decided to allow the country to watch his day of agony. Never before has Syrian television been permitted to show such intimate pictures of the man whose iron hand has governed the Syrian Arab Republic for almost a quarter of a century, a man whose energy and strength momentarily seeped away before the cameras as he stood before his son's coffin.

When President Elias Hrawi of Lebanon called him a few hours after Basil al-Assad died in a car accident on the road to Damascus airport, the Syrian leader wept on the telephone, unable to choke back his tears. On the morning of Basil's funeral, all Syria could watch his grief. And it turned out that the old man so long honoured in the flat propaganda posters of Soviet inspiration - stern-eyed but smiling in practised benevolence over his Baathist republic - was human after all. On the Boeing 727 that took him to the family's town, Qurdaha, for the funeral, Mr Assad ordered his son's mahogany coffin to be placed beside him in the cabin.

His wife, Aniseh, white-scarved behind dark glasses, touched him gently on the shoulder as they climbed aboard. Astonishingly, Mr Assad emerged 30 seconds later. He leaned through the cockpit window, right out of the plane, raising his arms, holding clasped hands above his head as if he had won an election rather than lost a son. Fear not, Assad still leads you, was its obvious message - but the bravado was short-lived.

As the helicopter-borne television cameras swooped down on the funeral cortege at Qurdaha, Mr Assad's arm was taken by President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and the face of that most implacable of leaders appeared to collapse. He stood before the coffin in the mosque he built for his village, hands held out in Islamic prayer but gaunt, ashen- faced. Transfixed was the appropriate word, a man whose unblinking eyes never left the coffin, an autocrat staring at mortality.

There must, of course, have been men in Syria who watched this dry- eyed; the old men of Hama, for example, whose young sons were cut down by Mr Assad's legions in the abortive Islamic revolution 14 years ago. It was a day of funerals; more than 2,000 miles away, in Oslo, they were burying the Norwegian Foreign Minister. But he had been an attendant lord at the table of Middle East negotiations, Mr Assad a king - and it was Mr Assad's eldest son, the man who would have led Syria in its first decades of peace with Israel, who lay in the coffin.

The mourners at Qurdaha told their own story. Some yards away stood the diminutive Abdul-Halim Khaddam, the Vice-President who would probably assume power if Mr Assad himself died. But right beside the Syrian President, towering over him, stood Mr Mubarak, talking gently to Mr Assad, occasionally making him smile with a joke or recollection, Egypt allied once more with the other twin pillar of the Arab world. And for just a few hours, there was a kind of Arab unity in that Syrian village, between the man whose nation made peace with Israel 16 years ago and the man who once broke off relations with Egypt for doing so.

Mr Assad may be one of the next to make peace. And it is measure of how much Syria has changed that viewers were encouraged to ask one question, along with the Arab leaders at that funeral, indeed with Mr Assad: What next?

(Photograph omitted)