Syrians fear challenge by Assad's brother


When Syrians want to know what is happening in their country they watch satellite television and read Lebanese newspapers. Since their president died on Saturday, many keep checking the Koranic verses on Arab News Network (ANN), the London-based channel belonging to the late president's renegade brother, Rifaat.

There are Koranic verses aplenty on domestic television, and ANN does not have a reputation for news reporting. "Where is Rifaat?" everyone here is asking. They hope his media toy might give some hint of the exiled former vice-president's whereabouts.

For since Saturday, the country has waited with a kind of High Noon dread to know whether Rifaat will attend President Assad's funeral today. Syrians fear that Rifaat could seize the opportunity to overthrow his nephew, Bashar. A spokesman for Rifaat in Marbella said yesterday that he would "mount a challenge" to Bashar's imminent presidency, which he claimed to be "illegal and unconstitutional".

Syrians received a circuitous reassurance through the Lebanese newspaper al-Hayat, quoting a "very senior Syrian official". Army and intelligence services have been given full power to arrest Mr Rifaat al-Assad, should he dare return to the country.

In 1984, after Hafez al-Assad suffered a heart attack, Rifaat brought his T72 tanks on to the streets of Damascus in the hope of taking power. President Assad drove to the main tank concentration and ordered them to disperse. Then he went to Rifaat's home and shouted at his brother: "You want to overthrow the regime?

Here I am. I am the regime." Rifaat's army brigade was disbanded, he was sacked as vice-president and has since lived in Spain and France.

Resentment of the ruling Alawite minority and a possible backlash from the recent anti-corruption campaign are other sources of tension. Fifty former officials are said to be under house arrest and there are persistent rumours that Mahmoud al-Zohbi, the former prime minister who committed suicide on May 21st, was actually murdered.

Asked whether he was concerned about the possibility of disturbances, the information minister, Mr Adnan Omran, a close adviser of president-to-be Bashar, described the government's mood as one of "confidence", adding that "everyone feels that everything is exactly as it should be". A government employee was more frank, saying: "When my colleagues at the radio and television building heard the president was dead, everyone panicked. They expected the TV station to be attacked immediately."

The haste with which Dr Bashar al-Assad is being propelled towards the presidency is a sign of the authorities' fear of disorder. The Ba'ath Party congress will meet on June 17th - as planned before President Assad's death - to make his son the party's new secretary general. On June 25th the Syrian parliament will declare Dr Bashar's candidacy for the presidency and he will be "elected" by a referendum, perhaps two weeks later.

Some Damascenes fear the gentility of Bashar could be his downfall. An office clerk dressed in black said she only discovered that she loved Hafez al-Assad when he died. "He was a man," she explained. "He controlled the Syrian people. We need control here in Syria - our people are uncontrollable."

The President of Iran, Mr Mohamed Khatami, and the Palestinian leader, Mr Yasser Arafat, are among those attending President Assad's funeral today. The French President, Mr Jacques Chirac, is the only European head of state expected. The coffin will travel through the streets of Damascus on a gun carriage before being flown to his native village of Qordaha for burial.

The President, Mrs McAleese, yesterday conveyed her condolences to the government and people of Syria. In her message the President paid tribute to the central role which President Assad and Syria had played in the quest for a peaceful and stable Middle East.