DAMASCUS (Reuters)–Bashar al-Assad acted increasingly like Syria’s new president on Monday–discussing Middle East peace with world leaders and overseeing preparations for mass mourning at the funeral of his father–Hafez al-Assad.
The dominance of the 34-year-old Bashar–who had no official title when his father died on Saturday–was underlined by the lack of any public appearances by Vice President Abdul-Halim Khaddam–who is nominally acting president.
An open challenge came–however–from Hafez al-Assad’s younger brother Rifaat–speaking in exile in Spain–who declared Bashar’s nomination for president unconstitutional and that he himself was the only legal authority. It was unclear whether he had any serious support in Syria.
Official media carried only pictures of Bashar–who received pledges of support from military chiefs after a decree signed by Khaddam on Sunday made him head of the armed forces — a crucial post his father had held during his three decades of rule.
All newspapers carried a report of Bashar’s conversation with US President Bill Clinton in which the American leader was quoted praising Assad and hoping for Middle East peace.
“Bashar affirmed to Clinton that Syria will remain sincere to President Assad’s policy in achieving a just and comprehensive peace in the Middle East,” a report by the official news agency said.
Assad had been uncompromising in his demand that Israel return all the land it captured from Syria in 1967. The most recent peace talks with Israel broke down in January–with Israel insisting on retaining enough Syrian territory to ensure control of the Sea of Galilee.
The Syrian establishment stressed continuity and parliamentary speaker Abdelqader Qaddoura said Damascus “will continue to pursue (the late) President Assad’s policies.”
Bashar’s promotion to head of the armed forces came hours after the ruling Baath Party nominated him for the post of president. Two days ago–his only official title had been head of the nation’s computer society.
Officials said parliament would meet on June 25 to approve his nomination for president and set a date for a referendum in which voters will be asked to accept or reject him.
Black flags were attached along the length of the route that the funeral cortege is due to take on Tuesday for a funeral that will begin with a state ceremony in Damascus and end with his burial in his mountain village of Qardaha.
Those scheduled to attend include French President Jacques Chirac–US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook. Russian President Vladimir Putin–who is not due to attend–being represented by the country’s parliamentary speaker–spoke to Bashar on Monday by phone.
The heads of state from Egypt–Jordan–Sudan–Kuwait–Yemen and Lebanon were expected at the funeral–along with Yasser Arafat–the ailing Palestinian leader and a long-time adversary of Assad in Middle East politics.
Bashar met in Damascus on Monday Hassan Nasrallah–leader of the Hizbollah guerrilla movement that forced Israel to withdraw from south Lebanon last month.
Rifaat al-Assad–in his denunciation of Bashar’s nomination–told Reuters through his spokesman in Marbella–Spain: “What is happening in Syria is a real farce and an unconstitutional piece of theater which is a real violation of the law and the constitution.
“The only legal constitutional reality is embodied by Dr. Rifaat al-Assad.”
Rifaat–62–has lived in exile since 1986 in France and Spain after his “defense brigades,” now disbanded–mounted a failed challenge to his brother’s authority. He was stripped of the title of vice-president two years ago and warran’s for his arrest have been issued in Syria.
In Qardaha–Hafez al-Assad’s home village–the military tightened security for the funeral. Troops patrolled its newly paved streets and armed presidential guards lined a highway.
Under plans for the funeral–the body of the “Great Lion,” whose name meaning lion in Arabic was synonymous with modern Syria–is to be moved from the presidential palace at 8 a.m. on Tuesday to the Palace of the People–a huge complex atop a hill overlooking Damascus that Assad used for state functions but rarely stayed in.
His body will lie in state for five hours and will then be flown to an airport near his home village.
After prayers–he is to be buried in the family cemetery–probably next to his eldest son Basel whose death in a 1994 car accident led to the mantle of heir apparent falling on Bashar–who was studying in Britain to become an eye doctor.
Bashar has a reputation for honesty and modesty and is best known for his anti-corruption campaign. But foreign interest is centered on his views on peace with Israel.
US Middle East peace envoy Dennis Ross predicted Syria would see a smooth transition under Bashar. But White House Chief of Staff John Podesta warned: “The dust I think does need to settle.”
A statement from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s office said he told his cabinet a new epoch was dawning: “We are facing a different Middle East which we will have to study.”
Arab Druze villagers from the Golan Heights–captured by Israel from Syria in 1967–scuffled with Israeli police on Monday while trying to cross into Syria for Assad’s funeral.
In Damascus crowds carried black flags and pictures of the two Assads. They chanted pro-Bashar slogans.
“All of us are behind you Bashar–you are the carrier of Assad’s standard,” read a banner slung across a city street. “This lion cub is the son of that great lion.”