The death of President Assad - long predicted but sudden at the end - could scarcely have come at a more critical moment for Syria and for the Middle East peace process.
As his health failed, Assad had begun to prepare the succession for his 35-year-old son, Bashar, but the process is far from complete. Bashar is a qualified optician but an inexperienced politician. He has never held an official party or government post, though he has recently taken charge of several important policy briefs, including Lebanon, development of the internet, and combating corruption.
A crucial conference of the ruling Ba’ath party, scheduled for June 17, had been expected to result in his promotion to a senior position in the party and possibly to the vice-presidency - formally anointing him as the chosen successor.
Bashar’s involvement in the campaign against corruption was no doubt intended to raise his public profile and win popularity among the public, but it was also a useful means to start establishing his own power base by clearing out some of the old guard.
Two recent casualties of the campaign were Mahmoud Zubi, a former prime minister who ostensibly shot himself last month while awaiting trial on corruption charges, and Salim Yasin, a former deputy prime minister, whose family assets have been frozen by the state.
Although the transition process had gathered pace over the last few months, parallel with the increasingly frequent reports of the president’s failing health - he was said to have leukaemia, plus heart and kidney problems - there was still a lot to be done before Bashar and his father could feel confident of a smooth succession.
Until 1994, Bashar - partly British-educated - had been quietly pursuing his own career in the knowledge that his elder brother, Basil, was being groomed for power. But Basil’s death on the road to Damascus airport (he was fond of fast cars) changed all that.
During the last few years Bashar, who is still unmarried, has been trying to master the art of statesmanship as quickly as possible. Politicians visiting Syria recently have been ushered into Bashar’s ultra-modern western-style offices on the outskirts of Damascus where he welcomes them without the usual Arab entourage of advisers and secret police.
He is thought to have a sophisticated grasp of the political situation in the Middle East and to have a serious commitment to continuing the peace process.
The British Foreign Minister Peter Hain, one of the last western politicians to meet Bashar before his father’s death, described him yesterday as ëworldly-wise, open to ideas and very impressive.’
He added: ëHe has the capability and the vision to allow Syria to make a historic leap forward to becoming a modern Arab nation. I believe he is absolutely committed to the peace process. Building on the courageous steps his father took, he’s the sort of person who could break the ice with Israel and cut a deal.’
Despite his inexperience, Bashar may take some encouragement from the way two other new Arab leaders of the same generation - King Mohammed in Morocco and King Abdullah in Jordan - have quickly established themselves as popular rulers. In fact, Bashar’s position is not unlike that of Abdullah who was unexpectedly declared Crown Prince only days before King Hussein’s death.
In common with the kings of Morocco and Jordan, Bashar is unpretentious, western-educated, modern and forward-looking - which should endear him to the younger generation of Syrians who are impatient for change.
Peter Hain said yesterday: ëIf he succeeds he will put Syria in the same position of modern Arab leadership as Jordan under King Abdullah and Morocco under King Mohammed. ë
There are, however, a few problems - not least the Syrian constitution which, as it stands, prevents him from succeeding legitimately to power.
Legally, if the president dies, the vice-president should take over temporarily. The constitution is unclear about which vice-president it is referring to, since Syria currently has two, but Bashar was not one of them at the time of his father’s death.
The procedure for choosing a new president is that parliament should propose a single candidate whose name will be put to a referendum within 90 days.
Again, legally, Bashar cannot be nominated because the constitution says that the president must be at least 40 years old and Bashar is only 35. This rule, found in several other Arab countries, is probably a throw-back to the custom of regarding a man as a sheikh on attaining the age of 40.
None of this is necessarily an insuperable obstacle: Middle Eastern countries have proved adept, over the years, at flexing the rules to meet the necessities of the moment. There is no doubt that President Assad intended his son to succeed, but the argument for accepting the old man’s wishes would be stronger in a monarchy than in a republic.
Syria, however, is one of several Arab republics where long-serving presidents have been grooming their sons as if they were monarchs.
The most likely challenge to Bashar’s succession comes from another member of the Assad family: Rifaat, the the late president’s younger brother. Fiercely ambitious, he and his supporters have always believed he should succeed to the presidency.
He was stripped of his official title of vice-president in February 1998 as President Assad’s health went into serious decline. A wise move perhaps, as Rifaat had attempted a coup in 1984 when the president fell ill.
In September of last year clashes were reported between followers of Rifaat and the army. As many as 1,000 rebels were rounded up. A month later troops raided Rifaat’s stronghold in the coastal city of Lataqiya in the north of the country. At the time Rifaat appeared on a London Arabic TV station condemning the massacre, which led to the loss of over 100 of his supporters.
This was as nothing, however, compared to the atrocities committed by Rifaat when he was a loyal servant of the regime. In February 1982 he was responsible for the most shameful incident in recent Syrian history.
Over a period of four weeks troops under his command bombarded the town of Hama in the west of the country, a stronghold for the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood. A third of the town, whose beautiful medieval waterwheels are celebrated on the Syrian fifty pound note, was left as rubble. For 27 days Hama was closed to journalists is Rifaat systematically murdered an estimated 40,000 men, women and children. Thousands fled the town and many have never been traced by their family.
Aside from internal politics, the other big question is how Assad’s death will affect the Middle East peace process - and the answer will depend, to a large extent, on how quickly Bashar can secure his position on the home front.
With 35,000 troops in Lebanon, Syria continues to exercise hegemony over its smaller neighbour and it is said that nothing of any consequence happens in Lebanon without Syrian approval. Following the Israeli pull-out from southern Lebanon last month, Israel has been trying to drive a wedge between Damascus and Beirut, first over the issue of the Shebaa Farms (claimed by Lebanon, still occupied by the Israelis, but which Israel says belong to Syria), and more recently by calling for Syrian troops to follow the Israeli example Ö and leave.
The Syrians are not particularly popular with Lebanese citizens, many of whom would like to see the back of them but are reluctant to say so in public.
President Assad generally judged the Lebanese situation shrewdly. Recently his troops have been keeping a low profile there: some of the men in uniform are reported to have been replaced by less obtrusive men in jeans - the secret police.
Whether Bashar will be able to handle Lebanon as skilfully as his father did remains to be seen. Syria’s presence in Lebanon is a potentially a bargaining chip in the peace process which Bashar will probably wish to retain if he can - though he might have to take a different course if threatened by challenges back home.
But the main issue is the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel during the 1967 war. Recovering them totally had become an article of faith for President Assad: a commitment repeated so many times that he could not countenance compromise without risking political ignominy in the eyes of his supporters.
The negotiations with Israel have been stalled for months over a few yards of land at the foot of the Golan Heights on the shores of Lake Galilee, with Syria insisting on access to the lake, though not the use of its waters.
Various fudges have been suggested unofficially which might satisfy both parties, but Israel was reluctant to consider them without a signal from Damascus that such a deal would bring ìwarm peaceî between the two countries - something that Hafez Assad was probably incapable of delivering.
One difficulty that Ehud Barak, the Israeli prime minister, faces internally in discussing a withdrawal from the Golan is the lack of public enthusiasm for it - unlike the withdrawal from Lebanon where the conflict with Hizbullah and the resulting Israeli deaths had become unpopular.
It might be easier to sell the idea to Israelis if Syria were to make a dramatic ice-breaking gesture - something like the historic visit that the late Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat, paid to Israel.
But Syria under Assad, along with many other Arabs, regarded Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem as a mistake and argued that successful negotiations should end with handshakes, not start with them. Why, they asked, should Syria help Barak to solve his domestic public relations problems?
There was also a widely-held suspicion of the US-Israeli timetable for the peace process - seeking an agreement by the autumn - which led some to believe that Syria was being stampeded into a compromise merely in order to help salvage President Clinton’s reputation.
There are two alternative scenarios of how Bashar’s succession might impact on this stalemate.
One is that he will need more time to consolidate his power and that will, for a while at least, be living in the shadow of his father, unable to make decisions that, in the eyes of the Syrian establishment, his father would have disagreed with. If that turns out to be the case, hopes of reviving negotiations may have to remain on hold for a year or two.
The other scenario is that with his more open character, and without his father’s historical baggage, he may feel that a fresh approach is possible. The Israelis, too, sensing that Bashar’s succession is a hopeful development and that they may have to deal with him for many years to come, might adopt a more co-operative approach to the negotiations - though an over-friendly atmosphere could easily undermine what political support he has at home.
Additional reporting by Martin Bright. An edited version of this article appeared in The Observer on 11 June, 2000