Where Blood Runs Cold

Imagine a huge mafia funeral. Some mourners cry from grief, others from fear, others from relief. And soon after the burial, among the closest relatives the talk turns to the Family and its future. So it was at Syrian dictator Hafez Assad's interment last week. His eldest surviving son, Bashar, like a reluctant Michael Corleone in "The Godfather," had suddenly inherited all the responsibilities and dangers attendant on the clan. And Bashar, 34, is a bachelor. Who would he take as a wife? Which family would he join to his?

These were more than peripheral concerns for members of the Assad dynasty, and yet they weren't the most immediate issues to be dealt with. (We'll return to the question of an eligible bride later.) First there was the fight over the family inheritance. Hafez Assad had carefully prepared his political will to ensure the dictatorship went to Bashar. But Hafez's brother Rifaat has always thought the presidential palace should be his--he tried to seize power from his big brother in 1984, and his ambitions haven't changed much since.

From his exile in Spain, Rifaat issued a statement last week that was read over the Arab News Network, a European-based satellite network that he owns. Syria's succession, he said, was a "farce and an unconstitutional piece of theater." Rhetorically, he addressed his dead brother: "Those who have succeeded you have gone off your path. They have considered me a menacing danger to them and have deprived me of saying farewell to you." This much was true: Syrian officials warned that Rifaat would be arrested if he returned home. Within three hours of Hafez's death, according to an Arab intelligence source in Europe, Syrian agents were scouring planes landing in Damascus and Beirut to make sure neither Rifaat nor any of his aides were on them.

Just about everyone agrees that Rifaat won't be able to usurp power from his nephew. Israeli intelligence discounts Rifaat as a serious threat, and Abdel Khadr Kadoura, the speaker of the Syrian Parliament, says bluntly (in a manner he may have used to counsel others): "Don't gamble on him." Yet Rifaat's challenge did succeed in at least one respect: by openly casting doubt on the legitimacy of Bashar from within the Assad family, he opened the door for other rivals. "Now," says the Arab intelligence source, "any assassination that fails will seem to be signed 'Rifaat'."

Bashar's credibility as a leader was already in doubt. He's an ophthalmologist by training, and bookish by temperament. Bashar's father didn't consider him dictator material until older brother Basil died in a car crash in 1994. Only then did Dad summon his second son home, put him in the military and propel him through the ranks in record speed. Some senior officers were not impressed--and suffered for it. In recent months, probably knowing that his time was nearing an end, Hafez advanced the careers of Bashar loyalists and purged old-timers who might resent him.

Now that Dad isn't around anymore to protect Bashar, other family members will have to take on more responsibility. Bashar's mother wields influence behind the scenes, and her brother, Gen. Adnan Makhlouf, is commander of the elite Republican Guard. Bashar may also depend heavily upon his brother-in-law Assief Shawkat, who heads military security. In the last year, Shawkat has been responsible for inserting people who are loyal to Bashar into positions of power. And yet, according to Arab press reports, Shawkat recently had a violent falling-out with Bashar's younger brother Maher, a major in the Republican Guard.

Can Bashar trust his relatives? He can't afford not to. Like the rest of his family, Bashar comes from the minority Alawite sect of Islam, which represents just 10 percent of the Syrian population. The Alawites, widely regarded as apostates, faced discrimination before Hafez Assad took power in 1970, and ever since they've been reaping rewards. Among the majority Sunni Muslims are many people who bristle at the ascension of Bashar. That, in any case, has to be what Bashar fears.

Consider the case of Hikmat Shehabi, chief of staff for a quarter century before his ouster last year. An Israeli intelligence source says Shehabi, a Sunni, was viewed as a "potential troublemaker" by Bashar. (Shehabi was replaced by an Alawite general.) Suffering from a prostate problem, Shehabi recently went to Beirut for treatment. While he was there, he read reports in the London Arab press--leaked by Damascus--that he'd be the next target in an anticorruption drive. Shehabi fled and, by some accounts, is now in the United States.

All of which helps explain why powerful people around Bashar might want him to seek a politically advantageous bride. By one account, Hafez's first choice for Bashar was Princess Hala of Jordan, daughter of the late King Hussein. A marriage to a princess with an impeccable pedigree like Hala's--she's a direct descendent of the Prophet Muhammad--would bolster Bashar's religious credibility. In the last two years, Bashar has been a frequent visitor to Jordan, and he's friendly with Hala's half brother, King Abdullah. But the match seems never to have been made.

At the funeral, many in attendance remarked how much attention Bashar paid to former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto, but given that Bhutto is married, that probably is just idle gossip. Other, more plausible, brides are said to be the daughter of a Lebanese Sunni politician widely expected to be the next prime minister; a woman Bashar often sees in London who comes from a prominent Sunni Syrian family; or the daughter of Gen. Ibrahim Safi, commander of Syria's Second Corps in Lebanon. If anything is clear, however, it is this: whoever Bashar eventually hitches up with, Uncle Rifaat won't be invited to the wedding.