If Assad is ill, Syrian peace talks could be delayed for a successor

JERUSALEM — Israeli officials, carefully monitoring reports that Syrian President Hafez Assad is ill, are worried about a power vacuum or succession battle in Damascus.

Some Israelis are worried that if the political situation in Syria is uncertain, then so is the resumption of Israeli-Syrian peace talks.

The latest word on Assad's poor health was conveyed to Israeli officials by France's foreign minister, Hubert Vedrine, who recently returned from Damascus.

According to reports, Vedrine said that Assad, who is known to suffer from a heart ailment, is no longer as alert as he used to be. The man who used to drag meetings and negotiations on for hours to wear down his opponents now only works a couple of hours each day.

Vedrine later denied the reports — but just the same, there have been other sources saying for months that Assad's health is deteriorating.

Some Israeli officials believe that this provides ample reason for not resuming negotiations with Syria, which were broken off in 1996.

"It is a lame-duck regime," Likud Knesset member Uzi Landau told JTA. "We do not know how long the present regime will last."

Likud leader Ariel Sharon has likewise said that Israel should freeze any further contacts with Damascus until Syria's internal situation clears up.

But that is not the position of the government of Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh maintained this week that the internal situation in Damascus is irrelevant.

"We operate under the assumption that Syria has a vested interest in peace with Israel, regardless of who leads it," said Sneh, who rejected Sharon's wait-and-see approach.

"We cannot waste our time with speculation about the stability of regimes," Sneh said. "This will get us nowhere."

Thaer Abu Saleh, director of Al-Mustakbal College in the Golan Heights, agrees. "All the reports about Assad's health are speculation. On these sorts of things, no information leaks from the presidential palace. Nobody really knows what is going on."

Abu Saleh is well acquainted with Syrian politics. A Druze resident of the Golan, he openly defines himself as a Syrian citizen.

Although Assad has named his son, Bashar, as his successor, Abu Saleh does not discount the possibility of a power struggle after Assad's death.

"Assad intends to hand the power over to him while he is still alive, but no one knows just when that should happen," Abu Saleh said.

Bashar was not Assad's first choice. That honor originally went to the president's eldest son, Basil. But he died in a car accident in 1994.

Bashar, an ophthalmologist by training, had kept away from politics. Unlike his father and elder brother, he had no military career and had kept far from the political intrigues of Syria's ruling Ba'ath Party.

When his brother died, he was taking an advanced course in London in preparation for opening an eye clinic in Damascus.

Bashar has subsequently altered his career plans.

After taking an intensive military training course, he climbed quickly up the military ladder, getting appointed colonel last year.

While he has not received any official titles, his father entrusted him with two highly sensitive portfolios — state security and Lebanon.

"The fact that he holds no official position is insignificant," Abu Saleh, said this week. "What counts is the fact that he enjoys the trust of his father, the ruling elite and the army."

Just the same, by most accounts, Bashar does not have his father's natural authority and is having difficulty mastering the leadership skills he will need to take control of the country.

According to Abu Saleh, it is entirely possible that there will be a power struggle for the succession after Assad is gone.

"Until Assad dies, we shall not know who will succeed him. There are just two many forces in the arena," he said.

Two other potential contenders in a power struggle are Assad's brother, former Syrian Vice President Rifa'at Assad, and Rifa'at's son, Sumer.

The two, currently living in exile in London, recently initiated a campaign against the Assad regime in their television and press empire.

Syrian Information Minister Mohammed Salman declared that Rifa'at, who was dismissed as vice president and expelled from the ruling Ba'ath Party in February 1998, is a fugitive who "will be put on trial like any other outlaw if he returns to Syria."

In a further sign that trouble could be brewing, Syrian security forces several weeks ago closed down a private harbor that Rifa'at had operated in Latakiya.

According to Syrian officials, two people were killed during the forcible closure. According to Rifa'at and Sumer, hundreds were killed.

The decision to use force to close down the port, allegedly used for a large-scale smuggling operation, came after Rifa'at persistently ignored demands by the Syrian Transport Ministry dating back to 1995 to dismantle the facility, Salman said.

However, sources close to Rifa'at and his son denied that the port, which they describe as "a small marina," was used for smuggling.

No official explanation was given when Hafez Assad dismissed Rifa'at as one of three Syrian vice presidents.

But there were suggestions that Assad sought to weaken his brother in the event of a struggle for succession between second-generation members of the Assad family — particularly between Bashar and Sumer.

Abu Saleh would not predict the outcome if a power struggle were to occur.

"At the end of the day," he said, "the winner will be he who will receive the support of the army — nobody else."