CAIRO - Syria's enigmatic and autocratic leader, Hafez el Assad, died yesterday, leaving behind broken dreams of Arab unity and a nation that is economically troubled and diplomatically isolated. He was 69.
Assad had grown increasingly frail as a result of diabetes and heart problems that began with a heart attack in 1983.
Through nearly three decades of war and frustrating failures to reach regional peace, the Syrian president's exacting and ruthless style of leadership made him a force in the region and earned him the nickname "The Lion of Damascus."
But his death - without his seeing the return of the Golan Heights that he lost to Israel 33 years ago - might lead to a leadership vacuum and create new strategies among rivals and allies in the Arab world. An interruption in Syrian force could disrupt neighboring Lebanon, where Syria has been the de facto power for a decade, and affect the standoff between Israel and Muslim guerrillas in southern Lebanon, where Assad had restrained the ambitions of the guerrillas.
During the past six years, Assad carefully prepared a path for his untested son, Bashar, to assume power. Just hours after Assad's death yesterday, Syria's Parliament cleared the way for Bashar's ascendancy with a nearly unanimous vote to lower the minimum age of a head of state from 40 to 34, Bashar's age.
Then Parliament adjourned until June 25, when it is expected to begin the process of naming Assad's successor.
For most Syrians, Assad was the only leader they had ever known. Members of parliament wept. Stores closed, and the red-and-black national flag was lowered to half-staff. He will be buried Tuesday. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright will represent the United States at the funeral.
A new Syrian leader faces grave challenges, as the nation comes to a crossroads in the peace process with neighboring Israel. Damascus also faces economic and social stagnation if it does not open its insular society to technology and globalization.
President Clinton said it's early to speculate on Syrian changes, adding, "There will be a period of sorting out, and the Syrian people will make the decisions . ... "
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat declared three days of mourning in Palestinian-controlled areas.
Through more than three decades, Assad has insisted that Israel must return the Golan Heights. Since 1991, he conducted intermittent talks with Israel, remaining adamant about a complete withdrawal. The talks broke down in January, when Syria insisted that Israel was trying to establish a framework for an agreement that would not guarantee a complete withdrawal.
In recent years, rumors of his death would periodically circulate, but there had been no recent indication that his health had declined sharply. Lebanese President Emile Lahoud said he had spoken with Assad earlier yesterday.
"His last words were, `Our destiny is to build a better future for our countries,' and then there was a silence, and I knew something happened," Lahoud said in a letter sent to Bashar and read on Lebanon's state television.
Bashar el Assad, a British-educated ophthalmologist, had this political destiny thrust upon him after his older brother, Bassil, who had long been groomed for the succession, died in a 1994 car accident. Bashar has never held office.
Many analysts felt that Hafez el Assad had miscalculated in failing to cut a deal for regional peace with Israel, first in the early 1990s and again this year when Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak aggressively sought to strike a peace agreement with Syria and unilaterally ended Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon. Last week, Assad's foreign minister said Syria was again open to peace discussions.
Shadow of defeat
Assad's rule had been dominated by the Arab-Israeli conflict through the humiliating defeat that Arab nations suffered in 1967 and the less humiliating defeat of 1973. Assad also involved Syria in Lebanon's 15-year civil war, which ended in 1990.
Assad's grasp on power seemed to depend in part on his ability to keep enemies and allies guessing, and not being afraid to reverse a diplomatic course when he saw an advantage in doing so.
He also endured because he was willing to kill. In 1982, he crushed an internal rebellion by ordering the massacre by the Syrian army of 10,000 to 20,000 residents of the ancient city of Hama.
Assad's unpredictability and pragmatism was displayed in his decision to join the U.S.-led coalition in the Persian Gulf war of 1991. Although bitterly resistant to U.S. intervention in the region and long critical of Washington's strong support of Israel, Assad sided with the allied forces that ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's troops from Kuwait.
Part of a military clique that gained power in the 1960s, Assad became leader in a bloodless coup in 1970. His tight grip on power has been an extraordinary feat for a man who hails not only from a peasant background but also a minority Alawite Muslim sect in a predominantly Sunni Muslim state.
Assad ruled through fear that emanated from a vast network of spies, secret police and informers. According to human rights groups, his government jailed thousands of political prisoners without trial, and the U.S. State Department regards Syria as supporting terrorism.