Assad burial rends Syria

Tears for president mixed with cries of support for his son

Bashar poised amid grief

Nation's mourning belies Assad's image as iron-fisted ruler

June 14, 2000|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

DAMASCUS, Syria -- Syria buried its longtime leader Hafez el Assad yesterday in an outpouring of national anguish and raucous rallying behind his son and heir, Bashar.

The ceremony began well before dawn, as the mournful wail from muezzins echoed through the capital's still streets. It ended with shouts of praise and pain ricocheting against the rumble of cannons while mourners laid Assad to rest near the grave of his oldest son, Basil, beneath the vaulted ceiling of a family shrine in his native village, Qurdaha.

"Please, paradise, open your doors -- our president will come to you," chanted thousands lining the route to the village and holding up posters of Assad and Bashar. "We sacrifice our spirit and blood for you, Bashar."

Faces in the crowd were contorted with grief as people pressed against a tight line of soldiers for a closer look at Assad's flag-draped casket. At an earlier procession in Damascus, past buildings hung with black bunting, some mourners were so overcome that they fainted and had to be carried away.

A television announcer was moved to poetry: "We lost the master of leaders, the master of mountains and valleys, and the master of love."

During funeral prayers in a green, yellow and gold-tiled mosque built in memory of Assad's mother, a sheikh pushed through other mourners to bow and kiss the casket, losing his turban in the crush.

This raw emotion seems startling to visitors familiar with Assad's image abroad as an iron-grip ruler who brutally crushed his opponents and stubbornly stood up to years of pressure and blandishments from a succession of American presidents.

It's also hard to imagine the stern, unsmiling leader looking down from posters throughout Damascus as someone who could inspire affection, let alone cries of, "There is one God and Assad is his love."

But with his firm control of all media outlets and the state-run economy, he was a powerful presence in the lives of Syrians for more than a generation.

"For 30 years, he was our leader. It's not easy to lose him. He was more than a leader, he was part of our nation," said state-employed engineer Hussein Suoffi, who joined in setting up one of many "mourning tents" on sidewalks around Damascus.

"For 30 years, he stabilized the country. If you compare it to other countries around here, it's a very, very safe country."

To Syrians accustomed to Assad's rule for more than a generation, his death Saturday was "an instant cataclysm," a senior U.S. official said.

"This nation is in a state of total shock," he said.

The passion on the streets contrasted starkly with the choreographed dignity of world leaders, some in the rich desert robes of the Persian Gulf, pausing to pay their respects in the hilltop presidential palace overlooking Damascus, where the casket lay in state at midday.

This stately gathering amid polished wood and intricately designed marble floors offered a showcase for Bashar, 34, and what is being viewed by diplomats as a smooth transition of power.

"There is every indication that the people of Syria and institutions are with him. I don't feel any crosscurrents," the U.S. official said.

If threats lurk in the background from opponents such as Assad's exiled brother Rifaat, Bashar gave no hint of them yesterday.

Tall and poised, he greeted the dignitaries smoothly, taking center stage as his uncle Jamil, a member of Parliament who some analysts suspect wants a leadership role, sat off to one side.

Bashar met privately with the key figures, including Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, encouraging Americans about future prospects for a land-for-peace deal between Syria and Israel.

"He led right off and said he was interested in peace. He said he wanted to be candid and was committed to results," said Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Arlen Specter, who accompanied Albright along with the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson.

"Peace is his future, not war," said Jackson. "He will be known as the head of state who gained peace."

The senior U.S. official was more cautious, saying Bashar would have to focus initially on "internal consolidation."

But by the end of a grueling day, a different Bashar appeared amid the wails and shouts at the village mosque the family shrine built to honor his late brother.

A five-o'clock shadow darkening his cheeks, Bashar looked haggard and stared straight ahead, all but oblivious to shouts and wails of support as a brass band played taps. Older veterans nearby, including Defense Minister Moustafa Tlas, seemed to edge closer in a gesture of protection.

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