Syria Creates Cult Around Its President's Dead Son Basil Assad's Portrait Is Everywhere. The Memorialization May Be Flattery Of His Powerful Father - Or Evidence Of A Deeper National Need.

Posted: November 08, 1996

DAMASCUS, Syria — The mystery began on a foggy dawn in January 1994, when one of Syria's best-known young men crashed his Mercedes on a treacherous bend near the airport. Some in this secretive capital now say he was driving 150 miles an hour when he was killed.

There is no mystery about why the country was plunged into mourning. At age 31, Basil Assad was the eldest son of President Hafez al-Assad and the man many Syrians believed was being groomed as their next leader.

But almost three years later, the memorialization of Basil shows no sign of abating. He has been elevated by the state into ``the martyr of the country, the martyr of the nation and the symbol for its youth.'' The cult of Basil is exceeded only by that of his father.

``It's inexplicable,'' said an Arab diplomat. ``The man has been dead for more than two years and his picture is still all over.''

Basil's portrait hangs on the walls of government offices, hardware stores and spice shops. It's mounted atop buildings, in the middle of traffic circles, and on the cardboard-and-canvas roadside stands hawking pistachio nuts. It's stenciled onto bridges, T-shirts and the covers of schoolbooks. His bearded visage stares out from posters and decals pasted to the windows of cars, jeeps and the pesky minibuses that dart through traffic like mosquitoes.

Festooned on some public buildings are banners with Basil's face repeated like an Andy Warhol painting. ``We are all Basil,'' reads a slogan. ``Basil is our model,'' reads another. ``Be like Basil.''

Millions of Syrians participate in this campaign to remember - and practically deify - Basil. But there is no agreement on exactly what's behind it.

Syrians were certainly stunned by Basil's death. He was widely viewed as tough but upright. Though a lover of fast cars, he was far more discreet in his personal conduct than many spoiled children of Syria's elite.

He first emerged on the national scene in 1987, when he won several equestrian medals at a regional tournament. The Syrian media dubbed him the ``golden knight.'' As a commander of an elite army brigade, Basil was considered a reformer, one of the few in Syria's upper echelons untainted by corruption. As his father's closest confidant and chief of presidential security, he was entrusted with settling feuds in the upper ranks. He was also a modern man, heading Syria's computer association.

The prospect of Basil succeeding his 66-year-old father would have been reassuring to those Syrians who otherwise feared that the president's death would prompt a bloody power struggle.

When Basil died first, shops, schools and public offices closed for three days; luxury hotels suspended the sale of alcohol in respect.

In the ensuing months and years, the tributes to Basil have continued to mount. Streets and squares have been named in his honor. The new international swimming complex bears his name as do several hospitals, sporting clubs and a military academy.

The pilgrimages of provincial officials to his grave are still covered on the nightly news, and the unveiling of regional monuments to Basil makes front-page headlines. A Basil Assad association has been established to run summer camps, and the Basil Assad festival of music and poetry has been inaugurated.

After his death, several books about Basil were rushed into publication with titles such as The Light of the Generations: Basil Assad, The Living Martyr Basil Assad, and The Constellation of Ideas of the Hero Basil Assad.

But it is those ubiquitous portraits that are most striking. He is depicted in various guises: the golden knight, on horseback. The movie star, with dark sunglasses. The paratrooper, with and without a red beret. The religious devotee, in the white robes of a Muslim pilgrim. He is depicted in black tie and in a casual open-collar shirt. Often, his image is framed by a heart. Even more often, he is shown by the side of his father.

His image is mounted on the ancient columns outside Damascus' Omayyad Mosque and on the massive stone gate at the entrance to the 12th-century hilltop citadel in Aleppo. Perhaps the largest likeness hangs from the arched iron roof of the famed Hamadiyah souk in Damascus, where throngs of Syrian housewives, European tourists and Iranian pilgrims ply the market's cobblestone streets.

Syrians and foreign analysts offer different theories for this cult. Perhaps it's just the sycophants' way of honoring President Assad.

``Demonstrating loyalty to Basil,'' said a Western diplomat, ``is a way of glorifying the father.''

The conventional wisdom is that police won't stop a car for running a red light if there's a Basil sign in the window. In the same vein, families of political prisoners have hung Basil posters on their homes to ward off harassment from security services.

But there may be more profound reasons as well. The beatification of Basil has occurred at a time when Syrians are unnerved about the future. The economy is mired in recession. The country's oil and water supplies may not be able to keep up with population growth. Moreover, Syria's Baath Party regime was founded in the 1960s on the bedrock of confrontation with Israel. Now Syria has taken steps toward negotiating peace.

``The batteries of the Baath Party are flat,'' said a Western diplomat. ``This James Dean-like hero worship of Basil has to do with the national need for symbols, for a unifying force.''

Those symbols have a decidedly religious overtone, perhaps reflecting the belief in martyrdom central to Shiite Islam, which spawned the Alawite religion of Assad and other powerful Syrians. One poster shows a pair of forearms rising from the earth offering up Basil's head in their cupped hands. The meaning is clear: Not only President Assad but the whole nation had sacrificed its son for the sake of Syria.

Another explanation for the veneration of Basil centers on his younger brother, Bashar. During the last year, portraits of Bashar have begun to appear, usually with Basil. It is also common to see placards of President Assad with both Bashar and Basil, an arrangement that foreign diplomats privately dub ``the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.''

The regime seems bent on passing the dynastic mantle from one son to the next by trying to wrap Bashar in Basil's aura. Bashar, however, is far different stuff. He is lanky, lumpy and retiring. When Basil was killed, Bashar was summoned from London, where he'd seemed content to complete his studies as an ophthalmologist.

Most analysts say Bashar, now 31, will need years to acquire Basil's experience and power. But the government has moved quickly to dress him up for leadership. Bashar was enrolled in a course for tank battalion commanders and his budding military career has been highlighted in the press.

On a barren hillside along the highway north of Damascus, a vast new catechism is scripted with stones: ``Hafez is our symbol. Basil is our model. Bashar is our hope.''

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