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DEAD HEIR IS SENDING A MESSAGE

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Ten months after his death at age 31, the eldest son of President Hafez Assad is a towering presence across Syria.

Giant portraits of Basil Assad, a lover of fast cars who died in a car wreck, drape the fronts of buildings. His photographs are displayed in car windows and on the walls of offices, shops and homes.They send a message - not only of what might have been, but of what still can be: A new generation of the Assad family governing Syria.

There are three more Assad sons. The second son, Bashar, is 29. Photographs of him are rarely seen. But in police states, people are used to reading between the lines of propaganda.

And hard-to-miss hints have been emerging.

In the officially sanctioned "Paean to the Thoughts of the Hero Basil Assad," the author, army Col. Bahjat Suleyman, begins:

"Hope vanished . . . on a bitter winter day after he brought to us a promise of a beautiful spring that's full of colors and birds chirping."

But, the book concludes, nothing can stop "Basil Assad's generation from clinging to the second brother, Bashar Assad, and accompanying him . . . toward the third millennium A.D."

The question of succession is increasingly important as Syria undergoes social and economic changes and talks peace with its nemesis, Israel.

President Assad, who seized power in a bloodless coup in 1970, is 64. Ever since he suffered a heart attack a decade ago, some foreign governments have periodically speculated he is in poor health.

But Assad remains very much in control and as shrewd as ever. Syrian officials insist his health is fine. Western diplomats in Damascus point out that many people whose health is less than ideal live to old age.

Diplomats and foreign-based political analysts question whether Bashar has the right stuff to guide a nation where stability traditionally has depended on a leader of undisputed strength.

Bashar was training in England as an ophthalmologist when his brother, an army major, died. He cut short his studies and came home to enter the military academy. He graduated in November as a captain in command of a tank regiment.

Bashar now heads most of the committees his brother presided over, mainly ones relating to sports.

Any presidential successor is likely to need the approval of Assad's close cadre of military and intelligence advisers, many of them from Assad's own minority Alawite sect of Islam.

In March, longtime Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass signaled support for Bashar in a speech before the president.

"I see in the eyes of your son, Dr. Bashar Assad, the will, determination and ability to raise the banner that Basil raised," said Tlass, a member of the Sunni Muslim majority.

The presidential succession is a highly sensitive subject and rarely discussed in public.

Despite his severe rule, Assad is valued by many people for presiding over modern Syria's longest-lasting government. There were 20 coups in the first 24 years after Syria became independent from France in 1946. In the second 24 years, there has been only Hafez Assad.