Bashar Assad, the unassuming son of Syria's President Hafez Assad, has no formal position in government, no spot in the ruling Baath Party and little public record to measure his ability to run a country. But a version of the 35-year-old ophthalmologist's political future is emblazoned on the hillsides near Damascus, where rocks have been used to spell: "Bashar, The Hope, The Goodness."
The young Assad's future also can be seen in the pictures of him that decorate taxis and other public vehicles, inevitably positioned in a triumvirate with his ailing father, 68, and his deceased elder brother Basil. Basil Assad's death in an automobile crash deprived the country of its presumed future leader, and at the same stroke created an expectation that Bashar will eventually fill the role.
But Baath Party members urge caution. Syria is a republic, they say, and not a monarchy. Assad might be able to pave the way for his son, they say, but an appointment as president would need the party's support and to some extent approbation by the Syrian public. Besides, they note, Bashar is constitutionally ineligible to be president until he turns 40.
But they also acknowledge that a transition of power has begun in this tightly controlled state--one of several in the Arab world where authority is shifting from the monarchs and military leaders who came of age during the era of open warfare with Israel to younger leaders whose professed interests run more toward global economics than regional conflict.
The shift has been made three times already this year, with the deaths of leaders in Jordan, Bahrain and Morocco. The cycle of state funerals has focused attention on the ages and ailments of many of the leaders who remain and the fact that even in stable countries such as Syria and Egypt, rules for choosing leaders are so rarely applied that the need for change raises the prospect of a power struggle.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, seemingly fit but in his seventies, has been in power since 1981. The Libyan leader, Col. Moammar Gadhafi, like Assad and President Saddam Hussein of Iraq, came to power in the general stream of anti-colonial and anti-monarchical movements that swept Arab states in the 1960s and into the 1970s.
"To use American terms, you still have the Second World War generation" in charge of many Arab states, said Abdel Moneim Said, director of the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. "They matured during the colonial, and decolonializing periods," when achieving independence from Western powers and battling Israel were the chief concerns.
Among other Arab countries facing power shifts, Saudi Arabia has its own set of issues. King Fahd is seriously ill. His half-brother, Abdullah, is next in line for the throne, but both are in their late seventies. Unless the Saudi royal family decides to vary from the line of succession, a collection of 25 brothers and half-brothers could retain the throne for decades.
In Syria, the signs of change are subtle, but accumulating--what one Syrian member of parliament called a "low flame" on which the elder Assad is preparing his son.
With the president's health regarded as fragile--diplomats in Damascus note that he is strong enough some days to work for hours, and some days is too weak to deliver a speech--Bashar has been speaking publicly on an increasing array of issues, from the future of the Internet to the future of the Syrian-backed Hezbollah guerrilla force in Southern Lebanon.
A cadre of older officials, loyal to Assad during his reign, has retired, replaced by younger men whom, Syrians assume, Bashar helped select. Issues that the son is thought to want to promote, such as economic reform and a campaign against corruption, are receiving more attention in the state-controlled press.
The desire for Bashar to follow his father as president is even thought to have contributed to Assad's quick positive response to the election of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Aside from Assad's wanting to bequeath a more stable situation to his son--or any other successor--by reaching a peace treaty with Israel, there is a broader sense that as power passes throughout the Arab world, the battles of the last generation will be replaced by a different set of concerns.
In a recent interview with the Arab language daily al-Wasat, the younger Assad had no harsh words about Israel and said he is certain that if Israeli forces leave southern Lebanon, the military wing of Hezbollah will wither. The Hezbollah fighters, who have clashed with Israeli forces intermittently for a decade in the occupied zone in southern Lebanon, "have families, relatives and ambitions in life," Assad said, adding that when Israel pulls out, they "will return to their normal lives."
In an interview earlier this year when he was assuming the throne, Jordan's new king, Abdullah II, said he feels his generation of leaders has an advantage if only because members have largely lived their lives free from the assassination attempts and political instability that marked the rule of his father, King Hussein.
Particularly close to young princes slated to assume power in the Persian Gulf region, and developing close ties with the younger Assad, Abdullah said, "a lot of us went to the same schools. . . . We like seeing the same movies and we've been to the same restaurants. And this is maybe an advantage that the older generation didn't have. Our outlook is similar."
There already are examples of how quickly things could change. After ousting his aging father in a peaceful palace coup three years ago, Sheik Hamad Bin Khalifa Thani in Qatar moved swiftly: He announced plans for a new parliament, said women would have the right to vote and created a privately run satellite news channel whose freewheeling reporting has angered governments throughout the region.