The age of Bashar Assad, the oldest surviving son of the late Syrian president Hafez Assad, was given incorrectly in stories June 11 and June 12. He is 34. (Published 06/13/2000)

Syrian President Hafez Assad, for 30 years the standard-bearer of Arab nationalism and opposition to Israel, died today, ending a political career that was forged by war and sometimes brutal authoritarian rule but concluded in a quest for peace with the Jewish state and the first glimmers of domestic reform.

The 69-year-old leader, who suffered for years from ailments that included diabetes, died late this morning, apparently from heart failure.

Assad's death immediately touched off what appeared to be well-coordinated steps by Syria's tightly controlled political establishment to transfer power to the president's eldest surviving son, Bashar, a 35-year-old ophthalmologist who is largely untested in politics. Shortly after the death was announced, the Syrian parliament approved a constitutional amendment lowering the minimum age for the presidency from 40 to 34.

Leaders throughout the region and world, meanwhile, began assessing the impact Assad's passing will have on the Middle East peace process, and whether the younger Assad will be able to consolidate power without the factional battles that characterized the country's politics before his father became president in 1970. The Assads are members of the minority Alawite Muslim sect, which constitutes only about 12 percent of Syria's approximately 17 million people. The majority Sunni Muslims, who form the country's merchant class, could lobby for more say in politics. Assad also faced challenges from militant Muslims and members of his own family, including a now exiled brother, Rifaat.

Acknowledging Assad's role as one of the Middle East's most enduring and intriguing statesmen, President Clinton said today: "Over the past seven years, I have met him many times and gotten to know him very well. We had our differences, but I always respected him."

Clinton said Assad had made "a strategic choice" for peace by attending a U.S.-brokered conference with Israel in Madrid in 1991. "Throughout my contacts with him, including our last meeting [in Geneva in March], he made clear Syria's continued commitment to the path of peace."

Residents of Damascus, accustomed to years of rumors about their president's ill health and impending demise, adjusted to the news with the assistance of what seemed a carefully scripted official program aimed at beginning a smooth transition.

News of Assad's death was apparently withheld for several hours, and was not announced to the Syrian public until 6 p.m., when state-controlled radio and television broadcast that "death has taken away from Syria a leader." A tearful announcer read a statement that said: "Sadness is in the heart of every man, woman and child. . . . The legacy of his accomplishments and ideas is a planet that will shine not just on this generation, but also on coming generations."

The announcement was followed by broadcasts of the Syrian People's Assembly, which had been called into session and approved the amendment needed to allow the younger Assad, who has never held office, to meet the minimum age requirement to lead the country. The parliament appoints the president, and the powerful Baath Party quickly endorsed Bashar Assad as its favored candidate.

The Syrian constitution allows for one of the country's two vice presidents, Mohammed Zuhair Masharqa or Abdul Halim Khaddam, to serve as interim president for as long as 90 days.

By early evening, residents of Damascus reported that bands of young men were walking the streets of the city, crying oaths of allegiance to Bashar, even as crowds of mourners gathered near the Presidential Palace to mark the passing of his father.

In Beirut, Lebanese President Emile Lahoud said he believed he was the last person to speak to Assad. They were discussing Middle East issues by phone, Lahoud said, when suddenly Assad fell silent. As Lahoud realized something was wrong, the connection was lost. Recent visitors to the Syrian capital said that Assad's condition had been deteriorating for several days and that his daughter, Bushra, a pharmacist by training, was keeping a bedside vigil.

Final rites for Assad, which were to be determined on Sunday, will mark an epochal note for the Arab world. Even though countries like Egypt and Jordan made their peace with Israel, Assad remained adamant in pursuit of the goals of the Israeli-Arab wars at the start of his career. With Israel still occupying the Golan Heights that it seized from Syria in 1967--while Assad was head of the Syrian defense forces--he refused to the end to compromise on his demand that the territory be returned in full, partly as a matter of what he saw as fundamental justice, and partly to redeem his role in the Arab loss.

Assad's position was seen as stubborn and impractical by critics, and it probably forestalled a peace treaty that could have helped breathe life into Syria's ailing economy. But it also helped sustain his image at home, and in Arab society, as the last, true Arab nationalist.

"Nobody can express what has happened, except by tears," said Suheil Zakkar, a history professor at Damascus University. "It is important that Bashar will carry the responsibility and will be the son of his father. That is the great hope."

The younger Assad will no doubt be tested as he seeks to gain credibility with the country's defense, intelligence and Baath Party establishments--institutions that supported his father as a proven leader, but may have to be convinced of Bashar Assad's credibility.

Hafez Assad leaves behind a legacy as a complex political strategist. He forged ties with Iran to foil his arch-rival, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, and helped create an Islamic resistance movement in southern Lebanon that bloodied the Israeli troops who occupied the region for decades, even as he separately began negotiating a peace treaty with Israeli leaders. Estranged from the United States for years because of his Cold War alliance with the Soviet Union, he became increasingly close to Washington beginning with his decision to join the allies in the Gulf War against Iraq.

A former head of the Syrian defense establishment, Assad clawed his way to power and remained there through both canny strategy--his penchant for withholding information and never making a firm decision until the last minute frustrated many opponents--and, when necessary, ruthlessly quick action. A 1982 uprising of Shiite Muslims based in the Syrian village of Hama was brutally crushed and the town destroyed, with thousands killed. Political life in the country has always been circumscribed, with little economic freedom, a rigid bureaucracy and a suffocating security apparatus that has made many Syrians hesitant to criticize their leadership.

In recent years, economic reform and an anti-corruption drive began to take root, partly as an effort to involve Bashar Assad in the country's governance and allow him to begin setting an agenda fit to the goals of a new generation. But it is unclear whether such initiatives can continue at a time when Syrian stability will be the number one priority--not only for Syria, but for the region as well.

Syria's next leader will face tough choices in the peace process with Israel and with the country's future role in Lebanon, where Syria maintains 30,000 troops. Syria's bargaining position to secure the return of the Golan Heights is arguably weaker than ever now that Israel has withdrawn its troops from southern Lebanon--the region Assad had used, through its support of proxy forces such as the Shiite group Hezbollah, to apply military pressure without risking his own troops or a broader confrontation.

Economically, the incipient reforms have yet to pay off with increased foreign investment or growth, or end Syria's isolation from the global economy.

"We hope Syria can get through this ordeal in a manner that can maintain stability and peace," Mohammed Abdullah, a spokesman for the Egyptian People's Assembly, told the Al Jazeera Satellite Channel.

Political analysts in the region said it will be difficult for Bashar Assad to assume his father's authority, particularly because Syria is in name a republic, with no rights of inheritance to political office or power. Assad's death, in fact, comes in the middle of what was seen as a prolonged grooming period for Bashar Assad that began with the death of his elder brother six years ago. Basil Assad, a popular and charismatic military commander then considered the heir apparent, was killed in a traffic accident.

This week, in fact, the Baath Party was scheduled to convene its first general congress in more than a decade, partly to elect Bashar to its ruling body and thus begin his formal political life. His most public role until now has been as head of the Syrian Computer Society, an organization that seeks to promote technology in the country.

"I don't know if the preparations President Assad was making for his son went far enough to see him through," said Radwan Abdullah, a Jordanian political scientist. "On the other hand, the Syrian elite, being a minority, probably wants to avoid a power struggle that could cause it trouble."

"It happened too soon. . . . Otherwise, they would have accelerated the process of easing Bashar into the system," said Labib Kamhawi, a Jordanian with close connections to the Palestinian community and within Syria.

In Paris, Syrian human rights activist Haitham Manaa told Al Jazeera television that the very questions being raised about Bashar Assad's legitimacy show the dangers of the type of centralized one-man rule that Assad practiced.

"Concentrating power in the hands of one family like this is a danger to every Syrian," Manaa said. "We must trust more in democracy."

Schneider reported from Cairo and Cody from Amman, Jordan. Correspondent Nora Boustany contributed to this report from Beirut.