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June 15, 2000    


DAMASCUS (AP) - Syria's powerful propaganda machine has been busy since President Hafez Assad died, smoothing the shock of his death and transferring the public devotion he had enjoyed to his chosen successor: his son Bashar.


"God, Syria and Bashar alone!" well-organized marchers shouted Tuesday during Hafez Assad's funeral cortege. Others linked his name to the words "leader" and "president." Still others implored God to protect him.


In what appeared to be a response to a challenge to Bashar Assad's succession made Monday by his uncle, Rifaat Assad, the mourners chanted with morbid bravado: "Oh, Bashar, don't worry you have a people who can drink blood."

The coffin of British Brigadier Stephen Saunders is carried by military pall bearers from the plane at London's Gatwick airport Tuesday June 13, 2000. Saunders, the military attache at the British Embassy in Athens was murdered in a drive-by shooting, admitted by the November 17 terrorist group, on his way to work last week. (AP PHOTO)



It's hard to imagine such a display of emotion was entirely spontaneous given that Syrians have been used to the state telling them what to do. Their government has a reputation for dealing ruthlessly with any dissent.


Slogans, portraits and banners bearing catchy and often rhyming phrases are the traditional political tools of Arab leaders to signal new policy directions, revise history, strengthen the grip of new regimes or soften painful truths.


Iraqi President Saddam Hussein officially labels his army's humiliating defeat in the 1991 Gulf War "the mother of all battles." In Libya, quotations from leader Moammar Gadhafi's Green Book, a lengthy policy statement on his so-called people's rule, are regularly read over state radio and television.


In Syria now, the tactics are being used to bolster an attempt at a father-to-son succession, which would be a first in an Arab republic.


The slogans, the banners, the poster portraits and the symbols evolved in tandem with the rapid developments that followed Assad's death Saturday.


By Sunday, Bashar Assad had been promoted from colonel to general, nominated for president by the ruling Baath Party and named commander of the armed forces. Parliament also amended the constitution to lower the minimum age for a president from 40 to 34. Bashar Assad is 34.


Phrases on banners and slogans shouted by marchers at first were almost entirely expressions of grief over the loss of Hafez Assad.


Posters that sprouted were mostly of Hafez Assad or of the late president with his sons Bashar and Basil - the latter his father's choice for successor before a fatal 1994 road accident.


Slowly, more Bashar Assad portraits began to appear and at Tuesday's funeral there were as many of Bashar alone as of his father. Portraits of Basil Assad, once a staple on the streets and in the offices of Syria, appear to be on the decline.


Bashar Assad, meanwhile, is shown in a pensive mood here, in military fatigues or a business suit there. He is being called "the future of our nation," or "Mr. Dr. Gen. Commander of the Armed Forces Bashar Assad."


Soon, if the propaganda effort pays off, he'll be called Syria's unquestioned leader.


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