LONDON, Aug. 2 (JTA) — A meeting between a nephew of Syrian President Hafez Assad and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat is stoking an intra-Arab feud and igniting speculation about a future struggle for succession in Syria. Sumer Assad, son of former Syrian Vice President Rifa’at Assad, told the London-based daily newsletter Mideast Mirror over the weekend that his July 28 visit to the Gaza Strip followed an invitation from Arafat and was not coordinated with his uncle in Damascus. Ever since he launched the Oslo process with Israel, Arafat is persona non grata in Damascus, where Hafez Assad hosts several militant Palestinian groups that oppose Arafat’s leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Sumer’s visit is being perceived as a challenge to the authority of his uncle. It is also being seen as a challenge to Bashar, who is reportedly having difficulty mastering the leadership skills he will need to succeed his father, who is said to be in poor health. Sumer, a businessman with media interests in London and Paris, flew into Gaza airport last week aboard a private jet from London. In addition to meeting and dining with Arafat, he visited the offices of the Palestinian television station and met with Israeli Arab Knesset members. Sumer appeared to making a jab at his uncle when he declared that the warmth of his reception in Gaza was a tribute to the long-standing friendship between his father and Arafat. In another apparent dig at his uncle, Sumer said that those interested in pan-Arab unity cannot ignore the Palestinian people’s struggle to recover their rights. Arafat, he said, symbolizes that struggle. The Palestinian leader is reported to be concerned that renewed negotiations between Israel and Syria would leave him isolated and the Palestinian negotiating track marginalized. Syria, however, insists that it was Arafat who first broke ranks with other Arab parties by signing the 1993 Oslo accord with Israel. Sumer also told the Mideast Mirror that he did not use his visit to Gaza to try to broker a thaw between Syria and the Palestinian Authority, even though he said he would welcome such a warming of relations. “I would support any move, any meeting, any rapprochement, that promotes the interests of the two peoples, much as I would support rapprochement between any two Arab countries,” he said. Sumer declined to comment on Syria’s stand in the peace process or on the prospects of a resumption of Syrian-Israeli talks. “All I know is that I wish there would be a peace that would uphold Arab rights and interests,” he said. The London-based Arabic daily Asharq al-Awsat noted that while Hafez Assad refuses to receive Arafat or attend a minisummit in his presence, his brother Rifa’at maintains close ties to the Palestinian leader and met him while both attended the funeral last week of Morocco’s King Hassan. No official explanation was given when Hafez Assad dismissed Rifa’at in February 1998 as one of three Syrian vice presidents, but the dismissal effectively ended Rifa’at’s aspirations to succeed his brother. However, there are suggestions that Assad sought to weaken his brother in the event of a struggle for succession between second-generation members of the Assad family — particularly between Bashar and Sumer.
Assad’s nephew meets with Arafat amid word of Syrian succession struggle