Syria's president is hot marriage material - if he's still available

DAMASCUS, Syria - Powerful, prominent, popular - and at last word still available, President Bashar Assad is a Syrian mother's dream for a new son-in-law.

Speculating on who will be the 35-year-old president's bride has become a national sport, one that has even drawn in more than a few enthusiasts in neighboring Lebanon. Few doubt that the tall, lanky, blue-eyed former eye doctor will choose a wife; most only wonder whether he already has.

''Married? No, I don't think so - engaged maybe,'' says Hani al-Masri, 23, who sells sweets in Homs, 100 miles north of Damascus.

One woman is convinced she was looking at the relaxed, happy face of a man in love when Assad was seen on television last month accepting credentials of new ambassadors.

A man says a friend is sure he recently glimpsed on television a telltale ring inadvertently left in place.

Many are certain there already has been a secret wedding; others are equally adamant he's only engaged.

Or, maybe, he still hasn't decided on who will be his wife.

The Information Ministry would not comment on the rumors, saying marriage is a private matter.

In any event, one woman said, the president is the husband every Syrian mother wishes for her daughter.

Although he inherited his prominence and his power, Assad seems genuinely popular among many Syrians who view him as their best hope for reforming an oppressive and corrupt state apparatus set up by his father, Hafez Assad, who took power in a military coup in 1970.

The presidency was formally bestowed on the son in a referendum on July 10, one month after his father's death. Bashar Assad was awarded a 97.29 percent ''yes'' vote, a bit less than the 99.6 to 99.99 percent his father routinely received.

The new president is viewed as more open and approachable, having made a few casual stops - without any visible security in tow - to buy sweets or chat with shopkeepers.

Privately, the gossip about Syria's most-eligible bachelor is thick.

''Is it true?'' people ask each other about news reports from Europe that Assad has married the daughter of a Syrian cardiologist living in London. Earlier rumors of a fiancee from Aleppo, in the north, are re-evaluated.

Talk in nearby Beirut, Lebanon, that a Lebanese woman could become Syria's first lady are dismissed on this side of the border. And in Lebanon, too, the talk of the cardiologist's daughter is catching on.

A woman who answered the phone at the cardiologist's London residence and identified herself as his wife declined comment on the rumors.

Publicly, however, little is said in Syria about the president's matrimonial prospects. The mood in the country has relaxed and the willingness to openly discuss sensitive issues has grown since the transition of power last summer. But the president is still off-limits; if he's not telling, it's best to speak softly.

''I'm sure whomever he chooses, she will be good and we will love her,'' says Khadija Hala, 25, of Homs. ''We wish him a very good life.''

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