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Syrian Parliament Moves to Clear Succession Path for Bashar Assad

Aired June 10, 2000 - 12:12 p.m. ET


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.

JIM CLANCY, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back to our special coverage of the passing of Hafez Al-Assad.

The Syrian president died at age 69. The exact circumstances of his death have not been released. However, moves have been made by the Syrian parliament this day to allow his son, Dr. Bashar, to take up the reins of power -- nothing official on that yet.

The Parliament will be meeting again on June the 25th, two weeks from now, to make any decisions that might come on that. For this day, though, Syria very much in a state of mourning -- the death of its leader of some 30 years, Hafez Al-Assad, a man who took the country from conflicts to the peace table, a tough negotiator, a man that remains something of an enigma to those who tried to study him, both inside and outside the Middle East -- but the man, nonetheless, who had an enormous presence in the entire region.

Nowhere was that presence felt perhaps more than in Lebanon. Former Prime Minister Rafik Al-Hariri, joins us now to discuss the role, the legacy of Hafez Al-Assad in the region and beyond.

Mr. Prime Minister, thank you for joining.


CLANCY: How would you assess the legacy, the importance, the change that you see coming with the passing of the Syrian leader?

HARIRI: You know, it is very difficult to imagine the Middle East without President Assad, in fact. But now, this is the wish of God, and he passed away. Everybody is expecting that Dr. Bashar Assad will be his successor, and today the Syrian Parliament took the necessary steps to make it possible.

In two weeks time from now, we hope that a new president to Syria will be elected, and everybody is expecting that Dr. Bashar Assad will be the one. He is a young man. He knows Syria very well. He was trained through the experience of his father. And everybody is looking to cooperate with him. Toward that, he can lift Syria towards where the future, and he is big believer on peace. And he wants to open the economy, and he wants to upgrade the life of the Syrian people.

CLANCY: Rafik Al-Hariri, I want to ask you this: Certainly, the presence of Syrian forces in Lebanon continuing to this day. We're seeing a tremendous amount of change, a withdrawal of the Israeli troops. I am just wondering, when you look at what Hafez Al-Assad has done within Lebanon, increasing trade ties, employment ties, and other ties like that, do I think, or do you agree with some that there may be a time when the troops would go, but the trade ties -- nothing but improved corporation between the two countries?

HARIRI: You know, we are neighbors. They are the only neighbors we have despite the problem we have with Israel. So it is quite normal. It is for the interest of (INAUDIBLE) to have a tight economical relation with Syria. And we want to open more and more towards the Syrian market, which is a very large market. And I believe it is for the interest of the Lebanese to see their production goes to Syria.

CLANCY: Rafik Al-Hariri, as you were prime minister of Lebanon through some of the most difficult days -- trying to rebuild the country, trying to rebuild its place within the world community -- how much assistance did you get, how much guidance from President Hafez Al-Assad?

HARIRI: You know, I am the one who saw him most and more than anybody, any other officials in the world. He was very good. He helped a lot -- he helped Lebanon a lot. And the stability and the security we are seeing now is for big extent, for a large extent, it depends on him. And the whole Lebanese people seem sad today because of what's happened. And he will be always in the memory of the Lebanese people and the Syrian people and the Arab world.

CLANCY: Rafik Al-Hariri, it has been said that Hafez Al-Assad was something of an enigma. People studied him. People didn't really know him. But it's also been said he was something of an open book at the same time -- your view?

HARIRI: Yes. You know, he is a man of -- he can see things from strategic way, and he goes deeply on the details -- and very few people in the world who can do that. He knows the international politics and the regional politics, and he goes into details of everything he can as the president.

CLANCY: Rafik Al-Hariri, the former prime minister of Lebanon during some of its most difficult days, and the man of course who really spearheaded the reconstruction of the Beirut, the rebuilding after more than decade of civil war.

Thank you for being with us, lending your perspective to the passing of Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad.

HARIRI: Thank you.

CLANCY: Miles.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Hafez Al-Assad had been ill for many years, had suffered heart trouble reportedly, and we do not know the specific circumstances of his death, but given the fact that he had been ill for some time and had reached the age of 69, it appears that the transition had been thought of very thoroughly and thought out in much detail. And perhaps what we are seeing thus far is the beginnings of that speedy transition.

Let's turn it now to a Middle East analyst Mark Perry. He's with "Middle East Review" He joins us from our Washington bureau.

Mark, the Parliament voting just a short time ago to lower the age limit for a president of Syria. That's a significant move, isn't it?

MARK PERRY, EDITOR, "MIDDLE EAST REVIEW": It is, and I agree, Miles, that this was planned out well in advance. It's clear that Dr. Bashar will be the new president of Syria. But I don't think that the last word here has been said. He is very young. While he's known very well in the business community, and his father had put him in leadership positions in Syria, the real strength in the society and the strength that Assad had is from the military.

And we're going to see, I think, in the months ahead, a stronger military role in determining the future course of Syria.

O'BRIEN: It comes at a time when Dr. Bashar has been perceived inside the country as -- the term that Rula Amin used a little while ago was -- perhaps not quoting her directly -- but a bit of a breath of fresh air in the sense that people were given the sense that they could talk more freely. That -- once that genie's out of the bottle, that can be a difficult thing to control, can't it?

PERRY: Very true, and the genie is coming out of the bottle. Dr. Bashar has taken the lead in getting the Internet into Syria. I think we're going to see more of that. The business community is very, very strongly behind him. He is a very aggressive personality. He is very well educated and open and blunt. And it will be interesting to see how he solidifies his position as president. He's 36 years old. That's very young. And it's -- in that kind of a society, that's almost too young. He's going to have to gain alleys in the military to really pull this off in the future.

O'BRIEN: And obtaining that kind of alliance with the military given his background as physician. I note that he is a staff colonel, but not the sort military record that his father had certainly?

PERRY: That's true. And there are three pillars in the military. There's military intelligence, air force intelligence and the army chief of staff. These are the three major contenders, I would think, for the leadership position.

In the background for Dr. Bashar in the months ahead, The guy that he really -- the leader that he really has to look to for alliance is someone who was very close to Hafez Al-Assad in the military, and that's General Ali Aslam (ph) of the army. I think that if Dr. Bashar can maintain that strong alliance -- and we don't know what the parameters of it are -- if question maintain cordial relations especially with army, that will help him take over this what's going prove to be a very difficult job.

O'BRIEN: All right. Mark Perry is with the Middle East Review. Mark, we're going to ask you to stand by. We're going to up this discussion a little bit.

Jim, why don't you handle that.

CLANCY: OK. I want to gone on now to London and Adel Darwich (ph) is going to be joining us. Adel, a Middle East expert.

Give us a bit of the Arab view of the significance of this day, both in terms of its uncertainty and the legacy of Hafez Al-Assad.

ADEL DARWICH, MIDDLE EAST EXPERT: I think the legacy of Hafez Al-Assad in the Middle East, who can be divided into two, are those who really wanted to modernize their region, wanted to go for full peace. I mean for full piece like in the Palestinian, Jordanian, Egyptian-style with Israel, would have actually seen that the legacy of Hafez Al-Assad was, to a certain extent, negative. Therefore, his demise probably would open the way for new blood and fresh air to come in toward peace.

The other camp, the rejectionist camp, who would like sort of to interpret Israeli withdrawal from Southern Lebanon as actually a victory for military steadfastness would actually hail the legacy of Hafez Al-Assad, as he is the one who kept saying no, I refused to be dictated by Israel, and who to certain extent see American policy as an extension of Israeli policy in the region. This is sort of the Arab feeling today.

CLANCY: We're looking at the possibility that his son Bashar is going to be succeeding Hafez Al-Assad. Do you think there is any possible that he might be pressured? I know the Clinton administration has said Middle East peacemaking is priority, but there are only a matter of months left in that administration. Do you think that any kind of an imminent or even a peace deal before the end of this year is possible between Israel and Syria?

DARWICH: I think one has to be very careful here, because we can't be that optimistic really. As most experts agree, this is region, when a chap comes in who is 36 years old, without the military record in a country ruled by the military, without actually a statesmanship record, to actually make such a bold step after 30 years of the masses being brainwashed as Israel's enemy that must be defeated, it would be very difficult for him to make peace.

And again, I quite agree that the relationship with military, and intelligence and security apparatuses in Syria are actually a key issue to the establishment of Bashar's rule, and I don't think this rule will be smooth and not be challenged. There are actually others in the wing which will be challenging this rule.

O'BRIEN: Let's bring in Mark Perry once again. Others in the wing. Give us a sense of what sort of opposition Dr. Bashar might being be facing, and I guess use opposition in lower case there, because opposition in upper case has been pretty much crushed over the years by the Hafez Al-Assad regime .

PERRY: There is -- the opposition, you're quite right, is lower case. It is going to be behind the scenes. This is a very mature, elite leadership in Syria. Nothing is made too public. They believe in stability. We are going to see a period of real public stability, but there's going to be maneuvering behind the scenes over the leadership question.

And I quite agree with Mr. Darwich, that we're not going to have any kind of aggressive following of a peace track with Israel perhaps for the next year until the leadership question is sorted out.

CLANCY: All right, Mark and Adel, this is Jim Clancy, I want to ask you both this question, and that is whether you think that the principal that was laid down by Hafez Al-Assad will now become enshrined in peacemaking, and that is be every square millimeter of the Golan Heights must be returned to Damascus to ensure peace, beginning with you Adel?

DARWICH: Well, if -- which is a big if here -- Bashar Al-Assad managed to actually remain in power, it will take quite sometime for him to actually shake this foundation and this belief and change every square. However, if we've seen other leadership coming, and I am speaking here perhaps of President Al-Assad's brother, Rifaat Assad, who still got strong "followship" and followers within the Alawite community who would actually like to see someone older, someone more experienced, someone who can actually protect the interests of the Alawites and the army, then perhaps someone strong can really find some kind of compromise and accommodation with the general view of the new world order.

However, if the situation, as been said, remains stable on the surface and boiling underneath the surface and unstable under the surface, then we can not see anything but continuity of the stalemate situation which has laid down by President Al-Assad; every square inch should come back.

CLANCY: Mark Perry.

PERRY: I think that the legacy Hafez Al-Assad will be a very tough negotiating stance into the far future for Syria. It's almost his most important legacy. He was have very, very tough with the Israelis, but he was very honest with them. When he signed a agreement with the Israelis, with the Americans, on the Golan cease fire, not one shot was fired from Syria in these last 25 years into Israel. That wasn't true in Lebanon, but he didn't have an agreement in Lebanon. And I think we're going to see a Syrian foreign policy that really builds on that legacy of steadfast, and stability and toughness with Israel.

CLANCY: Mark Perry, Adel Darwich, our thanks to you for being with us and lending your perspective to the passing of Hafez Al-Assad, the Syrian leader.

O'BRIEN: And we are continuing our coverage of that passing and it's implication to Middle East peace and beyond. Stay with CNN as our coverage continues.



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