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Longtime Syrian Leader Hafez Al-Assad Dead at 69

Aired June 10, 2000 - 1:17 p.m. ET


JIM CLANCY, CNN ANCHOR: We are continuing to follow reactions around the world, observances of the passing of Hafez Al-Assad, the 69-year-old Syrian leader. He had ruled Syria for some 30 years through some of its most difficult times. He had placed Syria squarely on a path toward peace, but he had not succeeded in really gaining that peace in negotiations with Israel. It was widely expected those negotiations would continue. We have watched this day as the Syrian parliament has held talks appearing to pave the way that his son, Dr. Bashar Al-Assad, will be brought in as the success says to Hafez Al-Assad. Still too early to make any calls on that, but parliament will be making a formal decision after the funeral on the 25th of June.

CLANCY: One of the factions within the Middle East, one of the peoples of the Middle East, most concerned by the passing of Hafez Al- Assad has been the Palestinians. The chief negotiator for the Palestinians, Saeb Erekat, joining us now on the line. He has talked with President Yasser Arafat about this reactions.

Saeb, what can you tell us?

SAEB EREKAT, CHIEF PALESTINIAN NEGOTIATOR: Well, we just finished the meeting, an urgent meeting with President Arafat. He issued a statement in which he conveyed his deep sense of sorrow and condolences to the family of President Assad and the Syrian people. And he said that great leader, an exceptional man, had left (UNINTELLIGIBLE) in the Middle East at a very critical time. And President Arafat will be making a statement on camera shortly on this.

CLANCY: Yourself having been involved in the peace negotiations, President Assad had a very different idea of how the Palestinians should have conducted their negotiations. But of course the Palestinians were dealing from a much different position than Damascus, were they not?

EREKAT: Actually, we're two different tracks. And the Palestinian track is different than the Syrian track and the Lebanese track and the Jordanians and the Egyptian track.

At this moment, I would like to add, Jim, that President Arafat also declared three days of mourning throughout the Palestinian Authority. And we hope that the transition in Syria will be smooth and will be done in a way to serve God, the stability in the region.

CLANCY: That stability, is that a major concern among the Palestinians right now, who will succeed Hafez Al-Assad?

EREKAT: Well, as I said to you, Jim, we hope that the transition will be smooth. We hope that to happen. President Assad made his strategic choice for peace. We all went to Madrid together, to the Madrid peace conference, on the basis of the implementation of the Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, meaning Israel's withdrawal to the 4th of June borders, both on the Syrian front and the Palestinian front.

CLANCY: Saeb Erekat, what has been the reaction among other Palestinians on the streets and in the halls of power among those within the Palestinian Authority?

EREKAT: Well, as I said to you, we just were summoned to an urgent meeting with President Arafat in which this statement was issued. And I conveyed his condolences to the Syrian people and to President Assad's family. Now we have -- President Arafat also declared the three days or mourning.

I think the Palestinian people feel a great sense of loss to an exceptional man, as President Arafat said. And as I told you, Jim, President Arafat will be making a statement on camera very shortly.

CLANCY: Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, our thanks to you for being with us as we continue to examine the events of this day and the passing of Hafez Al-Assad, the Syrian leader -- Miles.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: As tough a negotiator as he was, President Hafez Al-Assad was seen as a man who could perhaps do business in this critical junction in the Middle East peace process, perhaps ceding some sort of agreement, vis-a-vis the Golan Heights, allowing Ehud Barak and he to come to some sort of agreement which might lead to a lasting peace. All that of course now off to the side as a period of mourning begins and questions are raised about what happens next in Syria.

For more on that, we turn now to Jerrold Kessel who in Jerusalem, for reaction from there.

It is the Sabbath there I know, Jerrold, but nevertheless, the word is out. What are you hearing?

JERROLD KESSEL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Miles, yes, I think you're right in saying that uncertainty is perhaps the best way of characterizing the reaction here, the mood here in response to the news of President Assad's death, and beyond that perhaps the overall impression is the complexity with which this reaction will now have -- the complexity of the situation which this reaction will now have to address.

The Israelis had, as you rightly pointed out, had some expectations, and they all along had said those Israelis said they were working toward a deal and were hoping there could be a peace deal with Syria, were saying President Assad, if they could be concluded a deal, was one that they expected could carry out such a deal, and therefore the belief that he was the man that if they signed with him, would be the one to put it into practice, and that such a peace deal would hold. And counter that, however, the feeling of uncertainly among Israeli leaders and negotiators that even though Syria said it was committed to a strategic change in direction toward making peace with Israel, the Israelis nonetheless not absolutely, totally convinced that that had in fact happened, and that view was strengthened after that final faulty meeting in a sense between President Clinton and President Assad back a couple months ago which led to the final breakdown of the efforts to reach a peace between Israel and Syria. And all this now quite clearly being reflected as prime Minister Ehud Barak assembles some of his leading advisers from the military intelligence and political advisers to assess the impact of President Assad's death on the overall situation, and collateral is discussing at his home, near Tel Aviv, that Israel in the midst of a political crisis of its own, and how that will shape out, and whether this will, in fact, factor in to that. All this perhaps coming to bear and getting some reflection in the statement that was issued very soon after the official announcement of President Assad's death, the statement from Prime Minister Barak, which started off in the tone, as expressed by one Cabinet Minister, Slomu Vanami (ph), one of the chief peace negotiators who said -- quoting the biblical injunction -- "Rejoice not in the death your enemy."

And indeed, formally President Assad remained Israel's enemy, having not made that transition to peace partner and peace neighbor reflecting as it did, Prime Minister Barak saying that Israel identified with the sorrow of the Syrian people, but then expressing Israel's two concerns, all hopes, laced one with the other, the first, that Israel wanted to continue peace efforts with whoever came into power in Damascus, and at the same time saying that Israel held it very important that stability would continue along its borders with both Syria and Lebanon, and hoped that Syria would see things the same way. I believe that is the focus of Israel's attention now: stability above all. On the borders, and in its relation perhaps, these tacit relations with Syria, with as in the past for the last couple of years, the focus has been on trying to get a peace deal with Syria. Perhaps the immediate focus now will be on ensuring a stability of relationship between Israel and Syria, even if they don't have that formal relationship, that indirect relationship, whether on the Lebanese border or directly on the Syrian border. That will be Israel's main focus at this time.

O'BRIEN: So, Jerrold, to try to put it in a nutshell, when the Israelis consider the Golan Heights a strategic turf in the Middle East, they want to be certain that if they cede the territory the deal is followed through carefully, which leads us to perhaps an inescapable conclusion, that we get into a wait-and-see mode here as far as the Israelis are concerned, to give them some degree of confidence that the military in Syria is reflective of the successor's feelings and whoever is doing the negotiating, assuming we're talking about Dr. Bashar Assad. So how long would it take, do you suppose, for them to have that level of confidence?

KESSEL: I'd say it's pure guess work in terms of how long, but I think they will be following carefully all these developments that are likely to unfold in the coming weeks and months ahead in Syria, just precisely, as you say, whether there is a stable transition and how stable Syria is, because that has been a factor in Israeli's consideration of whether they could do a deal with Syria, whether whoever was in charge in Damascus would be able to carry out such a deal and indeed guarantee that it would be kept. They did believe, by an large, at least those Israeli leaders, successive Israeli prime ministers, who tried to construct a deal with President Assad, that he was capable of carrying out and guaranteeing such a deal. They will need, as you rightly say, to be convinced that his successor, successors will indeed be able to do the same if they go into those peace negotiations should they be resumed, but I do believe that could be somewhere down the line.

O'BRIEN: All right, CNN's Jerrold Kessel, reporting live from Jerusalem. What will be the next events that shape the Middle East? How will the passing of Hafez Al-Assad affect the Arab world. For that view, Clovis Maksoud (ph), the former Arab League ambassador to the United Nations, will be joining us right after this short break. Stay with us.



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