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President Clinton Reacts to Death of Hafez Al-Assad

Aired June 10, 2000 - 2:00 p.m. ET


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Reaction to the death of Hafez Al- Assad from President Clinton taped shortly -- not too long ago. Let's listen in.


WILLIAM J. CLINTON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I was very saddened by it, and I want to offer my condolences to his son, his family and to the people of Syria. You know, over the last seven years, I had the occasion to meet with President Assad many times, and I believe I got to know him well, and while we had our disagreements, I always respected him because I felt that he was open and straightforward with me, and I felt he meant it when he said he had made a strategic choice for peace. I regret that that peace was not achieved in his lifetime, and I hope that it can still be achieved in no small measure because of the commitment he made. I think today rather than speculating about the future, it would be best for all of us just to send our condolences and our best thoughts to his family and to the people of Syria. Thank you.

QUESTION: Is this going to delay the future of the process? How is it going affect the immediacy of the process that you've been trying to jumpstart recently?

CLINTON: Peter, I think it's premature to say. There will be a period of mourning in Syria. There will be a period of sorting out. And the Syrian people will make some decisions, and then we'll see what happens. But you know, we've been at this now for years because of the decision he made to go back to negotiations and to try to move away from conflict, and it's certainly a path that I hope the country will stay on.


O'BRIEN: President Clinton videotaped within the past hour in Minneapolis, Minnesota, having delivered a commencement address to Carlton College there, expressing his sympathies and guarding against speculation as to the future of the Middle East peace process.

Let's turned now to is Israel, and Jerusalem specifically.

Yossi Beilin is the Israel justice minister.

Mr. Beilin, how -- give me a sense of how close Israel felt Hafez Al-Asad was to actually making a deal which would be acceptable on your side of the border.

YOSSI BEILIN, ISRAELI MINISTER OF JUSTICE: I think that he was very close and very far from a deal. I think the last-minute talks in Geneva with President Clinton were conducive to a deadlock, and that it was seen as if a deal in the coming months was impossible, despite the fact that there were some steps taken by the late President Assad which were positive in the past toward the Madrid conference in '91 and so forth. So I can say that for the time being, it was seen as if there was no chance, and maybe, maybe a new chapter is being opened today.

O'BRIEN: Oh, really? You have some exhaust for optimism then?

BEILIN: Well, I believe that President Assad, who was Syria, who had been Syria for the last 30 years, had his own baggage. He competed with President Sadat for getting more from Israel when President Sadat got when he made peace with us. Maybe that was one of the reasons why it was impossible to make peace with him, because despite of the fact that we were ready in the Labor government headed are by the Late Prime Minister Rabin, then by Mr. Peres, and now by Mr. Barak, we are ready to pay a very high price for peace. It wasn't enough for him.

O'BRIEN: I want to go back to one of your earlier statements, where you said at that time outset, he was close and he was far to making a deal. First of all in what manner was Hafez Al-Assad close making deal, do you suppose?

BEILIN: Well first of all, he crossed the psychological barrier and was ready to make peace with us. He even sent his prime minister to the talks with our prime minister some months ago, but nevertheless, ordered him not shake the hand of our prime minister, and it was quite symbolic, because there was some kind of a dissonance in President Assad's attitude toward Israel. Somehow he wanted to make peace, but was not ready to make the last step. And maybe, maybe in the future, his successor, without this baggage, will be ready to take this step, because he will understand that the road for the prosperity, for the economic prosperity of Syria goes through peace with Israel.

O'BRIEN: What you suggest there is perhaps there is some sort of groundswell of support for some kind of lasting peace agreement within Syria, but it's very difficult from the outside to know for sure if that is the case.

BEILIN: It is difficult from the outside, because it is not an open and Democratic society. Nevertheless, it doesn't mean that the world out there doesn't exist, and I believe that if the successor knows that Israel is a neighbor which is ready to make peace and ready to pay the price for peace, and if the successor knows also that the world out there, if it is the United States or Europe, are ready to help in making peace, there might be a breakthrough in the coming months. I'm not giving up on peace with Syria in the near future.

O'BRIEN: In the near future. Let me ask you this, though, whoever the success says or may be -- and the groundwork is being laid for Hafez Al-Assad's son, Dr. Bashar Al-Assad, to be the successor. Whoever that is, when that person comes to the negotiating table, will the Israelis have enough confidence in that person's ability to have the handles on the levers -- have their hands on the levers of power in Syria to come up with something that might mean giving up portions of the Golan Heights?

BEILIN: It is a little bit too early, of course, to speak about it, because we even don't know who the successor is, although we can assume that it might be the son. Nevertheless, I would say that if their is a new leadership in Syria, and if this leadership is courageous enough to begin the negotiations with us, to understand our demands, our needs, we will understand their needs, and there is room for peace. We will not have to wait a long while in order to be sure that the other side is serious, if the other side is suggesting serious ideas.

O'BRIEN: Yossi Beilin is the Justice Minister in Israel. We thank you very much for being with us.

BEILIN: Thank you.

O'BRIEN: And let's turn now to the State Department. Obviously the U.S. has a critical role in the Middle East peace process. It's considered the number-one priority as it relates to foreign affairs for the Clinton administration in its waning days.

Andrea Koppel, I don't know if you had a chance to hear Yossi Beilin, but he a shred optimism which he takes away from all of this.

ANDREA KOPPEL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: As a matter of fact, Miles, I've been speaking to other Middle Eastern diplomats who say that from what they've been able to observe so far in the transition that seems to be taking place right now in Syria, it seems to be smooth, they say that they see it very promising, that the parliament convened so quickly and amended this constitution to pave the way for Dr. Bashar to take over as president. They remarked on the demonstrations that took place outside President Assad's home, and said that they seem to be almost scripted, almost as if there had been a plan to have the people chanting the name of President Assad and his son, Dr. Bashar, that it looked as if, at least in the near term, that there was going to be a smooth transition in Syria.

Now having said that, they also pointed out that in the very, very short term, if in fact Dr. Bashar does take over as president, he's going to be inward looking. He's going to have to be building a coalition, getting all his ducks in a row, and for that reason, probably wouldn't want to be looking outside of Syria, that is looking toward the peace process that had been going on, albeit in fits an starts, with Israel.

Now with that in mind, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright a very short time ago did issue a written statement in which she expressed her sadness upon learning the news of the death of Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad, and expressed her condolences to the president's family. Secretary Albright had met with President Assad just at the end of last year. She also said that President Assad had made a strategic choice for peace at Madrid in 1999, and said "In all of our talks, he remained committed to that choice." She said, "We look forward to working with Syria to bring about the goal of a comprehensive peace deal."

Now privately, aides to Secretary Albright say that it's just too soon to say in the short term what impact the death of President Assad will have, not only on the peace track with Israel and Syria, but also on the peace track between Israel, the Palestinians and the Lebanese.

What we have actually happening in the short term is that on Monday, you're supposed to have Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, who are supposed to be coming to the Washington area to meet to get going on moving on the peace process.

And you have as well today the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, declaring three days of mourning in the West Bank and Gaza. And so there is a question mark right now. The officials that I'm speaking with say they don't know if in fact President -- excuse me, the Palestinian leader Arafat will be coming to Washington. He is supposed to be meeting with President Clinton at the White House on Wednesday.

They don't know whether or not President Clinton will attend the funeral of President Assad, and if in fact the Palestinian leader Arafat would come to Washington. And so you have, in the very short term, the potential impact on the Palestinian track. And so there are a lot of questions right now. U.S. officials say they're watching very closely to see if in fact -- their concern is that there might be a power struggle behind the scenes.

And so, right now everything seems to be up in the air -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Andrea, a lot of talk about these tracks, these so- called tracks of negotiations: the Palestinians and the Israelis, the Syrians and the Israelis. To what extent can these tracks operate independently? James Rubin, just a little while ago, the former spokesperson for Dr. Albright, indicated that other tracks can continue. But, really, they are, in the final analysis, are they not linked?

KOPPEL: Of course they are. And that is not to say that they can't operate independently, they have for a number of years. There have been moments when the Syrian track seemed to be overshadowing the Palestinian track, and the same is true vice-versa. And so what you have right now is an unexpected and dramatic event that has just taken place with the passing of a man who was in charge of Syria for 30 years. And so because there is this dramatic and potentially serious change that has just taken place in Syria, it is, at the moment, having an impact on the Palestinian track with the talks supposed to take place in Washington at the beginning of the week, Miles.

O'BRIEN: CNN's Andrea Koppel at the State Department. We will be checking in with her later, of course. Let's turn now to a former boss there at Foggy Bottom, the State Department. Former secretary of state, Dr. Henry Kissinger, joining us from Kent, Connecticut.

Dr. Kissinger, your thoughts today on the passing of Hafez Al- Assad?

HENRY KISSINGER, FMR. SECRETARY OF STATE: Well, I thought he was a strong leader. Before he came into power, the Syrian prime minister changed or president changed every year. He's held onto office for 30 years. He was a man who was an Arab nationalist -- very dubious about the peace process when it started -- finally joined it. He did not have the great visions of Sadat, and he would really more often ratify forces that had been working, rather than create them by himself.

O'BRIEN: Dr. Kissinger, what do you suppose had brought Hafez Al-Assad to the point of coming to the table and at least expressing a desire to come up with some sort of peace agreement?

KISSINGER: Well the first thing...

O'BRIEN: What changed?

KISSINGER: One has to understand, Assad was not somebody who believed in peace in the abstract. He was not somebody who suddenly had a great moral insight and said: This is how mankind should spend its life. He had concluded that Syria was too weak to fight Israel alone and that the forces of modernity were running past Syria. And that if it didn't change -- join the international system in some manner, it would fall hopelessly behind. So his motive to join the peace movement was entirely practical.

O'BRIEN: In talking with people who had face-to-face meetings with Assad, as you did -- and we just saw some old film of one of those encounters -- the sense you get is that Assad was this tough negotiator, who may not have been a likable person, necessarily, but was a respected individual. Did you respect him?

KISSINGER: Well, he was highly intelligent. He had a great sense of humor. He was infinitely patient, and he was a very, very tough negotiator.

O'BRIEN: And as you look at it, and when the history books are written on his three-decade tenure, will he be seen as more -- perhaps one of the ultimate obstacles to peace in the Middle East?

KISSINGER: No, I think he was one of the elements. He wasn't an obstacle to peace, and he wasn't a great promoter of peace. He was somebody who, when the current was moving in a certain direction, would join it. And he started in a position where, at my first meeting with him, he said: Anybody who makes peace with Israel will be cursed by Syrian posterity forever. And over the period of 25 years, he had moved at least to being willing to negotiate a peace agreement on the basis of essentially practical considerations.

O'BRIEN: Give us your sense, Dr. Kissinger, on what you foresee as the transition occurs there. Thus far, you get the sense that it has been a very well orchestrated series of events -- awfully early to draw any conclusions from that. What are your thoughts on -- assuming Dr. Bashar Assad...

KISSINGER: The thing to watch is this: First of all, of course, Assad represents a minority group, the Alawites, who became Muslims only in the last hundred years. So they're a minority. They dominate the army, and that's been the reason that they have the presidency. So, now it depends to what extent Assad has been able to pass on the leadership of the military to his son. If that works well, I expect his son to make a peace agreement. If they are caught up in a lot of internal disputes, it will take a while.

But contrary to many people, I think this actually will not hurt the peace process, because I don't think any new Syrian leader is in a position to govern in the midst of an extreme crisis. So I think that if the transition goes smoothly, as it may -- or either way, they'll need a breathing space because Assad has been such a dominant figure, they cannot possibly go through a big crisis.

O'BRIEN: Henry Kissinger, former secretary of state, joining us from Kent, Connecticut.

Thanks very much for joining us on CNN as we continue our coverage of the passing coverage of Hafez Al-Assad, 69 years old, a ruler of Syria for nearly 30 years -- by far, the longest serving ruler in the Middle East -- seeing changes of leadership all around him, and staying the course all that while -- focused on his desire for, in some cases, not making a deal with Israel, and then more recently, at least expressing the interest in coming up with some sort of lasting peace.

Meanwhile in Damascus, Syria, we have been tracking all this day events there as they have unfolded.

Rula Amin is our correspondent. She has been on the street. She has been monitoring Syrian television for us.

Rula, bring us up to date. Are there still tremendous numbers of people evident in the streets of Damascus?

AMIN: There is a number of people, but the number is dwindling down. It's almost 9:30 here in Damascus. The official announcement came out at six in the evening. People were surprised. People were grieved -- you could tell. People were in the streets, walking, sobbing, breaking down. Some people fainted. This does not come as a surprise in terms that people were surprised that President Assad died because of his health, because there's been rumors for the last 10 years that President Assad's health is not doing well.

But this came at a very sensitive time for Syria. This is a very sensitive time in terms that Syria is going into a transition period, going through -- trying to modernize its economy. Dr. Bashar Assad, the son's president -- who has been groomed, been groomed for the last six years to take over from his father when the day comes -- has been leading a campaign against corruption, which did earn him a lot of respect among Syrians. It places him as a clean man.

Today, people on the streets were chanting in his name. They were calling -- saying that with their blood and their soul, they will sacrifice for Dr. Bashar. It was a sign of support. People went out on the streets in support of the son on the day that his father died. They would also -- they also have their hopes pinned on the son to bring Syria into the world. Syria has been isolated for the last 20 years, maybe. They want to be part of the world. They want to be part of globalization. Dr. Bashar has been trying hard to bring Syria into the new age.

Now, of course, Dr. Bashar doesn't have an official title. Yes, he is a colonel in the army, but that's the only official position he has. Today, the Syrian Parliament changed the constitution in order to pave the way for him to take over from his father. Previously, any Syrian president had to be over 40, and he had to be a member of the Regional Command for the Baath -- for the ruling Baath Party.

Dr. Bashar is not a member of the Regional Command and he is not over 40. He's only 36 years old. He was born in 1965. They changed the constitution, and they said whoever takes over has to be at least over 34, and he has to be an Arab. They dropped the condition that he has to be a member of the regional command party.

So we are expecting, the Syrians are expecting that Dr. Bashar is going to be the one who will succeed his father. Still, they have to wait and see to see what will happens -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Rula, I don't know if you were able to hear Henry Kissinger just a few moments ago, but he offered a somewhat contrarian view from what we've been hearing through most of the day, that this in fact may spell good news ultimately overall for the peace process in the Middle East, in the sense that Dr. Bashar, presuming that the groundwork has been laid for his transition, he assumes the presidency, that Bashar does not carry the baggage that his father did as it relates to intransigence when it comes to peace with Israel.

AMIN: You know, Dr. Bashar is known here to be a very liberal guy, a modern guy. He's into peace with Israel. He does support Syria's peace process with Israel, but Bashar also has his father's legacy on his shoulders. President Assad for the last 10 years, throughout his negotiations with Israel since they started, have been adamant that he would not give up one inch of the Syrian land in order to make peace with Israel. He always stated that he is willing to compromise on different things. He was willing to compromise on sharing water with Israel, on peace relations, even on security relations on both sides of the border. But he was very unwilling, he was adamant he will never give up any inch of Syrian land.

And you know, we know that negotiations between Syria and Israel have now broken down on a few meters around the shores of Lake Superior. So it will be very hard for the son compromise on an issue that the father had been standing up and supporting for the last 10 years. He will be for peace with Israel, but it's going to be very hard for him to compromise on an issue that's it's known for the world that this is the issue, but for the son to come and say, you know, my father was wrong, we can give this land up for peace -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: All right, Rula Amin, very good point. Thank you very much.

CNN's Rula Amin on the streets of Damascus for us, and we will checking in with her later. Our continuing coverage of the passing of Hafez Al-Assad will be back with you in just a moment.


O'BRIEN: Continuing our coverage of the death of Hafez Al-Assad. For the Clinton administration, there is no higher foreign policy priority than cobbling together some sort of lasting Middle East peace. Now the questions will continue and persist for so long as to what this death of Hafez Al-Assad, after 30 years in charge in Syria, what that means for the peace process.

Major Garrett is White House correspondent who is traveling with the president today. He joins us from Northfield, Minnesota, where the president had give a commencement address.

Major, what's the latest.

MAJOR GARRETT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The latest, Miles, we have been told through Sr. White House correspondent John King, CNN Sr. White House correspondent John King, that according to administration officials, the understand that they have received from the Syrian officials is that the funeral for President Assad will occur Monday, and that attending the funeral, representing the United States government, will be Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Again to repeat, this is from Sr. White House correspondent John King, that according to administration officials, the current plans, based on communications the administration has received from Syrian officials, the funeral for President Assad will occur Monday. Representing the United States government will be Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

Now just moments ago, when the president arrived in the Twin Cities, Minneapolis, Saint Paul, after leaving here in St. Paul, Minnesota, Carlton College, where he delivered a commencement address, outlining his agenda on higher education, the president talked about his relationship with President Assad and how he regrets that peace was not achieved in his time.


WILLIAM J. CLINTON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You know, over the last seven years, I had the occasion to meet with President Assad many times, and I believe I got to know him well, and while we had our disagreements, I always respected him because I felt that he was open and straightforward with me, and I felt he meant it when he said he had made a strategic choice for peace. I regret that that peace was not achieved in his lifetime, and I hope that it can still be achieved in no small measure because of the commitment he made.

(END VIDEO CLIP) GARRETT: That's clearly the administration's emphasis right now, latching on to the hope that is that the new Syrian government will carry out those commitments that President Assad made to negotiate peace with Israel.

Major Garrett, CNN, reporting live from Northfield, Minnesota.

O'BRIEN: All right, our continuing coverage of the death of Hafez Al-Assad. We'll be back in just a little bit. We are going to pause in just a moment. We'll be back with a check of the top stories, and stay with CNN all throughout the day as we continue looking at the implications of the death of Hafez Al-Assad.



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