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The Death of Hafez Al-AssadAired June 10, 2000 - 4:00 p.m. ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
JIM CLANCY, CNN ANCHOR: The sudden death of the longest-serving ruler in the Middle East sends Syrians into the streets of Damascus mourning their president of 30 years.
It also throws the spotlight of succession on his relatively unknown son.
Hello, and welcome to our special presentation on the death of Syria's president, Hafez Al-Assad. I'm Jim Clancy at the CNN Center in Atlanta.
Syrian television made the announcement just a few hours ago. It said, "The national champion was absent." That is how Syrians learned of the death of their president, Hafez Al-Assad, and already parliament has moved to support Mr. Assad's son, Dr. Bashar Assad, for the presidency.
CNN's Rula Amin is in the Syrian capital. She joins us now -- Rula.
RULA AMIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Jim, this is a sad day for Syria. We have seen hundreds of people going onto the streets, trying to reach President Assad's house. They were sobbing, they were crying. They were spaced out. Some were in disbelieve. They could not believe the news.
Of course, President Assad's health, and his deteriorating health, has been the subject of many rumors here, but his sudden death among a very sensitive time for Syria has caught a lot of people in surprise.
Syria is going into a very sensitive transition period. In a week's time, the congress of the ruling Baath Party was going to meet to elect the president's son into the regional command party, but the sudden death of Hafez Al-Assad has preempted all plans.
And today, the parliament has moved quickly to pave the way for the son to succeed his father. They changed the constitution and dropped two conditions that the son did not fulfill, like his age, which in the Syrian constitution says any Syrian president has to be at least 40 years old. Dr. Bashar is only 34. Today, the constitution was changed, saying the minimum age is 34.
So following that move, also the regional command for the Baath Party moved and nominated Dr. Bashar Al-Assad to be the candidate for the presidency. This has to be -- this is only a nomination. On June 25th, June 25th, that is in two weeks, the Syrian parliament is going to meet and vote on this recommendation, either by approval or maybe another candidate, which is very unlikely.
Mr. Assad has been grooming his son for this post in the last six years. He's been trying to pave the way for him. He has tried to give him some of his experience in order to enable him to handle this country and the most difficult issues of Middle East politics -- Jim.
CLANCY: Rula, as we look at it on the very surface, from the television pictures, the support all going in the way of Dr. Bashar Al-Assad in nominating him for the presidency. Behind the scenes, how much of a role does the Baath Party and the military have? How do they balance it out in Syrian politics?
AMIN: In Syrian politics, for the last 30 years there has been one ruler: It's Mr. Assad. He had the final say and he had the only say. There is no real opposition in Syria, and even if there is, it's not vocal, it doesn't express its opinions, and we don't hear what they say. Dr. -- President Assad has been grooming Bashar for this post for the last six years, and that is not just by giving him a high-profile appearance, but also by trying to eliminate any kind of opposition that would or can occur against his nomination for the presidency and to succeed his father.
Many generals who used -- who'd be colleagues and who used to be mates (ph) for the president, for the late president, had been removed from the army. Hecmad Dishabi (ph), he was the chief of staff for the Syrian army for 24 years. Eight months ago he retired among rumors that he was forced to retire, and actually in the last week there's been rumors also that he could have been pursued legally for corruption allegations, which meant that the guy fled the country. Now, he could have been a serious threat to Bashar's chances to succeed his father, but he is gone.
Many generals in the Syrian army have been replaced by people who support Dr. Bashar. Dr. Bashar also, of course under the watchful eyes of his father, had been leading a campaign against corruption in Syria. Corruption here is widespread, and its people are very resentful against it. And by going after corruption, by going after high Syrian officials who are known to be corrupted, he had earned a very good reputation among Syrians. People look at him as a clean man, as an honest man.
He has also been putting a lot of effort into bringing Syria into the modern world, into globalization. He is trying to bring the Internet into Syria, and that gives him support and rallies the new Syrian generation around him. They look at him as new hope. If there's any other -- if there's any opposition, we have not heard of it, and we don't know about it yet -- Jim.
CLANCY: Rula, just one final question. Briefly, the funeral arrangements for president Hafez Al-Assad?
AMIN: There has not been -- there hasn't been an official announcement, but we're hearing from sources that the funeral is going to take place on Tuesday, probably at noon time. That will give enough time for the Syrian leadership to put the house in order here and maybe for high-profile leaders of the world to come and attend this funeral of the leader of this country for 30 years -- Jim.
CLANCY: All right, CNN's Rula Amin reporting to us there from the Syrian capital, Damascus.
Now nowhere is the news of President Hafez Al-Assad's death and the developments surrounding it being watched more closely than in Israel. Of course, there will be no Israeli presence at his funeral, for there is no peace between Tel Aviv and Damascus. Still, his is death poses numerous unanswered questions about the future of peace negotiation with Syria.
For on that, we are joined by CNN's Jerrold Kessel in Jerusalem -- Jerrold.
JERROLD KESSEL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Jim, what you're saying absolutely true in the sense, reflected in very graphic terms. Israeli television and radio of tuning in with exceptional broadcasts of these Syrian -- scenes from Syrian television, so that Israelis learned of the death of President Assad at just about the same time as Syrians did. And dramatic scenes here, as Israelis ponder on what effect this will have on peacemaking and on stability. That's the key word that one hears now, the search for stability now and the hope of stability.
But it really is a question of the risks weighed up against the perhaps opportunities, perhaps hopes that arises out of the death of President Assad that Israelis are now contemplating. It was reflected in the formal Israeli government statement, which spoke both of the hope that piece efforts could continue and Israel willing to do -- to go on with those peace efforts with whoever took power in Damascus, but also expressing the hope that stability would be retained, not only on Israel's border with Syria, but more pertinently, perhaps after Israel's withdrawal from south Lebanon, Israel's border with Lebanon.
And President Assad seen as man who went through that phase from being very anti-any kind of peace process with Israel to making the indications that he wanted to make that strategic change. Had he gone that far, or had he gone far enough? Was he willing, really, to make that major transition from enemy to full-scale peace partner and peace neighbor? That was a question Israelis hadn't answered up until the moment of his death. It was reflected also in the way we heard this reaction from a leading Israeli minister this evening after the death of President Assad.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
YOSSI BEILIN, ISRAELI JUSTICE MINISTER: For 30 years, Syria was Assad and Assad was Syria. He was the head of the rejectionist camp, but later on he was the one who participated in the Madrid conference in '91, and he participated also in the coalition under the United States in the Gulf War. He was ready, apparently, to make peace with Israel, but on his own terms. And what he was ready to pay in a deal which Israel was something which we couldn't accept. And hopefully, in the future, it would be possible to make peace with Syria. Whoever his -- the successor should know that Israel is there, and it is ready to make peace and to pay the price for it, although not any price.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KESSEL: Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat saying he was stunned by the death of the great Assad, proclaimed three days of Palestinian mourning. He will be attending the funeral, despite the fact that he and President Assad had a awkward and often checkered and very troubled relationship through the years.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
YASSER ARAFAT, PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY PRESIDENT (through translator): I have known him since 1964, when he was an officer in the Syrian air force. During that time, I have known his family very well. We have lost him after this long acquaintance, and the people of Syria have lost him and the Arab nation as well.
I offer my condolences to the family and to Bashar and our condolences to the Syrian people and the Arab nation.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KESSEL: Under U.S. auspices, the Israelis and the Syrians did get together for a final-ditch peace effort towards the ends of last year. Israel's prime minister, Ehud Barak, meeting with Syria's foreign minister, Farouk Al-Shara, who, however, the two men never shook hands. That was something that was non -- did not go down well in Israel. And it never got to the state where they were -- where they could really move towards peace, although they really believed in Israel that they were on the verge of it. But that final peace effort coming to a dead end at the now rather infamous meeting between President Clinton and President Assad back in March, when it seemed as if the two sides simply couldn't bridge their difference and that peace would not be under President Assad.
Now, certainly, that will not be, and now Israel is wondering whether if they had made peace with President Assad it would have survived his death, and now, also wondering now that he didn't conclude a peace while he was alive, whether there is a new opportunity for such a peace-making effort.
Jim, back to you.
CLANCY: All right, CNN's Jerrold Kessel reporting to us live from Jerusalem.
Of course, one country greatly affected by Syria is its neighbor, Lebanon. Hafez Al-Assad's death being felt keenly there, where the Syrian leader sent troops to help restore order during the long civil war. Beirut has called a seven-day mourning period. To find out how his death is likely to affect the country in other ways, we're joined now by the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri. He is in Beirut.
What can you tell us about the general reaction as you talk to government officials and the common man in Lebanon about the passing of Hafez Al-Assad?
RAFIK HARIRI, FORMER LEBANESE PRIME MINISTER: You know, everybody was shocked in the country, and nobody was expecting that President Assad will die that soon. And, in fact, it is very difficult to imagine the Middle East without President Assad. Nevertheless, this is wish of God, and he passed away, and now everybody is sad on one hand and looking forward to seeing his successor, Dr. Bashar Assad, to take his place in the very near future.
CLANCY: Mr. Hariri, it is no secret there are some in Lebanon who would like to see Syria withdraw its troops. They feel that it has too much political influence, that it has too much economic interest in Lebanon itself. Do you think those calls will increase after the passing of a man who represented a very authoritarian rule that sometimes extended into Lebanon?
HARIRI: You know, for the military existence of the Syrian army in Lebanon, it played an important rule to assure the security and stability in the country. And now as you see after the Israeli withdrawal, we need the corporation, the military corporation with Syria, to assure the stability and the security in the south, which is the northern border of Israel.
At the same time, the economic relationship between Lebanon and Syria, Syria presents a huge market for Lebanese production, and we have interests to have larger relations and larger economic relations between Lebanon and Syria, because the Syrians are about 16 millions, and we are less than four million people. And we need their market for our production.
CLANCY: You dealt many times with President Hafez Al-Assad. Your memories of him on this day, how do you think the world should view the work that he did, the politics he represented?
HARIRI: You know, he is a strong man. He is a man who knows what he wants. He is man of a vision. He knows that Syria is important. He knows that there is not peace without Syria. He fight all of the time for his principles, for -- to liberate the Syrian- occupied territory. And he is ready to make peace, he is willing to do so -- he was willing to do so if Israel was ready to withdraw until the line of 4th of June, 1967.
CLANCY: Rafik Hariri, our thanks to you for being with us and sharing your thoughts, your view of the late Syrian president.
Well, for other reaction from Lebanon, we spoke earlier with CNN Beirut bureau chief Brent Sadler. Here is what he said.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BRENT SADLER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The Lebanese president, Emile Lahud, in a statement confirmed by Babda (ph) Palace here in Lebanon, that President Lahud, Lebanon's leader, had indeed been speaking to the late President Assad in the final minutes of his life.
The statement said that President Lahud and President Assad were discussing matters involving peace between the Israelis and the Syrians and the Lebanese, President Assad reportedly talking about how important it was for the future of both Syria and Lebanon to maintain this parallel track towards the peace process. And that conversation was interrupted between the Lebanese president, and the president, Emile Lahud here, the Lebanese leader, said that he knew something was terribly wrong. That story being reported widely here in Lebanon.
Now the country has been told that there will be seven days of official mourning here, and you can be sure that there will be a procession of Lebanese political leaders, particularly those with close ties to Syria, will be making the trek, the two and half drive from the Lebanese capital, Beirut, to the Syrian capital, Damascus, between now and the funeral of course on Monday. And one can expect there to be many statements coming from Lebanon about the importance of the Syrian leader in the process which of course is still ongoing, the peace process.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
CLANCY: CNN's Brent Sadler reporting there from Beirut.
Well, coming up in our special report, more on the death of President Hafez Al-Assad: How did he gain power? How did he maintain that power? And what did he do with it?
CLANCY: Hafez Al-Assad ruled his nation for 30 years. When that rule was threatened, he dealt ruthlessly with his opposition. But in economic affairs and international politics, he made sometimes subtle, sometimes bold changes in policy.
CNN's Mark Leff looks back on the life of Syria's longtime ruler.
MARK LEFF, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): To Syrian state broadcasters, Hafez Al-Assad was a hero. To some Syrian dissidents, Assad was a butcher who ordered thousands of their countrymen killed. To friends and foes in governments around the world, he was a key player in the complex world of Middle Eastern politics.
In one sense, he was an unlikely national leader. Hafez Al- Assad, the name means protector of lions, was a member of the minority Alawite sect of Shiite Islam, in a country where most people are Sunni Muslim, but where Alawites traditionally dominate the military. It was running the Syrian Air Force when Israel pounded it to dust during the Six-Day war of 1967, and took personal responsibility for Syria's loss.
Three years later, Assad was running the country after a bloodless coup by military moderates. For more than quarter century, through several elections, he dominated Syrian life and politics as president, and cast a heavy shadow over Middle Eastern politics as a power broker.
Al-Assad was born less than a decade after modern Syria and Lebanon were carved from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. The Syrians and the Lebanese are one people, he said. And while Lebanon struggled to maintain a separate reality, throughout Assad's rule, many of Lebanon's leaders, Christian and Muslim, looked to him as the country's real authority.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, 1996)
HAFEZ AL-ASSAD, PRESIDENT OF SYRIA: Our troops in Lebanon are in a land which is an extension of Syrian territory.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LEFF: That authority often came at gunpoint, through thousands of Syrian troops in Lebanon either representing their own nation or as part of a larger force designed to protect Lebanon from itself. Al- Assad's picture familiar in parts of Beirut it was on the streets of Damascus.
In the earlier 1980s, Assad turned again the radical Palestinian movement. He used Syria's military power to remove a perceived threat to Syria's authority in Lebanon by driving Yasser Arafat and the PLO out.
For many Westerners held hostage in Beirut, Al-Assad's capital was a weigh station on road to freedom. The extent of Hafez Al-Assad involvement in the process, either their captivity or their release, has never been clear. Though Syria went through series of federations, with Egypt and Libya, Hafez Al-Assad was always his own man.
While he and Egypt jointly planned and jointly lost the 1973 war against Israel, Hafez Al-Assad broke with Sadat over the Camp David peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. It kept Egypt at arm's length for more than a decade until a reconciliation with Hosni Mubarak in 1990.
Al-Assad supported fellow Shiite Muslims in Iran during its eight-year war with Iraq, whose leader, Suddam Hussein, represented the rival wing of the Arab socialist movement both had joined as youngsters.
When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, Al-Assad sent Syrian troops to join the coalition of countries which would punish Iraq the next year. To some extent, that corporation ended along between Syria and the United States. It brought his country both political and monetary rewards at a time when his longtime allies in Moscow had less and less time and money for him as their own country crumbled. In 1982, Al-Assad moved quickly to crush a potential challenge to his authority at home, from a conservative Muslim movement head quartered in the city of Hamah. Several thousands people may have died.
In 1983, Assad was reported seriously ill with heart trouble. Syrian state television broadcast extensive celebrations that followed news of his recovery. Al-Assad careful keep his own backers in charge of the, including his brother for a time, and to divide political power in his government to prevent any threat to his own authority.
At one point, Al-Assad apparently planned to have his old elder son succeed him as president. But Basil's death in a 1994 car crash, complicated the process, at time when Israel and Syria were making quiet progress toward resolving the future of the strategically important Golan Heights that Israel had seized from Syria in the 1967 war.
When the Syrian president went to Jordan last year for King Hussein's funeral and to meet the newly named heir Abdullah, Al- Assad's own successor was not yet clear. Even as voters elected him to yet another seven-year term, there were no other choices on the ballot.
Syria's president, Hafez El-Assad, dead at 69.
Mark Leff, CNN.
CLANCY: The words, the actions of Hafez Al-Assad always closely monitored by officials of the U.S. State Department, including our next guests.
Six years ago, Robert Pelletreau was sworn in as the U.S. assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs. Prior to that, he served as an ambassador to Egypt. He has spend nearly two decades in the Middle East. We're also joined by Shibley Telhami of the Brookings Institution. Mr. Tohami is a non-resident senior fellow in foreign policy studies.
Gentleman, thank you both for joining us.
SHIBLEY TELHAMI, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: A pleasure.
CLANCY: Mr. Pelletreau, I want to begin with you. You played something of a unique role in that you were the first U.S. diplomat to every open official talks with the Palestinians. President Hafez Al- Assad did not want to see the Palestinians, if you will, in charge of their own negotiations. He frowned on that. Give us an idea why President Assad thought that he should be the one that directed any Arab-Israeli dialogue?
ROBERT PELLETREAU, FORMER ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF STATE: President Al-Assad wanted to try to mobilize the maximum amount of force and leverage on his side for potential negotiations and for setting the conditions for negotiations. It wasn't only the Palestinians that he sought to control, but at different times he sought to control the decision of Jordan and the decision of the Lebanon. So, it was a strong motivation of Assad, as the ruler of Syria, to try to bring other Arab parties to accept the difficult, tough line that Syria itself was following.
CLANCY: as you look at the negotiations that were carried out by Syria on one front, you see a president that somehow, well, found a measure of flexibility. But when it came to dealing with his domestic opponents, there was no such flexibility, was there?
TELHAMI: Well, you know, it's very interesting. I mean, Hafez Al-Assad obviously has been responsible for the sort of stability that has existed in Syria over the past 30 years at some price. And clearly the price has been that his opponents have not exactly been visible on the political scene. And when they were, in 1982, they paid a very heavy price.
But to be truthful, he has been rather consistent in foreign policy. And I think although he has been -- he has changed course, including joining U.S. to oppose the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, by and large he has differentiated what he believed were issues of principle, like full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, and tactical and strategic policies.
And, in fact, he has done rather a risk-taker when it came to taking initiatives that he believed were in defense of his own principles, including the '73 war with Israel, which was a very risky war that he undertook, and including the shift in policy in favor of the coalition that was led by the U.S. in 1990.
CLANCY: Robert Pelletreau, what do you think marked the change in policy, international policy by President Hafez Al-Assad, when he decided to join the Madrid peace talks, when he made that decision that war wasn't going to work, or is that something that he decided shortly after the Yom Kippur War?
PELLETREAU: I think that President Assad sat in a dark room and he figured it out. First of all, there was the disappearance of his superpower backer, the Soviet Union. He no longer had that kind of back-up force behind him. And in relative terms, he could see looking out in the future that Syria would be getting weaker militarily as Israel got stronger.
He also recognized that there was a trend in the Arab world, led by Egypt, that was in the direction of greater acceptance of Israel in the region and reaching peace agreements with Israel.
CLANCY: Mr. Telhami, when you look at the past, the strengths of Hafez Al-Assad, what do you see that he did for the region?
TELHAMI: Well, it's very interesting. I think the most important thing, probably bringing some stability in Syria but also stability in Lebanon. I think one has, despite all of the heavy- handed Syrian presence at the moment in Lebanon, one also has to acknowledge that it was Lebanese -- Syrian forces that went in to end a very, very deadly civil war in Lebanon in the mid-1970s. He has been very predictable, which has helped international actors as well as regional actors. He has been relatively consistent.
Now nonetheless, I think in internally in Syria people have to take into account and balance this vision with the fact that he was the commander who actually lost the Golan Heights in 1967 and died without liberating them. And my judgment is that he had believed up until just the minute the Israeli pullout took place actually from Lebanon that there was still a window, and he waited a little bit too long unfortunately.
CLANCY: Gentlemen, Shibley Telhami and Robert Pelletreau, I'm going to ask you to stay right there. We're going to take a short break.
When we come back on our special coverage of the death of President Hafez Al-Assad, we're going to take a look at the future, what lies ahead.
Stay with us.
CLANCY: Welcome back to our special coverage of the death of Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad.
We want to show you now what Syrian television is broadcasting. There you see the picture, of course, of President Hafez Al-Assad, and you see the hundreds and hundreds of people that have turned out into the streets there, chanting God is great. They are chanting admiration for Hafez Al-Assad and what he did for their country. They are also chanting support for his son, Dr. Bashar Al-Assad, the anointed successor, if you will of President Hafez Al-Assad. That scene being viewed by Syrians of events on their streets at about dusk, pledging their hearts and their souls to the future and the Assad dynasty, if you will, that appears about to be born.
Let's listen for a moment.
Now we should note that Syria's parliament made its own moves this day, quickly preparing for President Assad's son, Dr. Bashar Al- Assad to be named as the likely candidate to replace him.
CNN's Tim Lister now reports on the transition to a younger generation.
TIM LISTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In a special session punctuated by scenes of open grieving, Syria's parliament began to lay the groundwork for a new era. It adopted an amendment to the constitution which would allow the next president to be as young as 34. Previously the lower age limit was 40. That was the first step in smoothing the path to the presidency of Hafez Al-Assad 's oldest surviving son, Bashar.
A short while later, the ruling Baath Party nominated Bashar to succeed his father.
Bashar has played an increasingly prominent role in Syria in the last few years and said in a recent interview that he has recommended many of the members of the Cabinet formed in March.
MARK PERRY, MIDDLE EAST REVIEW: He's a very aggressive personality. He's 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 allies in the military to really, to pull this off in the future.
LISTER: Some see major challenges for Bashar Al-Assad, should he succeed his father.
ADEL DARWISH, MIDDLE EAST ANALYST: The relationship with the military and with the intelligence and with security apparatus 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 wings which will be challenging this rule.
LISTER: Others believe there will be a smooth transition.
PATRICK SEALE, ASSAD BIOGRAPHER: This is, of course, the end of an era. It's a very important moment in Syrian history, in the history of the region. But I think the point to remember at this very, very important moment is President Assad's legacy. And his legacy is going to determine the policies of the successor governments.
I think the first point one should make is that the transition, in my view, is going to be very smooth. Dr. Bashar has been prepared to take over over the last six years, ever since his brother died in 1994.
LISTER: One seasoned diplomat believes the Middle East peace process will inevitably be affected by Hafez Al-Assad's death,
CLOVIS MAKSOUD, FORMER ARAB LEAGUE AMBASSADOR TO U.S.: And I think that what's going to be happening at this moment is that there is, because I kept hearing about the peace process, I think there's going to be a moment of suspension rather than disruption of the peace process, because there's going to be a reassessment not only on the part of Syria, but also on the part of the Lebanese, the Syrians, the Palestinians.
LISTER: President Assad towered over the life of Syria for 30 years. Whoever succeeds him, he'll need time and skill to establish similar authority.
Tim Lister, CNN.
CLANCY: The future of Syria after President Hafez Al-Assad: For more on that, let's rejoin our guests that we've been speaking with, Shibley Telhami of the Brookings Institution, and former U.S. assistant Secretary of State Robert Pelletreau.
And, Ambassador Pelletreau, I want to come back and start with you. A lot of speculation this day that somehow the terms of peace might be changed. we see a younger leader poised to take control in Syria. Perhaps that will change the real peace. But can you see it changing the terms that Hafez Al-Assad stood for until the day he died.
PELLETREAU: The direction is clear Hafez Al-Assad pointed Syria in the direction of eventually making peace, peace with honor, with Israel, and the Syrians will respect that. reaching that peace may be just as difficult or even more difficult than it appeared when Assad himself was president.
CLANCY: Shibley Telhami, Hafez Al-Assad stood for every square centimeter of Syrian land back under Syrian control. Can you see anyone changing that stand now?
TELHAMI: Not immediately. Obviously if Mr. Bashar Assad becomes president, immediately he is going to have an internal issue to focus on, and that is consolidating his power base and not to give opponents any opening to attack him. And, therefore, that priority is, in my judgment, going to make it harder for him in the short term to make concessions on issues in which his father wasn't willing to do so.
And so in the short term, while he certainly will keep engaged in the peace process, I do not see Syria being able to move with the concessions that may be required to make a peace deal.
CLANCY: Richard Pelletreau, when you look at Bashar Al-Assad, a lot of people wondering what kind of change he will bring. Much of what we have seen of him thus far could well be orchestrated, from his involvement in the anti-corruption drive to everything else. At the very least, how much change do you think his youth will bring?
PELLETREAU: For the six years of his grooming, Bashar Al-Assad has been given increasing responsibilities on the Syrian scene. He had become the primary responsible Syrian official for policies with respect to Lebanon. He was becoming increasingly influential in intra-Alawite politics. So I think we're seeing now the completion of this preparation by the Syrian general public and general institutions, who want not only to honor Hafez Al-Assad's wishes, but also to see a continuation of the stability that he provided to Syria.
TELHAMI: Jim, may I add to this? If you actually look at the last six years in which Bashar has clearly been being groomed and also has taken some steps to fight corruption and do some things that are forward-looking, including inviting commerce on the Internet, it is a mistake, I think, to make a judgment on his future presidency, expected future presidency, on the basis of performance under a circumstance where he had the protection of his powerful father.
And at the moment, clearly, if he takes charge, he's going to have to do the sort of nasty things that are required for political survival, the sort of things that he may not have the stomach for, quite frankly. This is not a man who has been groomed over a long period of time. This is not a man who believed he would ever be in a position of this sort. And this happened, clearly, after the passing of his brother in 1994.
So there are a lot of questions. There are a lot of uncertainties about what direction he may take. There's no question that his interest is in taking Syria in a different direction, internally in terms of its foreign policy, externally in terms of its foreign policy. But the duties that are going to be pout upon him immediately are going to make it very, very difficult for him to have maneuvering room.
CLANCY: While maneuvering room may be exactly what he does not have in the immediate future, Robert Pelletreau, though, the role that Syria has played until now, certainly Hafez Al-Assad represented not just a major Arab country, but it was an entire poll when it came to -- and power base when it came to a style of negotiating, a policy of negotiating. His passing: What does that -- where does that leave the whole peace process?
PELLETREAU: Well, it leaves the peace process incomplete. There is no comprehensive peace without peace between Israel and Syria. And as Dr. Telhami has mentioned, it probably sets back somewhat the date for re-engagement between Syria and Israel.
I think another aspect is going to be that the Syrian mode of decision-making is going to change. Hafez Al-Assad was the sole final decision-maker. He listened to his advisers, but he himself made the decisions, based on his long rule and his great legitimacy and authority as a result of that. Bashar becoming his successor is not going to have that same authority and legitimacy, if you will, gained through performance. His rule, in the initial phases anyhow, is likely to be much more collective and perhaps a bit more uncertain because of that.
CLANCY: Robert Pelletreau and Shibley Telhami, our thanks to both of you for lending your expertise, shedding some light on this day on the life of President Hafez Al-Assad and the future of Syrian politics.
We heard reaction earlier coming quickly from other world leaders. British Prime Minsiter Tony Blair mentioned the troubled Middle East, saying, "The best testimony to President Assad's memory would be for everyone involved to redouble their efforts to bring a just and lasting peace to the region."
From the Lebanese prime minister, Selim Hoss, Mr. Assad's death is, in his words, "a terrible catastrophe."
Iraq's official state radio has had no comment about Mr. Assad's death. The relationship between Damascus and Baghdad broke down when Syria supported the international coalition against Iraq in the Persian Gulf War.
Well, since President Assad threw his support behind the Western alliance during the 1991 Gulf War, Syria's relations with the United States have grown warmer. U.S. President Bill Clinton was in Minnesota when he learned of Mr. Assad's death.
CNN White House correspondent Major Garrett is traveling with the president. He brings us Mr. Clinton's reaction -- Major.
MAJOR GARRETT, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Jim, the president learned of President Assad's death shortly before he took the podium here in Northfield, Minnesota to deliver a commencement address at Carleton College, the very last commencement address of his presidency. The topic: higher education. The president stuck to that topic, did not mention President Assad's death here in Northfield, Minnesota.
But later, moments later, he flew on to the twin cities, Minneapolis and St. Paul, where he's to attend two Democratic National Committee fund raisers this afternoon. Before attending those fun raisers, the president met with a small group of reporters and offered this assessment of President Assad and his push for peace.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAM J. CLINTON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: 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 because 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: The president last met with President Assad March 26th in Geneva. At that meeting, the president hoped he would achieve a breakthrough on the Israeli-Syrian peace process. That breakthrough was not realized, however. President Assad dug in his heels, asking that Israel agree to give back all the Golan Heights before negotiating any other matters separating the two nations. That was unacceptable to the Israelis, and since that day the Israeli-Syrian peace process has been stalled,
President Clinton is still considering whether or not to attend the funeral of President Assad.
CNN's senior White House correspondent John King is reporting that right now Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is scheduled to lead the U.S. delegation to the funeral, which may occur on Tuesday. That is the latest word U.S. officials have received from officials in Damascus, Syria.
Major Garrett, CNN, reporting live from Northfield, Minnesota.
CLANCY: Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had extensive dealings with Mr. Assad in the 1970s. Kissinger held several meetings with the Syrian leader while conducting his famous "shuttle diplomacy" to help end the 1973 Middle East war. He says Mr. Assad was motivated more by need than choice in joining the peace process.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
HENRY KISSINGER, FMR. SECRETARY OF STATE: 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.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
CLANCY: Well, as our special coverage continues, we're going to have more on a nation in mourning and shock over the death of its president, Hafez Al-Assad.
Stay with us.
CLANCY: Welcome back to our special coverage.
And recapping this story, Syrians are in mourning for the man who held power in their country for 30 years. President Hafez Al-Assad died Saturday at the age of 69. Mr. Assad had been suffering from kidney and heart problems for many years, his death still coming as a shock to many of his countrymen. Syria's ruling Baath Party has nominated Al-Assad's 34-year-old son, Bashar, to take his place. Lawmakers laid the groundwork Saturday by lowering the minimum age for the presidency from 40 to 34. Bashar, a British-educated eye doctor and colonel in the army, has never formally held any political office.
Syrian television is reporting that funeral services now are going to be held for President Hafez Al-Assad on Tuesday.
Well what did Hafez Al-Assad represent in Arab politics? What were his attributes? And how did they reflect and at the same time shape the Middle East politics of his era? Joining us to help understand more about the life and the times of President Hafez Al- Assad of Syria is Raghida Dergham. She is senior diplomatic correspondent for the Al-Hayat Arabic newspaper.
Welcome, once again.
RAGHIDA DERGHAM, AL-HAYAT: Thank you.
CLANCY: Looking back on the rule of Hafez Al-Assad, he had his enemies to be sure. Has he silenced them?
DERGHAM: For quite a while he had, but then also he dared launch his son into a new direction altogether. You'll remember, Jim, that mid-June was meant to be a very important time in Syria's evolution of power because it was meant to be that June 17, the election of Dr. Bashar Assad to the regional leadership of the Baath Party, which would have set him on the course of taking the power officially.
And the identity that was associated with Dr. Bashar Assad, blessed by his father, obviously, is one of a reformist, one who fights corruption, one who will take the country into economic, social and political reform and will be lenient in terms of being flexible with the peace process.
So I think that this was predetermined ahead of time that this is the identity that the late president, Hafez Al-Assad, would have wanted his son, Dr. Bashar, to be associated with, and to be guarded, funny enough, it would be by the old guard. Because he wouldn't have been able to go that distance unless supported by the military and the intelligence. And it's an interesting situation because there would have been the fight between the new guard and the old guard, but in this particular case the old side was protecting the new generation.
CLANCY: You know, it's said you can't make war in the Middle East without Egypt, you can't make peace without Syria. Syria holding a position, perhaps, beyond its own economic, its own power of population. Why?
DERGHAM: This has been a pattern of rule in the Arab world. And altogether, you know, we have not have great democracies. We have had an evolution of power in its own pace, if you will. And in Syria, there has been a style of consistency -- you've heard that being said. It has never been a spontaneous leadership. It has calculated, it has fought strategically.
However, we were not to be expecting a monotonous Syrian policy during the burying of Mr. -- of Hafez Al-Assad. There were surprises, there was some sort of -- sometimes you have thought you knew where the Syrians were and what they would do, and then suddenly they would do something that was absolutely unexpected, such as joining the coalition in the war against Iraq.
But when it comes to the social and political evolution within, if they take too much time, I think it's because of making sure to play the old way of keeping power.
However, at the times like this, Jim, what sometimes we might expect, or at least we should be aware, of elements that might want to take advantage of a transition like this to exact their own agendas or their own ambitions. I'm not talking only about Syrians inside Syria or those who are struggling for power maybe behind the scenes, I'm speaking also of the Lebanese arena. Whether it is Lebanese or Palestinians or Syrians or Israelis, I think one should be very aware that there may be elements who might want to be disruptive, taking advantage of the transition to exact their own agendas.
Other than that, I'm not worried about a stable transition, because I have the feeling that the steps have been thought of and have been supplemented by action within Syria on the military level and the intelligence level to make sure that Bashar Assad comes into office without bloodshed. CLANCY: Raghida, you've been covering Hafez Al-Assad as a diplomatic correspondent for Al-Hayat for years and years now. Hafez Al-Assad carried to his brave -- he had a chance to make what was considered by many to make a very favorable deal for peace with Israel. He said, no, I want every square inch of the Golan Heights back. And he carried that to his grave. Why?
DERGHAM: I guess he is a man who took pride in being consistent that he makes himself clear. So he had made himself very clear that he would not accept anything less than the June 4th border. And he -- actually, when he went to meet with President Clinton in Geneva, he thought that this was understood, that everybody knew that, that he was flexible on everything else except.
And then when he felt that he was being pushed by the so-called "gestures" diplomacy, or the way that will get stuck at the last thing, he thought that, wait a moment. I made myself very clear. It's the land, the whole land. I'll get back my whole land, and I'll be flexible on everything else. It is a commitment. He saw himself as someone who would go the distance as far as the commitment is concerned.
But, you know, who knows? If Dr. Bashar Assad takes over and as his style would be different from his father's and as he is associated with reform and flexibility, he might be able to be -- to consider the creative formula to resolve the last outstanding issue with the Israelis, and then he might be able to really bring us to a breakthrough on that track of negotiations. I don't expect it to happen in the next couple of weeks, obviously, but I don't think that right now the process is endangered or it's doomed. I think there's still room for the negotiations between the Syrians and the Israelis to resume a little later on.
But I think right now, the challenge for Mr. Bashar Assad, if he takes office, is to stay the course of reform and openness, because if he loses that identity, people will start to wonder who is he, and he would lose the ground.
CLANCY: Raghida Dergham, our thanks to you for sharing your know;ledge and insights on this issue, as we...
CLANCY: ... look at the death of President Assad.
DERGHAM: Thank you.
CLANCY: Well, that concludes our special coverage of the passing of Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad. His death at the age of 69 truly marks the end of an era for Syria and the Middle East. Many Syrians have known no other leader. Authoritarian and at times ruthless in the face of opposition, he towered over his nation for 30 years. Despite his deteriorating health in recent days, there was still shock and disbelief in the streets of Damascus at the news of his death.
That is out report. I'm Jim Clancy at the CNN Center. Thank you for watching.
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