|Editions | myCNN | Video | Audio | Headline News Brief | Feedback||
The Death of Hafez Al-AssadAired June 10, 2000 - 8:00 p.m. ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
ANNOUNCER: This is a CNN special report.
The news broke unexpectedly in the Syrian parliament, which was gathered for routine business. Politicians cried as they learned of the death of the man who maintained his grip on power for three decades by not tolerating dissent.
During those three decades, world leaders knocked at his door, one after another, believing that he, Hafez Al-Assad, held the key to peace in the Middle East. Hassad engaged those leaders in discussions of legendary length that went on for hours upon hours, but he never revealed whether he was prepared to use that key.
In recent months, there was a greater sense of urgency than ever. Israel had a new leader who said he was determined to move forward with Syria. Assad's No. 2 man was repeatedly dispatched to negotiate with the Israelis. President Clinton tried to mediate, but Assad was believed to be in failing health. If he did intend to make peace, would he live long enough to deliver?
He did not. And now the world's attention shifts to Assad's successor. A vote hours ago in the Syrian parliament points to who that might be the, Bashar Assad, an eye doctor by training who has spent the last six years studying at the foot of his father.
Tonight, we'll learn more about Hafez Assad's son. Is he ready to lead? And will he have the necessary authority? We'll have reports from Syria's capital, Damascus, where preparations are under way for a leader's funeral; from Jerusalem, which is preparing for the uncertainty that comes with a new face on the head of an old adversary; from Lebanon, a country dominated by Hafez Al-Assad's military presence for so many years; and from Washington, which must now re-evaluate how to push forward with Middle East peace.
This is a CNN special report on the death of Hafez Al-Assad. Now from the CNN...
JONATHAN MANN, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to our viewers from around the world.
JOIE CHEN, CNN ANCHOR: This hour, we bring you a one-hour special on the life and legacy of Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad.
For nearly three decades, Hafez Al-Assad ruled his native Syria with a strong hand, achieving a near mythic status among his nearly 15 million people. Assad also cast a subtle yet powerful influence through the Middle East and the Arab world.
One of the region's longest-serving leaders, Assad died Saturday at his home in Damascus after battling heart trouble for years. He was 69 years old. Funeral services are planned for Tuesday.
Assad's death raises serious concerns about Syria's stability and the future of the Mideast peace process. For now, the nation remains in mourning.
Our coverage this hour begins with CNN's Rula Amin in Damascus.
RULA AMIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The news came at the end of the day. Many took to the streets, trying to reach the president's house. Security was tight, and members of Syria's Republican Guard were out in Damascus' streets.
This woman says she feels like she has just lost a father, a brother, that she has just been turned into an orphan.
The crowded chanted for the late president, called on God to allow him into his heaven. They also voiced his support for his son, Bashar, to succeed his father.
The Syrian parliament moved quickly to pave the way for Bashar Al-Assad to succeed his father. For example, the minimum age for a Syrian president of 40 years old was lowered to 34 years old, which is Bashar's age. The regional command for the ruling Baath Party also moved swiftly and nominated Bashar Al-Assad as a candidate for the presidency.
The Syrian parliament will be meeting in two weeks to vote on that recommendation.
(on camera): In their hearts, there is grief. On there mind, there is concern. Syrians realize President Assad's death marked the end of an era. Few have doubts it's the president's son, Bashar, who's going to lead to this country into its future. They have all their hopes pinned on him. It's only for the better.
(voice-over): The late president had been grooming his son for this post for the last six years. Bashar is a colonel in the army, but for Syrians is better known as the man who has been leading a comprehensive campaign against corruption, which earned him a reputation as an honest, clean man.
For many Syrian, Hafez Al-Assad is the only president they have ever know. On Tuesday, they will participate in his funeral and walk into a new era for Syria.
Rula Amin, CNN, Damascus.
(END VIDEOTAPE) MANN: The death of President Assad adds uncertainty to the already fragile Middle East peace process. Syria under Assad has been the main power broker for Lebanon because thousands of Syrian troops occupy much of the country.
Our Beirut bureau chief Brent Sadler has traveled to Damascus. He joins us now with more.
Brent, what have you learned.
BRENT SADLER, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks, Jonathan.
I just came across the mountain range dividing Lebanon from Syria. Traveling from the Lebanese capital of Beirut to Damascus, I can tell you at the border Koranic prayers being read across loudspeakers, certainly a very somber mood at the Syrian checkpoints along the way into Damascus.
In terms of the impact of the passing of Hafez Al-Assad has on the immediate region, it is indeed deep. Lebanon, as you were saying, has something like 35,000 Syrian troops who've been there since 1976. There's a Syrian hand involved in all aspects of the life there, from the military, the intelligence and indeed the political structures there.
And it was the Lebanese president, Emile Lahud, who may well have been one of the last people to have spoken to the late Syrian president. They were on the telephone, according to the Lebanese leader, when Hafez Al-Assad suddenly was taken ill at a time when Hafez Al-Assad and the Lebanese president were talking about peace, the hopes for peace, getting peace moving, getting the Israeli-Syrian dialogue back on track and thereby in parallel the Lebanese-Syrian dialogue back on track.
So the very last thought, according to the Lebanese president, on Hafez Al-Assad's mind as he passed away was the possibility of peace with Israel.
What happens now? Under the expected leadership of his son, Dr. Bashar Assad, as he's called in Damascus -- in Lebanon, he's more frequently referred to as Col. Bashar, that from his army days, a young man almost 35, the constitution of Syria changed to fit in with the prospective of Bashar Assad rising to the Syrian leadership. And his credentials are going to be under close scrutiny, both regionally and internationally -- Jonathan.
MANN: Brent, are the people of Lebanon, perhaps the people you may have seen in Syria, sad? And if they aren't, are they free enough in either country to say truthfully that they don't mourn this leader?
SADLER: Certainly in Syria, one is seeing expressions of grief on the streets, we saw from Rula Amin's report there. If I can take you back to Lebanon, where I've just come from, then there are mixed reactions. The country there has gone into seven days of mourning -- that was announced by Prime Minister -- Lebanese Prime Minister Salim Huss -- and the government in Lebanon is known to be, obviously, pro- Syrian. Certainly President Emile Lahud has an excellent relationship, had an excellent with, the late president and has a very good, strong relationship, it's widely known, with his son, Bashar Assad.
Now Bashar was trained as an eye expert in London. He speaks English. I spoke to Bashar Assad for a couple of hours several months ago, when he didn't want to go into too many details about the possible succession once his father passed away. But he said he was working very hard to one day assume the presidency if his father, when his father, passed on, providing it was the will of the Syrian people.
Now you've seen constitutional moves here move very quickly. This is happening on a very fast track now. We could have this nomination coming to fruition in a couple of weeks in terms of the new leadership here.
But let's look back into Lebanon again. Of course, many people have mixed views, particularly the Christian community, who felt that they were not getting the kind of political leadership they wanted out of the Lebanese because of Syrian influence over Lebanese politics. And there have been some pretty outspoken comments in one newspaper and by the publisher there really raising focus on the continuing presence of Syrian troops after the Israeli pullout, after 22 years of Israeli occupation in south Lebanon, that pullout happened just two weeks ago.
There are two mega changes, mammoth changes, in the mosaic on the ground in the Middle East as a result of not only Hafez Al-Assad's death but also that Israeli troop withdrawal just a couple of weeks or so ago -- Jonathan.
MANN: CNN's Brent Sadler on the line from Damascus -- Joie.
CHEN: Also in the region, Jordan's King Abdullah praised the late Syrian leader on Saturday as a great statesman who dedicated his life to serving the Arab cause. The two leaders met for the last time a year ago, as seen in this photograph. The king expressed his condolences earlier today during a phone call with Assad's son and possible successor, Bashar. Earlier today, Jordan's Cabinet announced three days of national mourning.
U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright will lead the U.S. delegation to Tuesday's funeral. In the meantime, President Clinton is trying to determine what impact Assad's death will have on the Middle East peace negotiations.
Senior White House correspondent John King on that.
JOHN KING, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: The president was attending a college commencement in Minnesota when he received a note of Assad's death and yet another setback for the troubled Middle East peace process.
WILLIAM J. CLINTON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: 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.
KING: The president's public praise masked the administration's profound frustration with Assad. Mr. Clinton met with him four times over the past seven years, most recently three months ago in Geneva. Assad was frail then. He told Mr. Clinton he was committed to the path of peace, but U.S. officials say Assad refused to take the critical final steps, refused to back off a demand that Israel first agree to give back all of the Golan Heights before Syria would negotiate the other key issues, like security arrangements and access to the Sea of Galilee. Now U.S. officials predict months of uncertainty.
CLINTON: 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.
KING: The heir-apparent, Bashar Assad, has had no contact with senior U.S. officials. U.S. intelligence sources view Bashar Assad as more willing and eager than his father to integrate Syria into the world community, and these sources say they believe he understands peace with Israel would be the critical first step. Yet U.S. officials also predict it will take at least several months for Bashar Assad to consolidate power and for Israel to decide if he is a man who can be trusted.
ROBERT PELLETREAU, FORMER ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF STATE: Hafez Al-Assad was known as a very tenacious negotiator, a very tough bargainer. And it will be very difficult for a successor to make concessions which the Syrian people believe Hafez Al-Assad would not have made.
KING: So most U.S. officials are pessimistic about the chances for substantial progress in the Syrian track of the peace process in the final months of the Clinton administration. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright will lead the U.S. delegation to Tuesday's funeral for Assad.
KING: President Clinton decided not to attend in part because Syria remains on the list of governments the United States accuses of state-sponsored terrorism.
Mr. Clinton's urgent focus now will be on trying to revive the Israeli-Palestinian track of the peace process. He spoke earlier this evening for about 10 minutes with the Israeli prime minute, Ehud Barak. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat due here at the White House on Wednesday. And amid all of this disappointment and the uncertainty, some U.S. officials voicing hope that the Assad's death might motivate Arafat, who's in his 70s, to redouble his efforts to reach a peace agreement -- Joie,
CHEN: John, adding it up, do administration officials view Bashar as a possible successor as to be a positive or a negative for the peace process?
KING: Well, they say the best thing to do is look in the weeks and months ahead at how he consolidates power. U.S. officials and intelligence sources very impressed so far by what they have seen. They believe there is a very clean succession under way in Damascus.
They think in the long run -- he was trained in Britain for his medical career; he has expressed the views in the past, including bringing the Internet into Syria, that the government should do more to integrate itself with the world community -- in the long run they believe he could be a plus for the peace process if he smoothly consolidates power. But they're pessimistic here because this president very much wanted to get a deal before he leaves office. No one in the White House believes that is possible now. They believe it will take months for the new Syrian leader to get his footing, and that his immediate focus will be on domestic politics.
CHEN: John, we know that President Assad had been sick for some time, yet had the White House any indication in the days prior to today that something was afoot, that the situation was terminal?
KING: No indication that his passing was imminent, although if you go back three months to when Mr. Clinton last met President Assad in Geneva, U.S. officials came out of those talks quite worried. They believed President Assad's focus was elsewhere, that while he was saying all the right things, saying that Syria wanted peace with Israel, that he was much more focused on his situation back home, on making sure his son was ready to succeed him.
U.S. officials looking back at those conversations now believe that President Assad knew that he was and knew that if he struck a deal then that perhaps the political climate back home would not be right for his son to succeed him, so that he put that decision first, and only after the succession was worked out was willing to get back to the peace process. Now, obviously, with his passing, U.S. officials will be watching his son quite closely to test his commitment to peace.
CHEN: John King for us at the White House -- Jonathan.
MANN: Our extensive coverage continues in the minutes ahead with the insights of a career U.S. diplomat, a Lebanese journalist, and we look back and hear the words of Hafez al-Assad himself.
Stay with us for more on the life and death of Hafez Al-Assad.
MANN: The death of Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad casts a shadow over the already uncertain Middle East peace process. Now as Syria prepares for new leadership, Israel, which has long been Syria's strongest foe, is closely watching developments.
As CNN's Jerrold Kessel reports, while there's worldwide sadness over Assad's death, there's also optimism for peace in a new era.
JERROLD KESSEL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): With Israeli television providing blanket coverage of Syrian television coverage, Israelis learned of President Assad's death just as Syrians themselves.
The news prompted a quick official Israeli response.
GADO BALTIANSKY, ISRAELI GOVT. SPOKESMAN: Israel expresses its condolences to the Syrian people with the passing away of President Hafez Al-Assad. Israel has constantly strived for peace with Syria and will continue with this policy in the future as well.
For us, peace and tranquility in our borders with Syria and Lebanon is a vital interest, and we hope that this also will be Syria's interest as well.
KESSEL: On the Golan Heights, under Israel control since 1967, black flags were raised immediately in true Syrian villages. But for the past quarter-century, President Assad had ensured that that Golan front with Israel remained quiet. It's Israel's border with Lebanon where Syria is regarded as the main power broker, and from where Israel only recently withdrew its army after a long occupation that there's concern about a vacuum and about stability, but also new hopes and a U.S. auspices there had been an attempt to conclude a full Israeli-Syrian peace, Prime Minister Ehud Barak having talked with Syria's foreign minister Farouk Shara.
The fruitless Clinton-Assad meeting dead-ended that effort, leaving Mr. Barak still apparently believing President Assad could carry through such a deal if he chose. But with Israel more uncertain than ever that the Syrian leader had completed a transition, from enemy to strategic peace partner.
YOSSI BILIN, ISRAELI CABINET MINISTER: 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 successors without this baggage will be ready to take this step, because he will understand that the road for the prosperity, for the economic prosperity, offers Syria a -- goes through peace with Israel.
KESSEL: Palestinian leading Yasser Arafat saying he was stunned by the death of the great Assad, proclaimed three days of mourning. The two men had a checkered and often troubled relationship, the Syrian leader criticizing Mr. Arafat's approach to peacemaking.
ZIAD ABU-ZAYYAD, PALESTINIAN CABINET MINISTER: All the time, there was no chemistry between Mr. Assad and Mr. Arafat, even from the early '80s, and it's not only because of the peace process. We hope that the new president in Syria will change his direction and will try to normalize relations with the Palestinian leadership.
KESSEL (on camera): A new era is how both Palestinians and Israelis see it. Some Israelis wonder aloud if they had concluded a peace with President Assad, would it have survived his death? And they're asking themselves, since he never concluded that peace, is there now a new chance for it.
Jerrold Kessel, CNN, Jerusalem.
CHEN: Next here, helping the West's understanding and perspective of the late Syrian president and his son and possible successor on that.
Coming up here, we'll speak with a former U.S. diplomat to Syria. That's coming up right after this break.
CHEN: Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad's death will no doubt change U.S. relations in the Middle East. How, though, is anyone's guess.
Our special coverage continues now with an expert on diplomacy with Syria. Richard Murphy has served as U.S. ambassador to Syria, is currently with the Council on Foreign Relations. He joins us from our Washington bureau.
We appreciate your being with us and providing your perspective here.
I've heard President Assad described as an autocrat, as intransigent, as intolerant. I want to know what words you would use to describe him in the many years that you knew him yourself.
RICHARD MURPHY, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO SYRIA: His favorite word for himself was "steadfast," a man of extraordinary patience, very determined, and particularly determined that he would not be made a fool of in negotiations with the Israelis, which he felt had been the lot of other Arab leaders who had negotiated with them. He was very cautious, very much on his guard.
CHEN: Was liked by other Arab leaders and other leaders throughout the world? Was he personally liked by other leaders?
MURPHY: I can't say that directly, but my impression was many Arab leaders found Syria extremely trying because the president did tend to tell them they had been wrong in the way they had conducted their negotiations. Had the Arab family stayed together, as he had put it, stayed united, we could have had a general comprehensive peace long since. He was saying that in the '80s.
CHEN: If you look at what is known of his personal history, it does seem that he does have an unusual picture in his background. He came from a minority Muslim sect. He has some interesting things in his character. He's a vegetarian, he abstained from alcohol. I'm wondering, what things you can tell us, advise us, about his personal life that stand out in your recollection of him. MURPHY: Well, certainly austerity was his hallmark in the personal life. He had been a smoker, apparently, as a younger man, and I remember him always sitting -- some of our meetings would go five, five and a half hours -- sitting there with two or three packages of unopened -- unopened packages of cigarettes at his side. And every now and then he'd pick one up and toy with it and place it firmly down, showing that he had indeed broken the habit.
He was always very courteous in our discussions, but preferred to listen to what new ideas the American side might bring, was always saying, you are more than a middle man. You Americans must be more than a middle man. You are a player in the Middle East.
CHEN: Talking about players and the future, what did he do to groom his son, Bashar, as a possible successor to him? And do you think that it is likely that Bashar will be the successor?
MURPHY: I think it's likely, judging by the speed with which the Syrian parliament today rallied to amend the constitution to make it possible to be president if one was at least 34 years old -- I believe Bashar is now 35. It used to be 40 was the minimum age.
I believe Syria wants a period of calm. The late president cast a spell over the country. There was a true cult of personality, and most Syrians alive today never knew any other president. So there is a sense of shock naturally, and I think there will be a quiet period in Damascus. Behind the scenes, I'm sure there will be, not surprising, there will be some maneuvering.
CHEN: Ambassador Murphy, we appreciate your being with us. Richard Murphy, now with the Council on Foreign Relations, joining us from Washington.
And we'll return with more coverage of President Assad's death when we return.
MANN: Welcome back. We continue our special coverage of the death of Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad.
Syrian television reports funeral services will be held Tuesday. Thousands of people took to the streets Saturday to chant tributes to Assad. Leaders of most Arab nations called for days of national mourning, and condolences from leaders around the globe have poured into Damascus. Meanwhile, the Syrian parliament moved quickly to make a way to transfer power to Assad's son, Bashar. Ministers voted to lower the constitutional age restriction for the head of state to 34, which is Bashar's age.
CHEN: As Jon noted, world leaders have been offering their sympathies to Syria on the death of Hafez Al-Assad.
As CNN's Tom Mintier reports now, predictably, the tributes vary in tone and in substance.
TOM MINTIER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Reaction to the death of Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad was split geographically and politically. In Syria's parliament, there were tears for a fallen leader.
In Lebanon, the news came over state television, with the added detail that Lebanese President Emile Lahud was speaking to President Assad when he died. Both leaders were talking about the peace process in the Middle East. President Lahud says that the Syrian's leaders last words were "Our destiny is to build a better future for our countries."
U.S. President Bill Clinton learned of the Syrian President's death as he was about to deliver a speech at a university in Minnesota. Mr. Clinton called President Assad someone that he respected, because, in Mr Clinton's words, "He was open and straightforward with me, and because I felt he meant it when he made a strategic choice for peace."
James Rubin, the former spokesman for the U.S. State Department, says that while Mr. Assad made the choice for peace but could not finish the job. his son may phase the task of implementation.
JAMES RUBIN, FORMER STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: There's every reason to think that his son wants to focus on bringing Syria into the international community, breaking out of its isolation, and that really can't happen without peace between Israel and Syria.
MINTIER: One of the key players in the Middle East peace process is Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. He declared three days of mourning in the Palestinian areas for Mr. Assad.
YASSER ARAFAT, PLO PRESIDENT (through translator): The people of Syria have lost him, and the Arab nation as well. I offer my condolences to the family and to Bashar.
MINTIER: On Russian Television, the news of president Assad's death was the lead story, followed by an interview with former Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov.
YEVGENY PRIMAKOV, FORMER RUSSIAN PRIME MINISTER (through translator): I knew that he was very ill, but the news shocked me entirely. This is one of the last Mohicans, the last leaders of the Middle East, and this will undoubtedly affect the situation in Syria and the Middle East on the whole.
Russian President Vladimir Putin called Assad a friend to Russia and of the world's most brightest and eminent modern politicians, who played a historic role in the development of Syria.
In Britain, Prime Minister Tony Blair released a statement calling Assad a figure of stability in the Middle East, much respected in the Arab world and beyond.
While many will mourn has passing, most political leaders are waiting to see what the transition of power is like. Will Assad's second son, Bashar, follow in his father's footsteps?
RANA KABBANI, MIDDLE EAST AUTHOR: Unlike his father, he hasn't risen through the army or the air force to power, and it's been a long time since Syria's been ruled by a civilian, and therefore, although he will no doubt have to forge ties to the military and have to have the army's support, he will be able to bring a different vision of ruling.
MINTIER (on camera): While Syria mourns the loss of its president, the rest of the world waits to see if the transition of power is a smooth one, and if the elusive peace process in the Middle East stands a better chance today than it did yesterday.
Tom Mintier, CNN, London.
MANN: When we come back, more on Syria's transition of power from father to son.
CHEN: We'll examine the country's carefully orchestrated changing of the guard when CNN's special coverage of the death of Hafez Al-Assad continues.
CHEN: With Bashar Assad expected as a possible successor to his father as president, CNN State Department correspondent Andrea Koppel on Assad's future and his role in a changing Arab landscape.
ANDREA KOPPEL, CNN STATE DEPT. CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): If 34-year-old Bashar Al-Assad ends up succeeding his father as Syria's next president, he'll also become the latest addition to a growing Middle East phenomenon, a new generation of Arab leaders. From Jordan to Baharain, Morocco, and now Syria, a younger and perhaps more forward-looking and perhaps more Western-oriented group of men have come to power following their father's deaths.
SHIBLEY TELHAMI, UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND: You have a generation much younger, yes, but the most important is that it's a generation born into a new Middle East, a generation that defines its priorities and political interests in different ways.
KOPPEL: This changing of the guard began last year, with the death in February of Jordan's King Hussein, a major force in the Middle East for 46 years. Thirty-eight-year-old King Abdullah succeeded his father and has worked ever since to integrate Jordan into the Western economy.
KING ABDULLAH, JORDAN: We're asking our friends to, you know, help us, let us succeed, let us be a model and a symbol for others.
KOPPEL: Upon the death of King Hassan of Morocco last summer, his son, 36-year-old King Mohammed VI, assumed the throne, and like King Abdullah has focused on domestic issues.
Now Assad has left a somewhat uncertain future for his son, his recently designated heir.
TELHAMI: All of these transitions have elements of instability and uncertainty, because there are too many reconfigurations of forces taking place.
KOPPEL (on camera): Unlike their fathers, who ruled for decades and were familiar with one other, there sons are all new to leadership, with much to prove to themselves, their countrymen and the outside world.
Andrea Koppel, CNN, the State Department.
MANN: With Syria now preparing for a new president, what changes are there, if any, to move the peace process forward with any expediency under new leadership.
For the answer to that and many other questions, we go live to Daniel Pipes, director to the Middle East Forum, an organization devoted to promoting American interests in the Middle East. He joins us now live from New York.
Thanks so much for being with us.
This a time in transition in several counties in the Middle East. Is that reason for optimism or concern?
DANIEL PIPES, DIRECTOR, MIDDLE EAST FORUM: I'm optimistic. If we look specifically at the Syrian relationship with Israel, it was clear all along there is no chance of a peace agreement being signed between Hafez El-Assad and the leaders of Israel. He didn't want it. He made it clear didn't want it over and over again. But now, with him gone, I think the chances are much greater than they ever were before that an agreement could be reached.
MANN: What about Syria domestically? How badly does that country, economically, politically, or in any other way need new ideas?
PIPES: It needs them terribly badly, Jonathan. I noticed the pictures of the Syrian parliamentarians crying, and I thought of 1953 and people crying on the streets of Russia with the death of Stalin. It doesn't matter how awful the ruler was, people are scared by change, particularly when there's no clear succession.
Syria has been a country in deep, deep stasis. Nothing has happened for years now. The economy has declined. Tensions have risen, and new looking is to new people less fearful of the future, less fearful of the outside world, being able to make changes. I think it's important to state -- and no one has stated on this program so far -- Assad was a terrible totalitarian leader. He was a leader who massacred tens of thousands of his people, who occupied foreign countries, went to war, engaged in terrorism. This was an awful man, and his death is a very welcome development.
MANN: Part of the reason he stayed in power, though, was, as you put it, because he was an awful man. Is his son Bashar, to your mind, as cold and as hard as staying in power will demand of him?
PIPES: Very good question. We don't know. He's a rookie. We just don't know who he -- we know a few things about him -- that he likes computers, that he's going to be a doctor -- but we don't know if he has the resiliency or the steeliness to rule a country like Syria. Whether he can transit toward a more normal kind of government and society, we don't know. We also don't known if the grandies of the Syrian elite are willing to work with him or whether they're going to try and pull him down. I'm basically optimistic. I think it's great news that the dictator is dead, and I'm hopeful that his son will be someone much better for Syrians and for the outside world.
MANN: Syria was struck over and over again by coups until 1970 when Hafez Al-Assad came to power in a coup and put that line of business to an end. Is that something to be watching for, do you think, in the months ahead?
PIPES: Indeed, it is. Syria was, as you said, very unstable before Hafez Al-Assad came to power. It's been completely stable since then. I think it's likely that that stability is gone, that we're going to see a lot more politicking. We're going to see outside interference. Syria will be in play in a way it's not been now for 30 years. But even though there is instability -- or greater instability ahead than there was, I think the chances of Syria continuing to dominate Lebanon are less. The Lebanese will come to life again. Chances of a breakthrough with Israel are much, much greater. And most important of all, for the Syrian people, 15 million strong, there's a chance to live a normal life in the future.
MANN: On that note, Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, we thank you so much for being with us.
And we'll be back in a moment with more on the life and death of Hafez Al-Assad.
Stay with us.
CHEN: The call the prayer delivered to members of the Syrian parliament. Syria's people are mostly Muslim, but despite that common faith, there are deep divisions among them. And the despised minority: the Alawite.
Hafez Al-Assad was borne into the Alawite minority, a community, and ruled ruthlessly with its help. With Hafez Assad's death, the country's Shiites and Sunni's and Christians find themselves with Bashar, another Assad, plus another Alawite, poised to take power.
Hafez Al-Assad was not a gentle man. He did not always bend to the wishes of his people. As much as Syrians mourn, they may also wonder who will succeed him and how that person will choose to assert control.
MANN: Joining us is Hisham Melhem, Washington bureau chief of the "As-Safir" newspaper. Thanks so much for being with us.
What are your thoughts on the passage of this man?
HISHAM MELHEM, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, "AS-SAFIR": Well, Syria lost an extremely important leader. This was the man who gave Damascus an unprecedented degree of stability, domestic stability and regional influence that it had not since the days of Saladin in Damascus almost 800 years ago. He towered over his country. He towered over the politics of the Eastern Mediterranean. He achieved a great deal regionally, politically, strategically by sheer tenacity, strong will, and an incredible sense of wit.
This is definitely the last of the great warriors in politics, if you will. He was different from the rest of the Arab leaders. He was practically the only one with a sense of history, a sense of mission, a sense of purpose. He knew exactly who he was, what his country would like to achieve, and he was a proud man. Definitely he was not the Jeffersonian Democrat. He was an autocrat. He had his own vision, but he consulted, and he listened, and he was known for his methodical, cautious approach to politics.
MANN: Let me just in and ask you a question, because you're saying very kind things about him, as many people are on this day. But he was a ruthless figure. In Hamah in 1982 and on other occasions, this was a man who was capable of killing thousands of people and imprisoning thousands of people. How free are Syrians? How much better off or worse off are they because of the decades that he spent under him?
MELHEM: Look, if you want to give an honest analysis of his tenure of the last 30 years, you would have to say that that regional prestige that he achieved, that stability that he achieved, was, to an extent, at the expense of diminished human rights in Syria, I mean nobody could argue with that, and that's why I said he's not a Jeffersonian Democrat.
I mean, if I have to criticize him, I would say that, notwithstanding his regional, political achievements, he did not allow for a great political and economic opening in Syria. He was always focused on what he saw as a dire threat to national security. He was obsessed with containing the Israeli threat to his own country. And by doing so, he felt that he was defending not only Syria, but the rest of the Arab world. He made mistakes on the domestic scene definitely, but to say that he was a totalitarian leader, to say that he was uncaring about his own people, it's really not a historical analysis.
MANN: Well, let me jump in and ask you to compare something in history. It was said that it took dictator to keep Yugoslavia together and that when Tito died Yugoslavia came apart with terrible consequences. Some have predicted similar things for Syria because of its ethnic mix. Do you think that's a possibility here? MELHEM: There's no such -- I mean, the ethnic mix in Syria is minute. I mean, people use the wrong categories when they describe the political scene in Syria. I mean, whether you talk about the Christians in Syria or the Alawites or the Sunnis or the Israelis or the Kurds or that small remnant of Jews, nobody is seeking secession, nobody feels that Syria is not their final homeland. I mean, it's nonsense. I mean, no serious expert on Syria would predict the unraveling of Syria as if Syria is Yugoslavia.
Syria is not Yugoslavia, and those who are going to succeed Hafez Al-Assad, also they have to follow in his footsteps. They realize that he built certain traditions. They will to have to maintain that kind of influence that he achieved, whether in Lebanon or in the eastern Mediterranean. They will have to be as tenacious as he was when they negotiate with the Israelis.
Those who talk about Bashar Assad as pro-West, he's not going to be pro-West. He will have to be pro-Syrian. And those who believe that he will be rolled over and he will sign on the dotted line just because his father refused, I mean, they will be in for a big shock. He will not be able to do so, even if he entertained such a notion.
So, I mean, he will be constrained, definitely, by that huge legacy that his father left for him, but there are certain red lines that nobody in Damascus could cross, dared to cross, because they would be impinging on national security interests.
And I really don't expect necessarily -- I do not expect chaotic conditions to occur. There may be some bumps on the road. The succession is almost essentially there. All the elements are there. There will be a period of taking stock of the situation in Syria. Everybody will be watching the new leader.
MANN: On that note, Hisham Melhem...
MELHEM: Some people maybe will try to test him, but...
MANN: ... we thank you for being with us.
MELHEM: Thank you.
CHEN: Hafez Assad was a nationalist, to his own mind a patriot, a man who saw himself a defender of his country's honor and the rights of all Arabs.
MANN: His support of Hezbollah and other guerrilla groups was calculated and often cruel, but he made no apologies.
In an interview on CNN's "EVANS & NOVAK" back in 1996, he was asked about his support for people widely considered terrorists.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, 1996)
HAFEZ AL-ASSAD, PRESIDENT OF SYRIA (through translator): They have been displaced from their homeland since 1948 and others since 1967. They came to the Arab countries neighboring Palestine where they are still living as displaced persons. These people are struggling in order to have a homeland, to feel that they are a people like the rest of the peoples of the world.
They have not come here by their own free will, rather they were forcibly made to leave their home. So, are Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan, the countries in which the majority of these people are found, required to throw them into the sea?
On the other hand, are these displaced persons expected not to be homesick? Are the expected not to feel like other peoples whose countries are not occupied, dignity and freedom in their own lands?
Can the United States or any other country in the world blame these people if they struggle for the values upheld by people of the world, including Americans?
The U.S. sometimes takes measures against certain people under the banner of people's freedoms and human rights. How can one talk about human rights in a certain country, and at the same time consider those who have been displaced from their country decades ago and now struggle to return to their homes as terrorists or criminals?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MANN: Hafez Assad never made peace with Israel, he never made his country prosperous, and he never made it democratic.
CHEN: So the words said to have been the last he ever uttered have a particular resonance. As quoted by the president of Lebanon, Assad's final words were, "Our destiny is to build a better future for our countries."
MANN: That job now falls to others.
TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.fdch.com
|Back to the top||
© 2001 Cable News Network. All Rights Reserved.|
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines.