The Mideast without the 'Lion' ; Even as Syria Moved to Appoint a New Leader Yesterday, Hafez Al- Assad'spassing Added Uncertainty in the Region

By Scott Peterson, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, June 12, 2000 | Go to article overview

The Mideast without the 'Lion' ; Even as Syria Moved to Appoint a New Leader Yesterday, Hafez Al- Assad'spassing Added Uncertainty in the Region


Scott Peterson, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


The death of Syria's President Hafez al-Assad and the likely passing of the mantle to his son, Bashar, underscore deep and fundamental changes occurring across the Arab world.

Mr. Assad is the fourth in a generation of old-guard rulers to bequeath their legacies in recent years to their younger and more forward-leaning sons. But the transfer of power, for now, is another setback to the already stalled peace process with Israel.

"This changes everything," says Murhaf Jouejati, a Syrian policy analyst at the Middle East Institute in Washington. Putting Assad's stature in the Arab world into perspective, he says, "This is the last in a long line of Arab nationalist leaders, and his passing is truly the end of an era."

Assad, the "Lion of Damascus," earned a reputation as a shrewd strategist and uncompromising negotiator - especially with Israel - who cemented Syria's role as regional powerbroker.

"In 30 years of rule, people feel a lot of things about Hafez al- Assad," says a Syrian political analyst, who asked not to be named. "There are his fervent supporters who are very proud of the fact that he has stood up to Israel and not buckled under. And there are those who despise Hafez al-Assad, because in the end, Assad was a dictator.

"But I think both those who love him and those who despise him," he adds, "have a tremendous admiration and respect for the man who transformed Syria from a political football in the 1950s and 1960s to a major player in the Middle East."

As Syrian mourning is taken up by other Arab regimes, some Israeli leaders even described their "sorrow" at the passing.

As a mood of sorrow, disbelief, and shock engulfed the Arab nation, the Syrian parliament moved immediately to fill the vaccum by amending the constitutional age limit to make it possible for Assad's 34-year-old son, Bashar, a British-trained ophthalmologist to be a candidate for president.

The Syrian parliament will hold a session on June 25 to approve the succession and set a date for a referendum to give formal approval for Bashar to become president. Meanwhile, analysts say the biggest impact of Assad's passing may be on the Mideast peace process.

Setback for resumption of peace talks

The Syria-Israel peace talks over the return of the Israeli- occupied Golan Heights have been suspended for months. And Assad's death will almost certainly make a peace deal during the twilight months of the Clinton presidency almost impossible, analysts say. The result is likely to be a greater US push on the Palestinian peace track.

"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 decision for peace." President Clinton said. "I regret 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."

Mr. Clinton will not attend the state funeral Tuesday, in part because Syria remains on the US list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Bashar is known as a reform-minded modernizer who first brought the Internet to Syria, and for anticorruption drives that resulted in long-standing Prime Minister Zubi Mahmud losing his job two months ago. Bashar has been groomed for the top spot since the death of his brother Basel, in 1994, but doubts remain about his ability.

If Bashar Assad assumes power, as is expected, he will be the latest heir-apparent in the changing constellation of Mideast politics. A young crop of leaders, all of them reformers in their own way, are already at work in Jordan, Morocco, Qatar, and Bahrain.

But few predict that Syria's bedrock strategic position of gaining "every inch" of the Golan in exchange for peace will change anytime soon, or that the son - at least in short term - will be able to compromise. …

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