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President Hafez Al-Assad Assad of Syria Confirmed DeadAired June 10, 2000 - 10:40 a.m. ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Miles O'Brien at the CNN Center in Atlanta, Jim Clancy alongside me.
This news just in to CNN. The longest-serving leader in the Middle East, Hafez Al-Assad of Syria, has passed away at the age of 69.
JIM CLANCY, CNN ANCHOR: We're going to take you now live to Damascus. What we're really witnessing is the end of an era in the Middle East, an era that was marked, yes, on one hand by conflict and terrorism, but on another by transition, transition to a peace process, an economic modernization. Certainly the people in Syria somewhat in shock this day. Hafez Al-Assad a national hero to many.
Rula Amin in Damascus, what has been the reaction? What is the government saying?
RULA AMIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Jim, there has been no reaction yet because the death of President Hafez Al-Assad has not been announced yet officially here in Syria. Most of the people here don't know of this news. This is news to them. President Hafez Al-Assad, who has been ruling this country since 1971, passed away in the last -- during the last 24 hours.
So far, the streets are calm. Nobody knows what is going on. The Syrian television still has its regular program. Usually here, when, in Muslim countries, when a president dies, the Koran is recited on television. This has not happened yet. Officially, this has not been announced.
Mr. Assad is survived by three sons and a daughter, and his son Bashar, a staff colonel in the armored troops was being prepared to succeed his father. But according to the constitution, he is not going to be able to do that at this moment yet, if the constitution is to be followed. Mr. Assad's -- one of Mr. Assad's vice presidents will probably take over until someone, a new president, is elected.
Again, Jim, this news has not been announced officially here in Syria, but we can confirm that President Hafez Al-Assad has passed away at the age of 70 -- Jim.
CLANCY: Rula, as we look at the situation, as we look at the overall effect this is going to have, obvious questions arise. You addressed one of them, that is the transition of power. The other one: the effect on the peace process in the Middle East.
AMIN: Jim, Mr. Assad has disappeared from this -- from Syrian political life here at a very sensitive time. In less than two weeks, the Baath Party, the ruling party here, was supposed to have a meeting, its first meeting in 15 years. And in this congress meeting, Syria was supposed to take a new course. Syria was preparing for economic reforms, Syria was being prepared for peace with Israel.
And Syria, Bashar, Hafez Al-Assad's son, was being prepared to take a higher position in the Baath Party so that he can succeed his father. Now Mr. Assad's death is going to throw some questions here on what is going to happen here next.
Regarding peace with Israel, a lot of the people here in Syria say that if Mr. Assad did not make that peace, no one else can, because he's the only one who has the charisma, who has the credibility to make the necessary compromises or the necessary concessions for Israel, with the credibility that he needs to make that happen. With his disappearance, the peace process with Israel is also in question -- Jim.
CLANCY: Mr. Assad took power more than 30 years ago. He, in the early 1980s, crushed the opposition to his regime. At the same time, in recent years we have seen something of an economic transformation, a transformation that has taken place alongside increased involvement in Lebanon. When someone looks at this achievements of Hafez Al- Assad, what do they see?
AMIN: Hafez Al-Assad is perceived here in Syria and in the Arab world as the last Arab champion. He's the only one who has been, so far, has been able to say no to Israel in terms of trying to make a peace process according to Israel's terms. This is the way it's perceived here.
People remember his meeting, his last meeting, with President Clinton in Geneva, when Mr. Clinton asked Mr. Assad and Syria to make further concessions so that -- to help Mr. Barak make the necessary compromises for Syria to strengthen him. And Mr. Assad, regardless of the very significant meeting with the president of the superpower in the world, did say no. He said he was very consistent on his demand that Israel should withdraw from all of the Golan Heights. Mr. Assad's slogan was that he was not going to give up one inch. He said -- his line was that he will never give up on the land issue.
During the negotiations with Israel, Mr. Assad did offer some compromises regarding security arrangements, regarding water, sharing water resources, even regarding the normalization process with Israel. But in regard to the land, Mr. Assad had been adamant that he was going to regain every last inch of Syrian land that Israel had captured. He has passed away now before that happened, but in a lot of -- in the view of many people here, he at least passed away without giving up the cause. He has passed away without giving up the land, and that will keep him as a hero, as a champion, in the mind of many Arabs -- Jim.
CLANCY: When we look at that mindset -- and you pointed it out there, Rula -- how Hafez Al-Assad has said that there is a principal. The principle is land for peace. We discussed all of the land for all of the peace. He held to that principle despite what he considered to be a real defection by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who was willing to make concessions even before a peace deal had been achieved. And in doing so, there was a divergence of ideas about how to negotiate peace in the Middle East. Can you say that the passing of Hafez Al-Assad will add credibility to his position?
AMIN: It will add credibility to his personality, to his character, to him as perceived as the loved Arab champion who wouldn't give in, even when the president of the United States was trying to pressure him, even when Syria is facing, we can say, economic hardships. Syria is isolated. Syria, accordingly, is on the U.S. list of states sponsoring terrorism. That, of course, had its implications. There's few companies, American companies, who are willing to invest in this country.
But regardless, despite all these obstacles, Mr. Assad in the last few years, and we can say in the last year, has accelerated his process to transform Syria into a modern country. And in the last few months we have seen a real acceleration in his campaign against corruption. Of course, Dr. Bashar, President Assad's son, has been kind of the chief of staff of this campaign. They have pursued a lot of old officials, officials -- very high officials, like the late prime minister who was -- they investigated his file, they accused him of corruption, they kicked him out of the leadership of the Baath Party. Of course, the late prime minister did commit suicide, but the campaign continued. And the campaign continued, and the aim was to take Syria on a new course, on a new course regarding economy, regarding modernization, regarding technology.
Dr. Bashar has a vision. He wants to have Syria being part -- he would like to see Syria as part of this new world. He wants to see Syria as part of globalization. He knows he cannot do that unless there are genuine reforms in this country, especially in terms of corruption that is widely spread.
And Mr. Assad had been supporting his son. It was kind of a collaboration between the father and son, the son implementing the father's vision, but under the watchful eyes of his father.
Of course, even some of Mr. Assad's close, close associates had been dismissed. Some of them have been kind of pressured to leave office. Whenever they objected to even -- not only the campaign against corruption but even to Dr. Bashar's nomination and ascension to power, Hecmish Dishabi (ph), he was the chief of staff for Syria for 24 years. A few days ago, Mr. Dishabi left this country amid strong speculation that he ran away after the Syrian government had been investigating his file, accusing him of stealing millions and millions of dollars -- Jim.
CLANCY: All right, Rula Amin there with an assessment from Damascus of the events this day.
As Rula told us, the people of Syria not yet aware that President Hafez Al-Assad, aged 69, has passed away, a president who certainly transformed those -- their country and who became a symbol of Arab nationalism all across the Middle East -- Miles.
O'BRIEN: All right, Jim.
Well, certainly the White House knows of the passing of the Syrian president, Hafez Al-Assad, and they're already considering the implications as they look forward to continuing the peace process there, that front and center as President Clinton in his remaining days tries to cobble together lasting peace for the Middle East.
Let's turn now to our CNN White House correspondent Major Garrett, who is with the President in Northfield, Minnesota, where he is expected to give a speech a little bit later today.
Any indication, Major, as to whether the president will address this issue?
MAJOR GARRETT, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Miles, there's no indication yet that the president will address this at his commencement address here at Carleton College, which is scheduled in the next half hour. President Clinton is on the podium right now here at Carleton College. We are not aware if he has been notified of this. White House officials are scrambling to put together some type of statement in reaction to Assad's death.
And, as you mentioned, this does come at a very sensitive time in U.S.-Syrian relations. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was just in the region last week and described the opportunity as a rare one to try to restart the U.S. and the Israeli and Syrian peace talks, which have been basically dormant for several months.
The last time that President Clinton met with Syria's President Hafez Al-Assad was in late March in Geneva, on the president's way back from his trip to India and Pakistan.
Now CNN has learned that U.S. officials in Damascus began noticing this morning some change in behavior of Syrian officials, and that sensitized them to the possibility that President Assad may, in fact, be dying. His illness has been well known throughout the region. U.S. officials have been pressing to restart the Syrian- Israeli peace track, trying to achieve a deal on the Golan Heights and water rights, two of the most sensitive issues dividing the Syrians and the Israelis, in advance of what they knew was going to be President Assad's imminent demise. That didn't happen. There are -- really, there is no readout right now, Miles, as what are the implications of President Assad's death, where the peace process will go from here and what the next step of the administration will be.
Of course, on the other part of the Middle East peace process track, the White House is very hopeful that it can sometime next month, in July, organize a Camp David-style summit with Prime Minister of Israel Ehud Barak and the chairman of the Palestinian authority, Yasser Arafat -- Miles.
O'BRIEN: Of course, Major, to the extent that Syria will be out of the mix, so to speak, during this transition period -- and who knows how long that will last -- a key player is not in the picture, and thus, anything that might be agreed to, Camp David-style or not, might not be the full agreement that the administration would hope for.
GARRETT: It might not, but I would be very cautious about speculating about the immediate or mid-term implications of this.
CNN has received no information from the administration on how it believes it will proceed from this point forward, so what we can stick with now is the administration is trying to put together a response. The president may or may not address this in his remarks here at Carleton College, but the White House has just learned and CNN has reported of the death of President Assad of Syria -- Miles.
O'BRIEN: And in meetings with Assad in recent times, Madeleine Albright being the most recent in the administration to meet with him, and the president having an opportunity to sit with him, what was their sense of the man in his latter days? Was he philosophical? Was he preparing for this eventuality? Does anybody know how much he has planned for this or he planned for this transition?
GARRETT: Through the White House, CNN has received no definitive or authoritative read-out on the last meeting that the president had with President Assad late March in Geneva. His health was deteriorating, that was clear, but the administration at least has not told CNN this morning how it characterized that meeting or what they -- how the found the president.
What was well known and has been well known throughout the administration and all the people who are working on the Middle East peace process is that they were really trying to beat the clock here, trying to organize and create a atmosphere for all the final decision, the hardest ones both separating the Palestinians and the Israelis and the Israelis and the Syrians could be wrapped up not only before President Clinton leaves office but before President Assad and his deteriorating health. And he succumbed to that -- Miles.
O'BRIEN: CNN's Major Garrett is in Northfield, Minnesota, with the president. We will, of course, be checking in with the president's address when that happens and checking in with Major later, as developments warrant -- Jim.
CLANCY: All right, Miles, as we look over the situation in the Middle East, the passing of Hafez Al-Assad at age 69, we examine some of the realities of the Middle East. And there is a saying in the Middle East that goes, you cannot make war without Egypt, you cannot make peace without Syria. Clearly, those two nations important weights, if you will, along the Middle East fault line of both conflicts and peacemaking.
CNN's Ben Wedeman standing by in Egypt, in the capital, Cairo, for reaction there -- Ben.
BEN WEDEMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Jim.
Like Syria, the people of Egypt are unaware at the moment of the news that President Assad has died. But certainly President Assad has a long and very complicated history as far as Egypt is concerned. It was Assad, for instance, who went to war against Israel with Egypt under the leadership of Anwar Sadat in 1973, and it was Assad who very publicly broke with Sadat and with Egypt in 1977 when Sadat made his trip to Jerusalem and began the peace process that culminated in the Camp David Accord. And it's on the whole question of peace with Israel that really has defined the relationship between Syria and Egypt.
President Sadat did not have a very good relationship with Assad after that experience. President Mubarak, the current president of Egypt, has had a much better relationship. He has always tried to coax Syria into the peace process, and in recent months and years Egypt has played a pivotal role in keeping Syria engaged in the process, and the Syrians and the Egyptians have worked closely together in recent months to try to get a unified stand. Egypt was very supportive of Syria in its demand regarding the Golan Heights, and it envisioned a view of a peace with Israel, and, of course, that is now all very much up in the air.
The Egyptians obviously will continue to support the Syrians' stand, but with the leadership situation rather unclear at the moment, it's hard to say what direction that relationship is going to take -- Jim.
CLANCY: Ben, no matter who takes power, takes up the reins of power in Syria, and that, of course, one of the major questions to be asked right now, it is likely that President Hosni Mubarak will form, if you will, one of the inner circle of foreign leaders who will be giving advice there, particularly on the peace process, because when it came to the peace process in Syria, certainly, it was a one-man show with Hafez Al-Assad. You could say Foreign Minister Farouk Al- Shara played a major role at the same time, but the policy clearly came from the top. Egypt may now find itself in a very important role once again.
WEDEMAN: Yes, that's correct, Jim. Certainly President Mubarak has more experience dealing with the Israelis than any other current Arab leader, and, therefore, the advice that he gives to the Syrian leadership which will eventually emerge is going to be critical. And Mubarak has always taken a middle ground, basically. He's been supportive of Syria's demands.
At the same time. he's tried to keep them engaged in the process. And certainly, as I said before, he is the man with the experience, the one -- Egypt, after all, is the largest, most populous, most powerful Arab country, and the position it takes is critical in regarding its relationship with Syria and the relationship with Israel. And, therefore, clearly the Syrians are going to be looking, as they always have, to Egypt for some sort of leadership role in the coming stage -- Jim.
CLANCY: As you noted, Ben, when you began telling us there, there is no reaction in Egypt this day because thus far there is no announcement being made. Most likely, of course, Egyptian authorities waiting until the authorities in Damascus signal that they're going to make the announcement to their own people. But I'm wondering, the relations between Syria and Egypt, as you described, not always good relations, somewhat rocky. How do the people of Egypt perceive this Arab leader, Hafez Al-Assad?
WEDEMAN: Well, they've always seen him as a strong leader but a leader of an essentially weaker country than Egypt. And the Egyptians even felt as the natural leaders, and, therefore, sometimes they look askance at leadership pretensions of other countries, whether that be Iraq or whether it be Syria.
And an interesting experience between the two countries was when they formed together the United Arab Republic in 1958, in which Egypt, under the leadership Abdel Nasser, joined with Syria. Syria was the junior partner. And that was a period in which there was a lot of bitterness. Many Syrians resented the fact that they were, in a sense, the junior partners in this relationship with Egypt. And some of that bitterness continues to this day. Many Egyptians look down upon Syria as a country that is relatively small, relatively poor in resources, whereas Egypt is a very large country with the Nile, with a very large agricultural factor.
And so it's a very uneven relationship, but one in which the Egyptians have always thought of themselves as the senior partner -- Jim.
CLANCY: Ben, looking at the politics, of course as leader of the Baath Party in Syria -- a very different party than the Baath Party in Baghdad -- but overall the politics of transition here from the time you've spent in Damascus, Amman and Baghdad, when you look at the transition of power, what are the problems you see ahead for Syria?
WEDEMAN: Well, Syria's a very complicated country where you have different ethnic and religious groups all competing. You've got the Sunni Arabs, you have Ismaili (ph), you have the Alawites, to which President Assad belonged, you have Christians, you have Kurds. All of them, obviously, want to play a role in Syria, and certainly Syria, in terms of its ethnic makeup, its sectarian divisions, is probably one of the most complicated countries in the Middle East. And, therefore, comparing it to Egypt, which is very homogeneous, where you basically have one large ethnic group -- and you have a Christian minority, but it's nothing compared to the diversity of Syria, which will pose quite a problem.
Now in Syria, you have a Sunni majority that traditionally ruled the country. And it was with the ascendancy of the Alawites in the late '60s, and since then until now they've run the country, and, therefore, there's a lot of Sunni resentment against the Alawite, basically, a monopoly on power. And from my years in Syria, I know that there were many people who were looking forward to the day where they could settle some scores that they have with the Alawites.
And, of course, many Syrians recall bitterly the experience of the city of Hamah, in central Syria, in which some allege as many as 10,000 people were killed as part of a Sunni uprising against the Alawite government. And, therefore, the Syrian transition is going to be a very complicated one. And it's hard to say at this point -- it would be a mistake to predict how it might end -- Jim. CLANCY: All right, CNN's veteran Middle East hand Ben Wedeman there from the Egyptian capital of Cairo with the latest on some of the problems that lie ahead, some of the big questions -- Miles.
O'BRIEN: All right, just to recap our story here, Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad dead at the age of 69, ruled Syria for nearly 30 years, by far the longest term leader in the Middle East. And as we continue our survey of our outposts in the Middle East, let's turn now to Jerusalem, where we find CNN's Jerrold Kessel.
Jerrold, first of all, has the news been broken there in Israel?
JERROLD KESSEL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Miles, Israel radio a short while ago, about 20 minutes ago, broke in, shortly after the CNN announcement, broke into its regular programming this Saturday afternoon, the Israeli religious Sabbath and things very quiet, broke in with the news, but no confirmation, obviously, that this, in fact, is a fact. But Israelis taking it very seriously. There have been, in fact, many, many rumors in the past of President Assad's health and whether that had led to a worsening of condition, but this time it does seem as if the Israelis are taking it very seriously that this is, in fact, a fact.
And a dramatic turnabout in the Middle East if this were to be so. The Israelis, I believe, would regard this with a good deal of concern, this changing situation. The first concern will be what kind of transition of power there will be in Syria, orderly transition or otherwise, and that they will be watching that situation very, very closely.
But beyond the normal concern that they would be showing toward such a developing situation of possible instability in one of their important neighbors, perhaps their most important neighbor with whom they are not at peace at the moment, the Israelis will be seeing the instability, the extra instability in this situation arising out of the fact of their recent withdrawal from southern Lebanon. And that makes the situation in their eyes potentially more complex and more complicated, because there is no stable situation in south Lebanon after the Israeli withdrawal that has materialized definitively. And with Syria being the real power broker, or the acknowledged power broker, of affairs in Lebanon, how these developments in Damascus and the passing of President Assad will affect that situation makes the Israelis very concerned indeed.
At the same time, I would say there must be some very serious thinking of what might have been and wondering about the consequences in Jerusalem if that peace deal between Syria and Israel had, in fact, gone through as it seemed so very perilously close to doing so not long ago. And had that gone through and then something like this happened, well, it could have been just as much an uncertain situation with peace hanging by a thread. There are many in Israel who have argued against the initiative...
KESSEL: ... the attempt to make peace. O'BRIEN: Jerrold -- excuse me, Jerrold, I'm sorry to interrupt you, but we;'re going to turn now to Syrian television -- we believe we have this translated for you. They are apparently announcing the news for you right now. We do not have a translation. Well, we're going to watch Syrian TV until we get a translation for you. We won't break in and listen to the audio, This is the official announcement.
CLANCY: We're looking here at the picture, and you can see the paper shaking a bit there, the serious note on the face of the announcement here. The news being broken to the Syrian people that the president since 1971, the man who has largely shaped modern Syria, the man who has taken it from conflict toward peacemaking, has passed away, a man that many regard as a national hero for Syria, a man who has certainly transformed the country as best he could in a number of ways but passes away leaving an uncertain legacy. Most of all: Who will succeed him?
You can see the announcer breaking down a little bit.
CNN's Rula Amin is in Damascus monitoring this. We'll hear from her shortly.
Rula, can you tell us -- let's bring you in now -- can you tell us a little bit of what has been said so far by Syrian television?
AMIN: Yes, Jim. this is the official announcement. The anchor now is crying. His voice is shaking. He's saying that today death has took away from Syria a leader. Today, Hafez Al-Assad, the national champion, the champion who has withstood up against all the pressures, today his absence. He left us. The anchor is crying.
This is the first official announcement. Now, all the Syrians are going to receive this news. We have already talked to some Syrians over the phone. They could not talk. They were crying. Some of them were officials. They hang up the phone. They said, we cannot talk. It is too much to take.
This is not just the absence of their leader who has been in power for 30 years, this is also about the sensitive time that Syria is going through. Nobody knows who's coming next, where Syria's going. This country is stable. It has been stable for the last 30 years, but it's going through a transition period. Dr. Bashar Al- Assad, the son of President Assad is being prepared to succeed his father, but he doesn't have an official title yet. Officially, it is one of the vice presidents who would take over until the Syrian people elect another president.
In a couple of weeks, the Syrian Baath Party, the ruling party, was supposed to have the first congress in 15 years. In this congress, Syria was supposed to put on a new course, make a new direction to become modern, to reform the economy and to prepare Syria for the peace process with Israel. This is all up in the air now without the leader the Syrians have known for the last 30 years -- Jim.
O'BRIEN: Rula, this is Miles O'Brien speaking to you. As we address those short-term concerns, over the years Hafez Al-Assad has been swift and assured in handling the opposition going back to the early '80s -- an uprising there was quashed in a very bloody way. To the extent that there is an opposition there, is there any one leader or any one group that would rise to the occasion here and lay claims to leadership of Syria in the short term?
AMIN: You know, Miles, since Hafez Al-Assad, as you said, did crush the Muslim Brotherhood opposition in the north of the country, there has been no vocal opposition here in Syria. And those who know the country tell you that there are no organized groups that really oppose the regime. There are a lot of people who are resentful, resentful of the way he ruled the country or maybe resentful of his policies. But the Syrian president has been in control.
And in the last few months, there has been a campaign, a campaign against corruption -- that was the headline for the campaign. But among -- it was during this campaign that a lot of the opponents, or the people who had the threat or the potential to oppose Dr. Bashar as taking over from his father were sidelines. Some of them have retired, some of them were kicked out of the leadership of the Baath Party. Hecmish Dishabi, who has the chief of staff in Syria for 24 years, he retired eight months ago, just got back to Syria last week amid very strong rumors that he can be indicted for corruption for millions and millions of dollars. He fled the country a couple of days ago.
So a lot of the people who have been supporting President Assad in the last 30 years or who could have opposed his policies have been sidelined. Dr. Bashar is a colonel in the army. He has -- he's been in the last few months taking over from his father. He has made a lot of new decisions. The new Cabinet in Syria that was appointed a few months ago in February a few months ago has been mainly appointed and named by Dr. Bashar. But Dr. Bashar does have his hands in control, but he does not have an official title.
Now you can see...
CLANCY: Rula, this is Jim Clancy...
AMIN: ... I can see the Syrian parliament with the picture of Hafez Al-Assad in the back -- Miles.
CLANCY: Rula, Jim Clancy, as we look at these pictures, I want to just pause a bit, listen to it in Arabic, and you can come in later and tell us what is being said. But it's -- I want to get a little bit of the feel of what's happening in Damascus this day.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (SPEAKING IN ARABIC)
AMIN: ... that the power of God, the will of God is above any will. You can see people crying now. A lot of the Syrian parliament are crying. We have to note that these people have not assembled for this occasion. Today was the first day in session for the parliament, and it just happened.
O'BRIEN: Rula, as we look at the makeup of this parliament -- most of our domestic viewers in the U.S. don't often have an opportunity to see the Syrian parliament -- could you just give us the lay of the land there? Where would his -- where would the opposition be, such as it is, where would his supporters be? Lay it out for us.
AMIN: There are no opposition -- I mean, we can hardly call those people -- the opposition doesn't really exist in the parliament. there are people who are critical, members of parliament who have been critical, especially. They cannot really be critical on political issues, but a lot of them have been vocal regarding the economic issues.
The real opposition is probably consisted -- consists of the Muslim Brotherhood, who is not really represented in this parliament. Most of the people that you see here are members of the ruling Baath Party, and they have been elected. And they are -- but they're also very supportive of Mr. Assad's regime and of the government here in Syria and of Mr. Assad's policies.
Again, they see Mr. Assad as a champion. He has been ruling this country for 30 years, and in Syria it's known that he is the ultimate man who makes all the decisions. He's not known for consulting a lot of people. He makes the decisions. A lot of time it comes as a surprise. A lot of the moves that he made have been surprising to people here, but they are used to accepting it. You can see that people are really very devastated. They're surprised.
We have heard news -- and President Assad had been sick for many years -- and there had been rumors every few months. There has been rumors that President Assad has been very sick, he's just about to die. But he has survived all these rumors. For the last probably 10 years there have been rumors that he is too sick. And this time it comes as, as I said before, it comes at a very sensitive time. People were hoping that he would hold up at least another year to help his son get more experience to take over smoothly, that they would have a smooth transition of power.
We have to remember that Dr. Bashar has only assumed this role of trying to succeed his father since 1994, after his eldest son, Basil, was killed in a car accident. Basil was an army guard. He was prepared for this role since he was young. He was very charismatic. He was very strong. He had support among the Syrian army, but he was killed in an accident in '94. And after that, Dr. Bashar, who was studying in Britain was brought over and was being prepared.
O'BRIEN: Rula -- Rula...
AMIN: Now we can see that people are standing...
O'BRIEN: Let;s listen in as the Syrian parliament stands for some ceremony here.
CLANCY: The parliament in Damascus, the Syrian parliament standing in silence in tribute to Hafez Al-Assad, the president, the past president, who died at age 69. That announcement made to the people of Syria just a matter of minutes ago in a very emotional broadcast. I want to bring in now Raghida Dergham. She is the chief diplomatic correspondent for Al-Hayat newspapers.
As you see the scenes unfolding, your reaction?
RAGHIDA DERGHAM, AL-HAYAT: It's a very difficult time for Syria because many things are happening in neighboring Lebanon and on the peace process with Israel, and I think this is going to change things quite a bit, at least timing-wise.
As you know, the secretary-general of the United Nations was planning to go -- or maybe is still planning to go, under different circumstances, obviously, to the region in the context of the Israeli pullout from Lebanon. And I guess this is going to be difficult now to see how to watch the Israeli reaction, what will happen, the Israeli reaction. I believe it will affect many things.
You also know that on the 17th of June there was supposed to be the election of Mr. Bashar Assad, the son of the late President Assad to the regional command bureau, if you will, and that would have had 20 men, and that would have been an official step of making Dr. Bashar Assad within the ruling circle. I don't know what decisions they will make. Obviously it's too early to say whether this will go on earlier or on time or later, but that is going to be affecting many things that's going on politically in the region.
CLANCY: Raghida, I want to ask you about the most important question, perhaps, on the minds of the lawmakers that we're looking at now in the Syrian parliament, and that is the question of who will succeed Hafez Al-Assad. There are some who say that his son, who's been much talked about, Bashar, was not really up to the job, did not really want the job. certainly there are others who do want the job, including Hafez Al-Assad's brother Rifaat.
DERGHAM: I think it's quite unlikely -- I don't want to be categorical about anything at this moment, but I think it's quite likely that the brother would be the person to be in charge. Of course, there is -- there are vice presidents for Syria, and Bashar Assad, the son, is not one of them. That is why, Jim, I pointed out to that important meeting that was, or is, to take place on June 17, where it would have been a very important step, at least in an official sense, to give the son, Dr. Bashar Assad, a role.
I believe what was happening recently in Syria in terms of changes or attempts to change the pattern of behavior in Syria, such as the campaign against corruption, such as reform process that has been championed by Dr. Bashar Assad, these things, maybe, were amounting to a very silent revolution from within, within the system. That is to say, I would assume there are many people eying what is going on. Many men in power had been charged with corruption, some are outside the country. And some -- as you know, one of them committed suicide.
So this has been a very silent -- well, not very apparent to us here in the states, for example, and the rest of the world, but there has been quite a number of fundamental changes taking place. How well is the grip right now with the sudden death of the late President Hafez Al-Assad, I don't know yet. We have to watch and see, as I believe the world is watching right now. I'm sure Washington, as well as Israelis and all the Arab world is watching to see how well was the preparation put in order, in order to make a smooth transition to whatever.
I believe, of course, the late president wanted his son, Dr. Bashir Assad to be in charge, wanted to equip him to go on with the reform movement that has been taking place. And I guess we'll have to see what is the transition and whether this meeting will take place.
CLANCY: Of course right now in the Syrian parliament an emotional outpouring. Let's just listen in for a moment.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (SPEAKING IN ARABIC)
CLANCY: All right, as we listen in to that, Raghida, the Syrian people, there may be some who did not like, who did not agree with the policies of Hafez Al-Assad. But the respect he held.
DERGHAM: Indeed, indeed there are some who did not agree. Of course, this is not -- again, we are not talking about a ruling that has been opaque or absolutely easy to understand. But the respect that the man held -- and not only in Syria, actually, but throughout the Arab world.
Now some, of course, as you pointed out, Jim, would have criticized the late president for his policies. Some would have thought that he was a little bit on the tough side, not willing enough to open up. But all in all, I think the way Syria negotiated with Israel had gained a lot of respect for Syria. There has been an astute way of ruling the country and putting the priorities in terms of relationships with the regional players.
So that has been quite a controversy, if you will, whether this is the right thing or not the right thing to do. But the respect he had, a large amount of it, and quite a bit of support on the way that Syria stood on the national issues, vis a vis -- more than the Arab- Israeli conflict, in fact. There has been many brave and different positions that the late President Hafez Al-Assad has taken up, whether it was in relation to Iran or the other gulf states.
Let's not forget that when the coalition launched a -- started to launch an attack on Iraq, it was fundamental that Syria was a part of the coalition. And, therefore, Syrians under the late President Hafez Al-Assad did come through. And probably without that it would have been impossible for the coalition to, at least, to stay together in the war against Iraq.
Raghida, let's listen to a bit. They are reading the prayers for the deceased.
O'BRIEN: Live pictures from Syrian television. Damascus, Syria the dateline, the news that the leader of Syria for 30 years, Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad has died. the circumstances of his death not made apparent to us just yet, but he had been ill for many years, By far the longest-serving leader in the Middle East. Through shifting sands of time and leadership and alignments, Hafez Al-Assad was always a canny player, a tough negotiator, a man with a keen focus on his own objectives.
And one of the people who was at the other end of the table with him at times over the years was Talcott Seelye, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria. Mr. Seelye joins us on the line from Bethesda.
Mr. Seely, how would you characterize Hafez Al-Assad, based on your personal dealings with him.
TALCOTT SEELYE, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO SYRIA: How do I characterize him as a person?
SEELYE: Well, he had a very attractive personality, very low- key, a good sense of humor, a fantastic listener, and he would extend the, literally, for hours. A very patient man, but as I think you indicated a little earlier, he's a very tough negotiator. He insists on having all the "I"s dotted and the "T"s crossed before beginning to make any concessions, and indeed he's prepared to almost go to the precipice before making a concession.
SEELYE: So that makes him one of the shrewdest negotiators, I think, in the region.
O'BRIEN: His personal style, very low key, almost -- certainly not a flamboyant personality anyway -- almost a private person to the extent that a leader of a country can be a private person. Did that suit him well in his manner of negotiating?
SEELYE: I think so, I think so. He established good rapport with his counterparts, with his interlocutors. He put people at ease. He always had a smile on his face. And his whole demeanor contrasted -- excuse me -- with some of the -- what do we say? -- more ruthless actions that he undertook in the course of his leadership.
O'BRIEN: Let's talk about the short-term for a moment, Mr. Seelye. What are the chances that this shrewd negotiator, this man so focused on his objectives, doesn't have or didn't lay in place a very specific plan for an orderly transition?
SEELYE: What he did was to identify his son Bashar as his successor. Bashar has been increasing his stature within the Damascine community. However, there's a complication. As I recall, the constitution requires that the president be of the age 40 years old, and Bashar has still two years to go. But this being an autocratic regime, obviously, I'm sure that could be adjusted. But that is, at least, what Hafez Al-Assad had in mind. Whether this transpires, of course, at this time is not known.
O'BRIEN: Of course it comes at a time when the Middle East peace process at a very critical stage. Specifically, Hafez Al-Assad concerned about recovery of the Golan Heights, a significant strategic location in that region, something that he was hoping to negotiate recovery to Syria as part of this peace process. Where does it leave the peace process without him as a player there personally?
SEELYE: It really is a setback, there's no question about it. Assad in his 30 years had established stature, of course. He had the army with him, he had the party with him., and he could have delivered, I think, on a peace settlement without much problem.
Bashar, of course, doesn't have that stature. He doesn't have that continuity of leadership. It would be much more difficult for him to do this.
And furthermore, if indeed he should take over, he needs time to consolidate his position, to establish himself. So any way you look at it, I think it's a setback for the peace process.
O'BRIEN: Talcott Seelye, former U.S. ambassador to Syria, joining us from Bethesda, Maryland -- Jim.
CLANCY: And as the former ambassador pointed out very clearly, there is the question: What is the effect of all of this on the Middle East peace process at a very sensitive stage right now?
For more on that, let's go to Jerrold Kessel, with Israeli reaction now to the news of the death of Syrian President Hafez Al- Assad -- Jerrold.
KESSEL: Jim, indeed no one watching this more closely, clearly, than the Israelis. And a short time ago a statement, a formal statement issued by the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. The statement, and a very interesting one, formed of three parts. The first says, "The government of Israel understands the sorrow of the Syrian people after the death of Syrian President Assad."
And then after that, the statement goes on to say, "Israel has worked in the past to achieve a peace agreement with Syria and will continue to work in that direction with whatever new leadership crystallizes in Syria,"
And then a third part to this Israeli announcement just made a few moments ago, a statement form the Israeli government, saying that Israel regards with great importance the preservation of quiet on its border with Syria and Lebanon and hopes that Syria will relate to this situation in the same way.
So interesting statements there from the Israeli government, both the humanitarian aspect of expressing -- identifying, really, with the sorrow of the Syrian people. But on the political level, the hope that there will be progress now towards the peace process and the concern that there could be a disquiet along Israel's borders, both with Syria, but even more pertinently, perhaps with Lebanon, where as we know that Syria is regarded as the main power broker.
Israel television has interrupted its major programs and is carrying live the telecast from Syria, the same telecast we are watching on CNN of the Syrian Parliament after the announcement of President Assad's death -- and a lot of reflections being made on just where this might affect the peace process.
Israel's one of the top negotiators in the peace with the Palestinians -- Cabinet Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami just interviewed a short moment ago, and he said in addition to that humanitarian aspect of identifying with the sorrow of the Syrian people, he said: Perhaps the new period will be marked by something which wasn't characterized in President Assad's period in power -- at least from the Israeli perspective -- of compromise.
And he said: Perhaps I'm not optimistic in this regard in the short run. We're in for a complex, complicated situation, but perhaps it might be that compromise will become now become the calling card of Syria in the future. But that's rather an optimistic statement from the Israeli Minister, and most of the commentators who are analyzing the possible impact are saying they do not expect in this period of instability and of transition that Syria will be able to change the direction in any way from -- which was carried out, in his policies, by the late President Assad -- Jim.
CLANCY: Jerrold Kessel, a dignified statement coming from the Israeli side, perhaps a symbol of remarkable change in the Middle East that the Koran is broadcast by Syrian television -- the readings from the Koran that we're watching right now being rebroadcast all across Israel. But largely, the Israelis knew this man, Hafez Al-Assad as one tough negotiator, and he also in many ways remained an enigma to the Israeli people, didn't he?
KESSEL: Absolutely. I think you could say, first of all, he was the enemy in the past. He hadn't yet -- they hadn't yet made the transition from enemy to peace partner, absolutely -- or at least to neighbor -- peace neighbor. And through that process that had gone from enemy -- and let's not forget that dramatic war in 1973, which the Israelis recall all too well on the Golan Heights -- and then the subsequent negotiations where President Assad was seeking to win the Golan Heights back in those negotiations.
And Israel, time and again, has come out of these negotiations -- success of government -- as you say rightly, still regarding President Assad as an enigma, and not quite sure whether he had committed himself to the strategic direction in which he had said and which Syrians spokesmen had said they were committing Syria -- that is, to the kind of total neighborly peace that Egypt had undergone, and Jordan had undergone, and the Palestinians had embarked on with Israel.
And the Israelis remain -- he remained a mystery to the end of whether he really wanted peace or not -- or on what were the terms, and whether that could be the way to peace. And that remains the situation now as we head into this unstable situation after the president -- after President Assad's death.
CLANCY: All right, CNN's Jerrold Kessel -- the latest from Jerusalem -- reaction from the Israeli side -- Miles. O'BRIEN: All right, let's turn it back to Minnesota of all places, where we find President Clinton today delivering a commencement address to Carleton College. If we could take a look at that live picture right of the president right now.
In the last moments of Jerrold Kessel's conversation with Jim, the president received that small piece of paper in his hand there. He read from it and seemed visibly shaken by it. I'll leave that for what it is and not care to speculate on the what the president knows about it right now.
But as he listens into the speeches, let's turn now to Major Garrett, our CNN White House correspondent, who is there.
Major, what do we know about what the President knows?
MAJOR GARRETT, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: This is what we know, Miles. White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart just briefed reporters moments ago.
Here is what we know: At about 9:00 local -- that's shortly after 10:00 Eastern Daylight time, as the president walked to the podium here at Carleton College to participate in commencement ceremonies here, he was notified that Syrian television had reported President Assad's death. The president had no reaction upon hearing that. He just continued on to the podium.
Mr. Lockhart tells CNN the president has no intention of referring at all in his prepared remarks here to President Assad's dead. He's going to stick to the topic he came here to deliver, which is about his goals for higher education and a review of what his administration has achieved on that subject.
The president has two events later on today in the Twin Cities. They are both Democratic National Committee fundraisers. The White House says it hopes, by end of the day, the president will release some sort of official statement about President Assad's death.
A couple of other items to share with you, Miles. Mr. Lockhart said it would be premature to speculate whether or not the president would attend President Assad's funeral, and that he had no readout at this point as to what the implications in the immediate, mid term, or long term would be on the peace process dealing with Israel and Syria, or Israelis and the Palestinians -- both topics of which the administration is very heavily involved in -- Miles.
O'BRIEN: Major, you say that the administration people that you've been talking to say the president won't deal with it in his prepared remarks. Of course the president is apt to say something extemporaneously. I guess we shouldn't be surprised if the president doesn't address this in some way.
GARRETT: Well, I would not want to give you any firm guidance on that one way or the other. Joe Lockhart said the president and the staff supporting him have no intention of him referring to it in his remarks. But, as you just said, the president oftentimes deals with topics of an immediate nature in an extemporaneous way. And he very well could. We will just be prepared when the president hits the podium -- take his comments as they are.
And as I said, if he does not address the topic during his commencement address here at Carleton College, we hope to receive an official statement from the president later on today.
O'BRIEN: CNN's Major Garrett with the president. We will be checking in with you of course later -- Jim.
CLANCY: All right, let's check on some other reaction that may be coming in from the U.S. government. Let's go to the State Department and CNN's State Department correspondent, Andrea Koppel.
ANDREA KOPPEL, CNN STATE DEPARTMENT CORRESPONDENT: Jim, U.S. officials right now are bracing themselves for what is likely going to be a behind the scenes power struggle in Damascus. The Syrian president -- according to the constitution, if the Syrian president passes, technically, power is supposed to go to the vice president. But as we've known now for years, President Assad had different plans. He had wanted power to pass to his oldest son, who had been, until 1994, Bashar, who passed away when he was killed in car accident.
So right now, Syrian -- the Syrian president had wanted his next eldest son, Bashar -- Basil rather -- to take -- I'm sorry, I mixed up those names. It should have been Basil that passed away in a car accident, and Bashar is now his oldest son. And so U.S. officials say this is an extremely uncertain time. They have no idea what is going to happen.
For the last 30 years, Syria's president had held Syria together by will of force. He had taken power in the 1970's, and had been in recent years in control of the military -- no attacks against Israel. And Assad's wish for the last number of years had been to get back the Golan Heights that he lost in 1967 when he was the Defense Minister of Syria.
So it is going to be an extremely uncertain time in the Middle East. Another variable that entered into the equation just a couple of weeks ago was the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon. As we know now, there are 30,000 odd troops, Syrian troops in Lebanon. President Assad was in control of those troops, and he was also in control of Hezbollah in Lebanon. And so right now there is an open question as to whether or not whoever does come forward, step forward as the person in control of Syria will in fact want to rein in Hezbollah, as President Assad had wanted to do, as he was trying to move down the path towards piece, Jim.
CLANCY: When we look pictures that we have seen coming live out of Damascus this day, we note that not only is the Koran not being read at a television station, it's within the Parliament. There is a symbol there that we see of a transition of power, of a power in place, the Parliament, that really supports the presidency. How much that was true, in fact, of course can be certainly questioned. But there seems to be an effort by those in Damascus this day to say: It is calm -- that we do have a plan in place. Is that the concern of U.S. officials?
KOPPEL: Well, certainly the concern for U.S. Officials is that the Middle East and that Syria remain calm and remain at least as stable as possible. And their concern is not so much what's happening before the cameras, but what's actually happening behind the scenes right now. And they're fairly certain that there is going to be a power struggle.
You have President Assad's brother, Rifaat, who had back almost 20 years ago tried to take over power and had been jockeying for power. There is going to be lot of movement behind the scenes, Jim, whether it's within the established power structure, the military, and also within Assad's own family to try to take control of the country right now.
And so, what is of primary concern to the United States right now is that the Syrian government be in firm control of someone who has peace in mind. And that was certainly the case for President Assad. He was a known quantity to U.S. officials and to many in the Middle East. He was someone who had been around after all for 30 years.
President Clinton had just met him back in March. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had met him a couple of times, most recently at the end of last year. And so he was someone they felt they had a rapport with. Now they don't know who they're supposed to deal with in terms of trying to move forward on the Syrian peace track, which right now is up in the air, Jim.
CLANCY: As much as they may have felt comfortable, may have felt that they knew this man, they certainly knew that he was tough. Looking back on the peace talks that were held between Syria and Israel, after the conference in Madrid, you found the negotiators saying that the Israeli -- that the Syrian side came in at the directions of President Hafez Al-Assad.
They asked only one question: What is the date that you are going to withdrawal entirely from the Golan Heights and occupied Syrian territory? They maintained that. They wouldn't change the conversation for weeks on end. That policy, that tough policy, do U.S. officials think that is going to survive?
KOPPEL: They don't know. That is really what we're hearing from those we speak with. They have absolutely no idea what to expect next. There is constitutionally supposed to be the power passing from the president to the vice president. That was not what President Assad wanted. He was in the midst -- and it hadn't yet been firmly established -- to try to get his next eldest son, Bashar, to be guy that power would pass to.
But Bashar was someone who had not had any kind of relationship with the military. After all, he was studying in London -- an opthamology student and doctor -- and was not somebody who had a relationship within the power structure in Syria. It was left to his brother who died unexpectedly. And so there is a major question as to who is going to step forward and who will in fact seize the reins of power in Syria, and whether or not, Jim, that person will be as accommodating as at least President Assad had seemed to be towards making peace with Israel.
That was something that he been working towards for the last seven or eight years. There were questions from some as to whether or not President Assad was serious and really wanted peace with Israel, but at least there were movements in that direction. We have no way of knowing right now if the person who does step forward as the person in control of Syria will in fact have that same goal -- Jim.
CLANCY: All right, Andrea Koppel reporting to us there the latest from the State Department. We'll come back to Andrea when we have more --Miles.
O'BRIEN: CNN continuing our coverage of the passing of Hafez El- Assad at the age of 69. The precise circumstances of his death unknown, but he been ill for many years -- the leader of Syria for about 30 years.
Let's turn it back to Damascus, Syria, where Rula Amin has been instrumental in getting us through this story this morning.
And, Rula, it occurs to me that whoever the successor is and when the dust settles there, no one who would fill that role would have the kind of stature to seal a permanent kind of peace deal. Is that an accurate bit of speculation, do you think?
AMIN: I don't know if we can say never, but he will have much more difficulty in trying to sell the Syrian people any kind of compromise that would make peace with Israel possible. For 30 years, Mr. Assad had been adamant, he had stood by his word. Since the Madrid peace conference was launched in '91, Mr. Assad has been adamant he will not give up one inch of Syrian land.
And throughout his peace negotiations with Israel, with its ups and downs, he has not changed his mind. It's going to be very hard for whoever's going to succeed him now to change that position. No one is going to dare, whether it was his son or someone else, to say, you know: My father was wrong and I now think we can give up some of the land in order achieve peace with Israel.
And in many analysts' eyes here, it's going to be much harder for Israel to achieve peace with Syria without the charismatic leader like Mr. Assad, who has lot of credibility in his people's eyes. Now, on the other hand, in the last half an hour, we have got some indication on who is going to succeed him. In their special meeting now, the Syrian Parliament has just formed a committee to meet and study to make amendments on the Syrian constitution and conference.
And the deal is that, according to the Syrian constitution, the president of Syria has to be at least 40 years old, and he has to be a member of the Regional Command for the ruling Baath Party. Now, Dr. Assad, Mr. Assad's son is not 40 yet, and he is not a member the Regional Command of the Baath Party. The Region -- the Baath Party was supposed to have its Congress meeting in about a week from now and Mr. Bashar was expected to be elected to be part of that leadership as one step ahead -- one step further towards putting him in line for succeeding his father.
Now, his father's death has preempted all these moves, and it seems now that we're going to hear from the Syrian parliament a change in the constitution that would enable Doctor Bashar, who is a colonel in the army, to succeed his father -- Miles.
O'BRIEN: All right, so in other words, the age restriction would be amended by the Syrian Parliament. Is that what you're suggesting here?
AMIN: This is what we are expecting, since now we have just announced on television, in a live broadcast, for the meeting of the Parliament that they have just formed this committee to study making amendments on the constitution -- which we would expect that that is the reason why it's happening, and we should be hearing from them soon.
We have to remember that Mr. Assad been working very hard in order to give his son not only the support --- the necessary support in order to lead this country -- but also to give him the experience, to give him the experience in how to deal with Middle East politics, which is a very complicated issue here -- how to deal with all the difficult issues, starting from ruling a sectarian society like -- a sectarian society where you have Muslims, where you have Christians, you have Alawites, you have Sunnis, you have Druzes -- also how to deal with the Lebanon issue.
You know, Dr. Bashar has been dealing with Lebanon -- his father had assigned him the Lebanon assignment -- on how to deal with neighbor Lebanon, which is a very, very crucial issue for Syria's politics, whether domestically or internationally. And so Dr. Bashar has been handling Lebanon. He has been meeting with the Lebanese president. He has been meeting with Lebanese opposition, with Hezbollah's leaders. And he is the one who has been calling the shots on a lot of issues, not only with regard to Lebanon -- but even like meeting the new Syrian government that was just appointed in late February -- Miles.
O'BRIEN: Rula Amin, with word of what may be the beginning of a speedy transition in Syria -- obviously, very, very early to speculate on that. We will continue checking in with her as events warrant -- Jim.
CLANCY: All right, Miles, this day we also, of course -- as the announcement has been made that Hafez Al-Assad, the 69-year-old president of Syria has passed away -- many people taking stock of what his legacy is in the region, what his accomplishments were, both positive and, to his critics, very negative accomplishments in some areas.
Perhaps one of the people who knew him best, studied his life best, Patrick Seale joining us now by telephone. Mr. Seale is a biographer of Hafez Al-Assad.
PATRICK SEALE, ASSAD BIOGRAPHER: Hello.
SEALE: Well, 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 government. 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. He is very well prepared for the task. In last couple of years, he has put his men in place. The -- curiously enough, President Assad died just a week before the Baath Party Congress -- the first Congress since 1985 -- for 15 years -- and this Congress was, as you heard just from your correspondent, was due to elect Dr. Bashar to the Regional Command of the party, almost certainly appoint him as vice president, and indeed consecrate him as the heir.
Now, he will not deviate from his father's political legacy. Now, the most important elements of that political legacy are: the independence of Syria; it's refusal to accept dictates from the United States or from Israel; the importance of recovering every inch of territory lost in 1967; but of course, at the same time, the readiness to make peace, as long as it's an honorable peace.
This is has been President Assad's quest since the beginning of the Madrid conference in 1991 -- in fact, one might even argue since the '70s, since the aftermath of the October war of 1973. He has wanted peace. In fact, his grievance against Israel and against the United States is that they have not addressed his issues that the former Israeli leaders -- like the former Prime Minister Rabin -- instead of pursuing peace with Syria, chose to be distracted and went sideways as it were -- made peace with the Palestinians, and then with Jordan. And Syria was pushed to the back of the queue.
And so, President Assad has wanted peace, but an absolutely essential element of that peace was an Israeli withdrawal to the force of June 1967 line -- that is to say, to the line which Syria was defending before the 1967 war.
CLANCY: Mr. Seale, it could be easily said that many people have studied the man, Hafez Al-Assad, but very few have really known the man. Personally, how was he?
SEALE: Well, the most extraordinary thing about him was his remarkable consistency. You know, the outside world has often said that this was mystery man, a sphinx. Nothing could be further from the truth. He has always made his position very, very clear. It's always been founded on principal. And his principals were always that the land had to be returned, that there could be no compromised on land. But I think quite apart from the peace package -- that is to say, Israeli withdrawal, security arrangements, normalization and so forth -- there is another important aspect which is sometimes forgotten -- that is, the political order in the Middle East. Assad has not wanted a political order dominated by Israel. He's accepted Israel as a player in the Middle East system. But neither he nor any Arab can accept Israel as the dominant player in the region.
And that is why President Assad has always sought some form of a balance of power between the Arabs and Israel in the belief that a balance of power keeps the peace, whereas an imbalance causes war, because the stronger party will always seek to impose its views and its will on the weaker party.
CLANCY: Patrick Seale, we know that Hafez Al-Assad was a tough negotiator when it came to Israel, but he was equally tough on his Arab partners. Now, there was no love loss certainly with Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. His enmity for Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is known throughout the Middle East. Why was he -- why do you think that he held other Arab leaders in such low esteem?
SEALE: Well, I wouldn't say that he held all Arab leaders in low esteem. But you see you mentioned Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader -- from President Assad's point of view, the way Yasser Arafat negotiated was not the way to negotiate. And indeed if you look at...
CLANCY: Well, it was not the way that Hafez Al-Assad wanted him to negotiate is more correct.
SEALE: No, no, no, no, no. that's not quite the point. You see, the Palestinians at Oslo agreed to end their Intifada, to lay down their arms, but simply depending on Israeli goodwill. And look where it's reached them. None of the crucial issues of statehood, of borders, of refugees, of Jerusalem have been settled. That one negotiation, one agreement has had to be renegotiated half a dozen times, and there's absolutely nothing which can be called a legitimate or a durable peace on the Palestinian front.
And so President Assad's view was, in negotiation with Israel, that the "i's" had to be dotted and the "t's" crossed, and that points should be negotiated very meticulously. And one point after another should be concluded and set aside, and that nothing should be left vague or indeed to Israeli goodwill. So that was his negotiating stance, and that of course is why he always believed that an early summit between leaders was not the right way to proceed -- that the ground had to be prepared very, very carefully.
Now with Saddam Hussein, whom we also mentioned, of course he believed -- I think rightly -- that Saddam Hussein's war with Iran was a huge mistake, which the Arabs paid for very, very dearly. But if I may just say this, that if you look at the map of the Middle East, what President Assad managed to craft was a series of axes, one which of course was the Syrian- Lebanese axis, which is very, very strong and close.
The other was his alliance with Iran. Again, a strategic alliance which dates from the very beginnings of the Islamic Republic. And thirdly, his third axis was the link between Damascus, Cairo and Riadh, the Syrian-Egypt-Saudi axis, which is a bedrock of his Arab policy. Now, these three axes formed the basis of the regional order which Syria has sought to establish, and no doubt which President Assad's heir will also seek to confirm.
CLANCY: All right, Patrick Seale, the biographer of Hafez Al- Assad, the late president of Syria there -- a view of the man and his legacy -- Miles.
O'BRIEN: Let's take it back Damascus here in Syria now. Live pictures from Syrian TV as the prayers continue, the commemorations continue, and also some changes in the rules. The amendment to the constitution, we're told, has been passed.
Let's turn it now to Rula Amin, who's been watching that for us. Rula, the key here when comes to son, Dr. Bashar, is that he doesn't meet age requirements, correct?
AMIN: The key here is that the Parliament has just changed the constitution. Dr. Bashar -- whoever is going succeed President Assad according to the changes that just have happened -- whoever succeeds him does not need to be 40, he needs to be more than 34 -- above 34 years old. And he has to be an Arab, which means that they have dropped another condition: that the leader or the next president has to be a member of the Regional Command for the Baath Party. These were two conditions that were in the constitution for anybody who was going to succeed Mr. Assad.
And they have just changed the constitution, which paves the way for Dr. Bashar to take over. It was a very short session in the Parliament. It was broadcasted live on television. The Parliament now had just ended his session, and they will meet again on June 25th. Now, this leaves a lot of time from now until June 25th -- that's almost two weeks -- which leaves a lot of time for Dr. Bashar and the ruling Baath Party here to put the house in order and come up with a candidate for the presidency, which we're expecting to be Dr. Bashar, especially after all of these changes -- Miles.
O'BRIEN: So the groundwork is now laid -- the constitution changed in just the amount of time that Jim Clancy was speaking to a biographer. The constitution has been changed. They are making it possible for this transition to occur. This three-week period -- a lot of things have to occur and in rapid succession, including a period of mourning.
What do you know about how the average Syrian is reacting today? Have you had a opportunity? I know you've been busy?
AMIN: We have -- I did actually talk to some people and people were devastated. People are sad. They were devastated because they have known this leader for 30 years. Regardless if they liked him or they didn't like him, he has been leading this country. For the last 10, 20 years, Syria has been stable. This is something that all Syrians acknowledge. And now, President Assad has disappeared in a very sensitive time in Syria. This is -- everybody knows that Syria is going through a transition period, a transition period regarding the economy. There has been a campaign against corruption. Very high officials have been targeted. Some of them were kicked out. Some of them have committed suicide after they have been pursued by the law. It's a transition also towards peace with Israel. Syria has been negotiating with Isreal for the last probably nine years, but people know that it's now very close -- that any time they were expecting an announcement that talks would be resuming with Israel, which would have meant peace with Israel.
And with all that it entails, in terms of opening up Syria to the outside world, in terms of relations with Israel, in terms of better relations with the U.S. This is up in the air now, because people know that whoever is going to succeed Mr. Assad is going to have a difficult time trying to negotiate in the same strategy that President Assad had been negotiating. He is known. He is a tough negotiator. He is very patient. He is very thoughtful.
And he is also capable of surprising people in taking stance that people don't expect him to take if it suits Syria's interests, like when he did ally himself with the United States in its war against Iraq during the Gulf War. So now people are waiting to see who is going to succeed him. Of course, they have a lot of strong hints that it's going to be Dr. Bashar who is going to succeed him.
They have known Dr. Bashar through his campaign against corruption. So their perception of Dr. Bashar is that he's a pure man. He is clean. He is honest. He is trying to modernize Syria. He's trying to take Syria on a new course into globalization, into opening up. He has been very supportive of bringing the Internet into Syria, of trying to give Syrians more access to technology -- to the Internet -- of allowing them to speak up. We have talked to lot of people here who have always said that they've never felt as free to talk as when Dr. Bashar has assumed and started taking a bigger role.
But, what people are concerned with maybe -- although they don't voice this concern -- is that Dr. Bashar is a young leader. He is less than 40 years old. He's about 36 years old. He is a doctor. He has been not been involved in politics but in the last six years, after his eldest brother, Basil, whose father had been grooming to succeed him, died in a car accident in 1994.
After the death of his eldest brother, President Assad had called his son back home from London, where he was studying as an opthlamologist. He had since then been preparing him to succeed him, trying to give him all the support he can, trying to eliminate any kind of opposition for his succession.
A lot of generals in the army -- some associates of President Assad himself since 30 years, who had been removed from power -- when they expressed any kind of opposition or resentment that Dr. Bashar was very young, is going to take over and lead Syria in this very critical period. But I think, in general, the Syrians feel Dr. Bashar at least is an honest guy. He went after corruption. He went after high officials. And, to them, that is a strong indicator that Syria going to new age. It's a new era.
Even before president Al-Assad's death, Dr. Bashar's campaign against corruption and trying to modernize the country did win him some support, and people were calling it a correction within a correction. The son was trying to correct and put Syria on the new track with under his watchful eyes of his father -- Miles.
O'BRIEN: Rula Amin is our correspondent in Damascus as we continue this story. Dr. Bashar with a clean slate and very, very large task ahead of him.
Once again to recap the news for you, Syrian President Hafez Al- Assad death at the age 69 after a long illness, providing all kinds of questions for us and speculation as to what happens next as Middle East peace process continues. And CNN of course covering this on all front.
CLANCY: It is an important day. It's the changing, the end of an era. It is a time when we assess, first of all, what will be the affect within Syria, who will be the next leader? We've been talking about that at length. Also we have been considering what effect it will have on the Middle East peace process. Clearly, those are answers -- those are questions that aren't going to answered for some time. We will have an indication, Rula Amin pointed out, June 25, the parliament meeting. It could be naming Dr. Bashar as the successor to Hafez Al-Assad, but this day, we take note of a man and his life mark left. Recaps for us, Hafez Al-Assad dead at 69.
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 Alowites 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 coupe 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 decade after modern Syria and Lebanon were carved from the ruins of the Ottoman empire the Syrians and the represent nice are one people he says I had. 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 reasonable authority.
AL-ASSAD: Our troops in Lebanon are in a land which is an extension of Syrian territory. 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 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 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, Saddam 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 headquartered 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, with long-standing health problems of his own, was grooming another son, Bashar. A year after Israeli voters called for new direction in regional politics, not even pressure from Washington could keep direct Israeli- Syrian peace talks going. And now Syria, a key Middle East player in the early stages of internal reform, enters an age of uncertainty.
Mark Leff, CNN.
O'BRIEN: Hafez Al-Assad, the leader of Syria for nearly 30 years, by far the longest serving leader in that tumultuous region in announcing to parliament, the statement was read today, Hafez Al-Assad the national champion, who has withstood all pressure, is absent; he left us. It is now early to late evening in Damascus. And a little while ago, when the news was read to parliament, the scene was quite dramatic.
CLANCY: Quite dramatic indeed, and to be expected. After all, the people of Syria did not hear about the death. We don't even know when it may have occurred. Just take a look, listen to what was going on inside of the parliament as it met this day.
All right. That was the scene inside of the Syrian parliament this day. We talked earlier with Major Garrett about reaction from the U.S. President Bill Clinton. We understand something of a statement has been issued. What can you tell us?
GARRETT: Jim, we have just been handed an official statement from the president of the United States. Let me read it to you now. From president Clinton: "I am saddened by the news of President Al- Assad's death, and wants to offer my condolences to his family and to the Syrian people. Over the past seven years, I have met him many times and got know him very well. We had our difference, but I always respected him. Since the Madrid conference, he made a strategic choice for peace, and we worked together to achieve that goal. Throughout my contacts with him, including our last meeting, he made clear Syrians continued commitment to the path of peace. We look forward to working with Syria to achieve the goal of a comprehensive peace." That a statement just released from the president of the United States.
Moments ago, CNN spoke with National Security Council spokesman P.J. Crowley. He said that since the Syrian government has yet to formalize plans for a funeral for President Al-Assad, the administration has made no decision yet as to whether or not president will attend.
Back to you.
CLANCY: All right, our thanks there to Major Garrett. That's the latest on the story. We're going to take a short break here.
O'BRIEN: The president of course will be speaking later today. We expect to hear perhaps something from his -- actually a firm statement on camera. We will of course bring that to you as it occurs. We have reporters stationed all throughout the region, and all throughout the world for that matter, to provide reaction to this continuing story as we consider the transition now that Hafez Al-Assad has passed away.
Stay with us for more continuing coverage.
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