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Sunday Morning News

President Clinton Assesses Middle East Peace Process in Light of Syrian President Assad's Death

Aired June 11, 2000 - 8:30 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: The death of President Hafez Al-Assad and the future of Syria tops our news this hour. He was the only leader many Syrians had ever known. Hafez Al-Assad, the lion of Damascus, died of heart failure in Syria's capital yesterday. He was 69. He had been grooming his 34-year-old son Bashar to succeed him. The Syrian parliament quickly amended the constitution to pave the way for that succession.

KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: Secretary of State Madeleine Albright will represent the U.S. at President Hassad's funeral on Tuesday.

Senior White House correspondent John King tells us President Clinton is assessing the impact of Mr. Assad's death and what it will have on the Middle East peace process. The president was informed just before making a commencement address in Minnesota.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JOHN KING, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The note contained the official word and the president could not hide his disappointment. Syria's Assad was dead, the Middle East peace process dealt yet another setback.

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: 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.

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 Syria 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 Syria track of the peace process in the final months of the Clinton administration.

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: Mr. Clinton's urgent focus now is on reviving the Israeli- Palestinian track of the peace process.

(on camera): The President spent 10 minutes on the telephone Saturday with the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is due at the White House on Wednesday and amid all this disappointment and uncertainty, some U.S. officials believe Assad's death could motivate Arafat, who's in his 70s, to redouble his efforts to reach a peace agreement.

John King, CNN, the White House.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

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