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Hafez Al-Assad's Sudden Passing Occurs at Critical Stage in Ongoing Middle East Peace Process

Aired June 10, 2000 - 3:00 p.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: "MONEYWEEK" will not be seen this half hour so that we may bring you our continuous coverage of the death of Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad. In war and in peace for nearly 30 years, Hafez Al-Assad was one of most influential leaders of the Middle East. His sudden passing today at age 69 occurred at many consider a very critical stage in the ongoing process to obtain a permanent Arab-Israeli peace. In just a moment, we'll examine closely what Mr. Assad's death could mean for the immediate future of the Mideast. It was about four hours ago that the Syrian government in Damascus confirmed the death of the longtime president. The news of his passing stunned a regular session of the Syrian parliament.

On the phone with us from Syria's capital, Damascus, is CNN's Rula Amin, as she has been all throughout the day.

Rula, what is the latest?

RULA AMIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The latest is that the Syrian ruling Baath Party, the regional command for the Syrian Baath Party has not nominated Dr. Bashar Al-Assad, son of the late president, to succeed his father. They have nominated him to be the candidate for the presidency. They still have to go through the legal procedures, which is offer this candidacy to the parliament, and the parliament has to vote in favor of this candidacy. But this is official step to nominate Dr. Bashar to succeed his father. Of course unofficially, his father had been grooming his for this position for years now, and in the last few months, this process has been accelerated. And in one week, we were expecting a meeting for the Baath Party to elect a new regional command, including Dr. Bashar. But of course the death of the President Hafez Al-Assad preempted all these plans, and today, Syria's parliament has voted to change the constitution to pave the way for Dr. Bashar, because according to the Syrian parliament, any candidate for the presidency has to be above 40 and has to be a member of the regional command for the Baath Party, and Dr. Bashar was not a member of this regional command, and he was not over 40. Dr. Bashar is still 36 years old.

So today, the parliament changed the constitution, saying any candidate for the presidency, has to be above 34 and has to be -- and ended up dropping the condition that he has to be a member in the regional command of the Baath Party. In Syria today, there is mourning. The people here got the news around 6:00 in the evening, toward the end of day, and they took to the streets. They went to the president's house chanting in favor of Dr. Bashar, and in favor of him succeeding his father -- Miles,

O'BRIEN: That's CNN's Rula Amin reporting to us live from Damascus.

Perhaps no country on Earth is monitoring developments in Damascus than is Israel. For decades, successive Israeli governments have tried to make peace with President Assad, the most recent efforts undertaken only this year.

Joining us now with Israeli reaction to the death of Hafez Al- Assad is CNN's Jerrold Kessel in Jerusalem -- Jerrold

JERROLD KESSEL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Miles, the first reaction was an interesting one. The Israeli ministers saying, "Rejoice not" -- using the biblical injunction, "Rejoice not in the death of thine enemy," and Hafez Al-Assad remained, despite the peacemaking efforts of the past decade, formerly still Israel's enemy, but there have been those dramatic peacemaking efforts culminated in that dead end effort of President Clinton back in March to conclude a final peace between Israel and Syria.

And questions really being asked now, as Israel scrambles to assess just where the death of the long-serving Syrian president leaves peacemaking and leaves the stability of the Middle East. The question is, was President Assad a barrier finally to peacemaking? And could this be a way opening to a fresh attempt to make peace? The big question, though, first of all, will be how damaged will be the stability of the Middle East, that is the immediate Israeli concern.

That was the focus of the Israeli government's statement put out very quickly after the formal announcement from Damascus. Israel saying that it would continue to try to make peace with whoever was in power or came to power in Damascus, but also emphasizing that above all for it, importance was the stability on it border, both with Syria and with Lebanon, because of course Israel very recently has just withdrawn after that long military occupation of South Lebanon, and Syria as the main generally agreed main power broker in Lebanon, does hold a key to the stability of that area, and a test, I believe Israel will see a test of the possibility of forging toward a new relationship with Syria on whether stability will remain on the border between Israel and Lebanon -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Bottom line, Jerrold, it sounds as if there's going to be period of just wait and see, and I guess the concern might be to many people observing this whole process is that in a sense timing is everything in the Middle East, and will an opportunity have passed by the time the dust settles?

KESSEL: The wait and see are absolutely right. There is no better cliche to describe the Israeli position, as Prime Minister Barak consults with some of these top aides both on the political level, and his military and intelligence aids this evening at his home near Tel Aviv. And watching very closely, just as you say, how long this will take to determine whether the situation has stabilized sufficiently for a new peace effort to go ahead. But watching this also very closely be Palestinians. Their peace process with Israel just seemed to be ready to get on a roll again after visit here of U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and the Palestinians may be looking with some concern to see whether will they might get the short straw again, and that their peacemaking might be sidelined once again. Let not forget that Syria and the Palestinian leadership under Yasser Arafat have long had a complex and often very troubled relationship, and even though president -- Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat declared a state of mourning for three days in the Palestinian-controlled areas and sent his deepest condolences to the Syrian people, the truth is that Palestinian groups opposed to Yasser Arafat remain under serious stewardship in Damascus, and a big question there of what will serious position to be toward the Palestinian-Israeli peace track.

O'BRIEN: Well, given that history of bad blood between the two groups, is there any chance given the change in leadership in Damascus, that there might be some sort of improvement, vis-a-vis the Palestinians and Syrians? And could that lead to a more unified effort toward peace?

KESSEL: That is one possibility. It is one thing, as I said, that the Palestinians will be looking toward, and one thing, too, that the Israelis will be look toward. We heard not long ago from Israel's Justice minister Yossi Bailin, saying that Hafez Al-Assad had been such a key factor in the Middle East, that this is the end of era, because he had set the -- he had been the leader of the opposition to peace with Israel in the Arab world, and then he had gone to Madrid, he had set his course on a strategic change, or so it seemed. But the question is whether, as Mr. Bailin said, he had been ready take that last step.

Now with a new leadership in Damascus, will that new leadership, unencumbered by the baggage of the past, be ready to go that final step towards peace with Israel, and also perhaps change its attitude toward the way the Palestinians have chosen to make peace with Israel. It is a very critical time in all directions here in the Middle East, no doubt about that.

O'BRIEN: CNN's Jerrold Kessel live from Jerusalem. Thanks very much.

President Clinton learned of Mr. Assad's death by attending commencement exercises this morning at Carlton College in Minnesota. Mr. Clinton was literally walking to the podium when an aide passed him a note with the news.

Joining us from Northfield, Minnesota is CNN White House correspondent Major Garrett with the latest from there -- Major.

MAJOR GARRETT, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Miles, the president did receive that notification, but he did not at all make reference to it in his prepared remarks here to the commencement exercises at Carlton College, the very last commencement speech of his presidency. Mr. Clinton stuck with his topic, his agenda on higher education and his accomplishments in that field.

Shortly thereafter, the president flew to Minneapolis, St. Paul, where later today, he will attend two Democratic national committee fund-raisers. Before attending those fund-raisers, he met with reporters, offered his condolences to the Syrian people, and said now is the time for the situation in Syria to sort out politically.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAM J. CLINTON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: 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, so. But you know, we've been at this now for years because of decision that he made to go back to negotiations and to try to move away from conflict, and it's certainly a path that I hope the country will stay on.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GARRETT: That is obviously the administration's chief focus right now, hoping the new Syrian leadership will stay on with that commitment to continuing negotiations with the Israelis, negotiation that have so far produced very little result.

Major Garrett, CNN, reporting live from Northfield, Minnesota.

O'BRIEN: A comprehensive Middle East peace has been a major goal of Bill Clinton since he took office. Now in Mr. Clinton's final months of his presidency comes the death of one of most influential power brokers in the Middle East. For just how President Assad's passing might affect peace efforts in that volatile regions, we turn to CNN's Andrea Koppel, joining us from her post at the State Department -- Andrea.

ANDREA KOPPEL, CNN STATE DEPARTMENT CORRESPONDENT: Miles, as we just heard now from President Clinton, and that thought is also being echoed privately by U.S. officials we're speaking with here at the State Department, it's too soon to say how President Assad's passing will affect the peace process. It's something of course that the administration is devoted a great deal of time to. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was just in the region last week. She met with the Syrian foreign minister, and just issued as well a written statement expressing her concerns to President Assad's family and the Syrian people. Also pointing out that President Assad had made a strategic choice for peace at Madrid in 1991, saying in all of our talks he remained committed to that choice. Those pictures you're looking at are from her trip to Damascus last December.

Now privately, aids to Secretary Albright say that it is an incredibly uncertain time. They say that they are concerned that there could be a power struggle behind the scenes. Some Middle Eastern diplomats are saying, in fact, right now what they are observing in Syria today seems to indicate that there will be a smooth transition. It look as if President Assad's son, Dr. Bashar, will take over the helm. But they also say that keep in mind Dr. Bashar is going to be focusing -- if he is named president, he'll focusing on getting his ducks in row on consolidating his power and his base of support, so not to expect the Syrian government to be looking outward. The focus in the very near future will be inward. Reporting live, I'm Andrea Koppel, CNN, at the State Department.

O'BRIEN: When we return, a look back at the life of Syrian president Hafez Al-Assad, as well as look forward with one journalist who has covered him over the years.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: For some more perspective on Hafez Al-Assad and the impact of his death on Middle Eastern affairs, we spoke with Syrian journalist Rhana Kabbani in our London bureau just an about hour ago.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

O'BRIEN: I am curious, at this juncture, what you see as happening next in Syria. It seems as if the groundwork is being laid for Hafez Al-Assad's son, Dr. Bashar, to succeed as president. Do you suspect that will go off without a hitch?

RHANA KABBANI, MIDDLE EAST WRITER: I think it will. There's been preparations in place to do that for quite a while, and in the past couple of weeks, Dr. Bashar Assad has waged a very important campaign to try and clean up Syria's record, vis-a-vis corruption, by actually bringing many of the top officials who had held position of power in the past, to trial or at least to see if he could try them for corruption. And so his popularity as a result of this has risen dramatically, because people were repelled by the kind of corruption in past. And I think very like his father and very like all other politicians and officials in Syria, he will want to see peace acheived, but achieved along the terms that Syria has negotiated over the past several years since Madrid.

O'BRIEN: Of course one of the keys to ruling in Syria would be some alliance with the military. Do you get the sense that Bashar Al- Assad has forged that kind of relationship? Does he have the support of the key military figures that he would need to rule?

KABBANI: Well, one of the very refreshing things about Dr. Assad is that he is a civilian. He's not from the military. 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, and perhaps a more liberal and democratizing vision to the country, which is what would increase his popularity.

O'BRIEN: We hear conflicting statements today, as we discuss the possibilities for forging some sort of lasting peace agreement in the Middle East, and if you could just give us your sense as to whether you think Bashar will have the clout and the inclination to come to some sort of agreement with Israel?

KABBANI: I think it's question of whether Syria has the come to that decision or not. And my belief is that it has, that over the past few years, Syria as a whole, including the government, has been committed to turning a new leaf and achieving peace. And Dr. Bashar Al-Assad will be representing that will, that will of the country, to achieve peace, as long as the terms are honorable and as long as they mean the full return of the Golan Heights to Syria.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

O'BRIEN: That was Syrian journalist Rana Kabbani, who spoke with me a short time ago. Syria's Hafez Al-Assad had been ill for some time. No specific cause of death has been given, however, but he been suffering from heart problems and kidney failure. With a look at the life and times of the Syrian leader, we turn now CNN's Mark Leff.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

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 Alowite (ph) 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, Suddam Hussein, represented the rival wing of the Arab socialist movement both had joined as youngsters.

When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, Al-Assad sent Syrian troops to join the coalition of countries which would punish Iraq the next year. To some extent, that corporation ended along between Syria and the United States. It brought his country both political and monetary rewards at a time when his longtime allies in Moscow had less and less time and money for him as their own country crumbled.

In 1982, Al-Assad moved quickly to crush a potential challenge to his authority at home, from a conservative Muslim movement head quartered in the city of Hamad (ph). 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 Basa Lalasa's (ph) death in a 1994 car crash, complicated the process, at time when Israel and Syria were making quiet progress toward resolving the future of the strategically important Golan Heights that Israel had seized from Syria in the 1967 war. When the Syrian president went to Jordan last year for King Hussein's funeral and to meet the newly named heir Abdullah, Al- Assad's own successor was not yet clear. Even as voters elected him to yet another seven-year term, there were no other choices on the ballot.

Syria's president, Hafez El-Assad, dead at 69.

Mark Leff, CNN.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

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