The Mideast without the 'Lion'

Even as Syria moved to appoint a new leader yesterday, Hafez al- Assad'spassing added uncertainty in the region.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setback for resumption of peace talks

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

"While we had our disagreements, I always respected him because I felt that he was open and straightforward with me, and because I felt he meant it when he said he had made a strategic decision for peace." President Clinton said. "I regret that peace was not achieved in his lifetime, and I hope that it can still be achieved in no small measure because of the commitment he made."

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

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

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

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

"Assuming Bashar becomes the leader, he is going to take it one step at a time, and make sure that everything is in the best national interest," says Mr. Jouejati. "In the immediate future it would be extremely insulting for Bashar to give away something that his father would not.

"Assad's position was not simply a personal thing against Israel, but very much in sync with Syrian public opinion," he adds. "I do not expect Bashar to accept anything less than the father would have."

Among the many challenges Bashar faces is the poor state of the economy that has left the Arab nation far behind the technology bandwagon.

A Cold War client of the Soviet Union - which provided the military hardware that today still forms the rusting bulk of the armed forces - Syria has been deeply isolated after years of one-party rule that outlawed dissenting views.

An uprising by militant Muslims in early 1982 was put down with the shelling and complete destruction of the town of Hama, which left thousands dead. Some 30,000 Syrian troops are still in Lebanon, where their presence - while seen by Syrians as the only way to prevent a resumption of civil war - causes anger among many Lebanese.

"Syrians are apprehensive about the future, and how the power centers will sort it out," says Sadik Al-Azm, a professor of modern European philosophy at the University of Damascus.

Expectations of change are very high, he says, but even though Bashar has been groomed, "The question is: Has it gone far enough? Nobody is sure. It seems things were cut off too early."

Still, considering Syria's reputation for stability during Assad's reign, some argue that a peaceful transition is already under way.

"The process [of grooming] has been going on for five years, and accelerated tremendously in the last year," says Nabil Sukkar, a Syrian economist in Damascus. "All the steps have been prepared already. There is a consensus here - everyone is doing everything for a peaceful, stable transition."

Assad's death is the second watershed event to rock the Mideast in a month, after the abrupt Israeli pullout of troops occupying southern Lebanon in late May. Hizbullah guerrillas backed by Syria and Iran forced Israel to withdraw in 48 hours almost two months ahead of schedule, depriving Syria of a card it had used against Israel in an attempt to recover the Golan Heights.

Palestinian process seen as sellout

Frustration with Syria has been deep in Washington, since a summit meeting in Geneva three months ago between Clinton and Assad - billed as the "last chance" to break the log-jam - ended in failure stalling the progress of peace talks.

A further meeting in Cairo last week between US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright - who will be the top American official at the funeral - and Syria's Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa also failed to open the door to resumption of peace talks.

While Syria has held firm, however, it has also become more isolated. Egypt made peace with the Jewish state in 1979, and Jordan in 1994. Those deals were criticized by Syria, not least because they broke Arab ranks. To most Syrians, the Palestinian peace process is seen as a sellout.

So Assad's legacy will reach far beyond Syria itself, which is why his passing will be so keenly felt.

"He was very steadfast in adhering to Arab nationalism, to not allow these Israeli and US attempts to exercise hegemony in the region," says Mr. Sukkar. "I think he saved the Arab world from that prospect."

Assad's reasons were simple: "He wanted a balance of power in order to keep the peace," Patrick Seale, the president's biographer, told CNN. "He felt an imbalance causes war because the stronger partner always tries to impose his will on the weaker."

Sharp as Assad's regional calculations may have been, however, they came with a price and method shared by more than a few Arab leaders of his era.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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