June 11, 2000
The death of Syrian dictator Hafez Assad yesterday elicited official
gestures of mourning within Syria, and polite but terse responses by
Israel’s political establishment.
According to today’s Lebanese Daily Star, Syria’s government-controlled
television “broke the news to a stunned nation. The announcer broke down in
tears as he said that ‘death has taken away from Syria a leader.’ His voice
choking with emotion, he added: ‘This is a day of sadness and sorrow in every
home, school, university, farm, factory and quarry … Sadness is in the heart of
every man, woman and child because … the legacy of his accomplishments and
ideas is a planet that will shine not just on this generation, but also on coming
Thousands of Israeli Druze citizens held a ceremony to mourn Assad today,
and then marched en masse towards the Israel-Syria border.
Interior Minister Natan Sharansky said he would work to facilitate the
trip to Syria of some 70 Israeli Arabs who said they want to attend the funeral.
At today’s cabinet meeting, Ehud Barak “expressed understanding for the
sorrow of the Syrian people” and said that Assad’s death marks “the end of an
era.” Barak talked to US President Clinton, Egyptian President Mubarak,
and Jordan’s King Abdullah over the past day; the parties all expressed
the hope for a quick, smooth transition of power within Syria.
Golan Residents Committee Chairman Eli Malka expressed little sorrow at the
death of Assad:
“He was not a great leader, but corrupt, a drug dealer and
a murderer. We are quite happy that his era ended with no deal to give away
the Golan. Could you imagine what would have happened if there had been
such a deal by July, and then the dictator with whom Israel made the deal,
suddenly disappears? We think we should take the opportunity presented by
Assad’s death to strengthen the Jewish presence in the Golan, and we feel
that Syria should finally come to terms with the fact that the Golan, which
would make up 0.5% of Syrian territory, is Israeli.”
Prime Minister Barak offered a different conclusion. At today’s cabinet
“vigorously rejected claims to the effect that Assad’s death
proves that it was not necessary to try to reach a peace agreement with him
and cited Egypt as an example of a country where peaceful relations with it
continued after the death of the President with whom we had achieved peace.”
He added: “If we had not tried to reach a settlement, we would
never have escaped the feeling that we had missed an historic opportunity
and we would not have even been able to implement UN Security Council
Resolution #425 with world support.”
Political pundits are unsure whether Assad’s 34-year-old son Bashar will in
fact succeed in consolidating power, given opposition from within Syrian
society and the Assad family itself. The ruling Ba’ath party called a
mid-June convention several weeks ago, with the goal of approving Bashar as
the candidate to replace his father.
Speaking with Arutz-7 today, Middle East expert Dr. Mordechai Nissan noted
that “Assad’s Alawite sect comprises only 12% of Syria’s population. The
Alawites are not Moslem in belief, and are even considered to be heretics. Syria
is mostly made up of Sunni Moslems, and they could take revenge against the
Alawites now.” Bashar is likely to face internal Alawite resistance, as well.
Assad’s brother Rifa’at was exiled years ago after not coming to terms with
Hafez Assad’s rule, and has long seen himself as the next Syrian ruler. Nissan
reminded listeners of military skirmishes earlier this year in northern Syria
between forces aligned with Rifa’at and those faithful to Hafez Assad.
Syria’s Deputy President Abdel Halim Hatdam announced today that he will be
the acting President of Syria until the swearing-in of Bashar Assad as the
country’s new leader. Journalist Yehoshua Meiri notes that the Deputy
President is identified with the Moslem, not Alawite sector in Syria, and
represents the “long-arm of Iran” in the Syrian political elite.
Regarding the fate of Israel-Syria diplomatic relations, Dr. Nissan said
that he has for some time subscribed to the view that the late dictator
never had any real interest in reaching a peace deal with Israel.
“The issue is even more secondary now compared to the existential
question of Alawite rule in Syria and Syria’s military occupation of Lebanon….
A deal with Israel simply doesn’t stand at the center of Syria’s national
In the Lebanese Daily Star, former US ambassador to Syria Talcott Seelye said:
“Bashar isn’t the experienced man that his father was. He doesn’t have
the prestige and the history. It’ll be a lot more difficult for him to take over and
succeed, particularly in the beginning. He has to set himself up and take control
of the country before he can embark on any major foreign-policy moves.”