Assad’s Sudden Death Likely to put Middle East Peace Process on Hold – June 21, 2000

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ASSAD’S SUDDEN DEATH LIKELY TO PUT MIDDLE EAST PEACE PROCESS ON HOLD

BY S. AZMAT HASSAN

A perceptive observer of the Middle East opined a few years ago that there could be no war in the Middle East without Egypt and no peace without Syria. The essential validity of the observation has been borne out by the fact that while Syria has remained on the U.S. terrorist list for around two decades, Damascus has been visited innumerable times by a succession of U.S. presidents and secretaries of state. No other country on that list has been treated like that. This interesting anomaly in U.S. behavior toward Syria is a clear indication of the centrality accorded by U.S. policy makers to Syria’s place in the Middle East political firmament.

It should not be surprising therefore that the death of Hafez al-Assad is a watershed event in the Middle East, whose reverberations will continue to be felt not only in that strategic region but worldwide for quite some time to come. Assad was no ordinary politician. He dominated Syria, albeit in a rigid and authoritarian fashion, for three decades.

Syria was an inconsequential remnant of the Ottoman Empire that the French had ruled as a mandatory power following the notorious Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. When the French finally left in 1946, Syria was weak and divided and prone to that bane of politics in the developing world: the army coup d’etat.

Assad, an Air Force general and former defense minister who came to power himself through a bloodless coup in 1970, changed all that. His image in the United States is not very favorable but to his people he was a colossus. He brought stability, order and restored pride to the Syrians.

To the Israelis, he was a resolute foe. Although he opted for peace with Israel in the historic Madrid Conference of 1991, he was dogged in his pursuit of retrieving every inch of land that Syria had lost to Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war as the price of peace. President Clinton tried to move him toward a more flexible position on the Golan Heights in a meeting in Geneva last March, but failed. A gaunt, frail man, Assad had been in poor health with heart problems and diabetes.

I had the privilege to see him a number of times in 1989-91 when accompanying Pakistani prime ministers and other officials in their meetings with him. I was most impressed by his unfailing courtesy, pleasant demeanor and grasp of the minutiae of Middle East and world history.

He was not a politician seeking compromises here and there, but a statesman who had an unrelenting vision of raising Syria to a position of huge influence in the chessboard of Middle East politics.

While the negative sides of his rule, such as rigid authoritarianism, lack of freedom of expression, and political and economic isolation of Syria are generally highlighted in the West, what is not adequately appreciated is the stability and economic progress he bequeathed to his grateful nation.

Whatever else one might say or feel about Assad, very few can deny the genuine outpouring of grief and emotion of the Syrian people for their austere and somewhat aloof leader.

Assad’s sudden death is likely to put the Middle East peace process on hold. Israel is going through one of its periodic bouts of political uncertainty with Ehud Barak’s fractious coalition partners threatening to bring his government down as a prelude to early elections. If the right-wing Shas Party holds good on its promise to leave the government, Barak will have to soldier on with a minority government. His ability to make painful concessions to the Palestinians will be compromised, perhaps seriously, with deleterious consequences to the establishment of a durable and comprehensive settlement.

President Yasser Arafat is aging and is not in the best of shape. He has to guard his flanks from Hamas and other extremist Palestinian factions who believe he has betrayed the Palestinian cause by following the path of negotiations. The United States alone has the power to nudge the Israelis and Palestinians on the narrow and tortuous road of negotiations, where they have to agree on the final boundaries of a future Palestinian state, the question of Palestinian refugees and to cut the Gordian knot of the status of Jerusalem. It is a huge task that is not made easier by President Clinton’s lame-duck status.

There is a saying in the South Asian subcontinent that a young tree finds it difficult to grow and flourish in the shade of a huge tree. That precisely appears to be the problem of the Bashar al-Assad, 34, as he readies himself to assume the mantle of his father. So far, the old guard Syrian establishment has lined itself for him but his hold on power may prove tenuous if his inexperience in the Byzantine labyrinth of Syrian politics makes him stumble and make mistakes.

Politics in the Middle East is likely to assume a holding pattern for the foreseeable future. Most of the older generation of Arab leaders have passed away, leaving their successors with the unenviable task of coping with a host of difficult internal and external issues.

To say that the Middle East is in flux today would be to utter a cliche. This state of suspended animation is likely to continue for an indeterminate length of time. We have to continue to hope that the extremists on both sides of the Arab- Israeli divide, who do not want a comprehensive peace, are kept in check and the peace process is allowed to achieve a momentum that ushers in a final, peaceful denouement.

— S. AZMAT HASSAN is the former Pakistani ambassador to Morocco, Syria and Malaysia.

— From: The Daily Record, Morristown, NJ

— Published: June 21, 2000

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