- The Washington Times - Monday, June 12, 2000

As is customary, news of the death of a foreign leader of less than friendly or democratic credentials has set off a round of political rhetoric and commentary that hits far off the mark. The sudden death of Syrian President Hafez Assad on Friday fits the mold. There will be much more of this as the world watches the funeral, which is scheduled for Tuesday.
President Clinton, looking shocked and distraught at the news which came as he was giving a commencement address in Minnesota, spoke in a statement of Mr. Assad's strategic commitment to the peace process, and described how well he had come to know Mr. Assad over the past seven years. Both the president and the secretary of state predicted that the Middle East peace process would survive without him. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said that Mr. Assad "will be remembered as a statesman of great authority and as a person of firm and consistent principle, who led his country over decades through a period of change and turbulence in the area." Not to be outdone, British Prime Minister Tony Blair dispatched a telegram to Damascus saying that Mr. Assad "was a figure of stability in the Middle East and much respected in the Arab world and beyond." Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat declared three days of mourning, and Israeli prime Minister Yehud Barak expressed understanding of the "sorrow of the Syrian people."
All of which suggest that these folks must be trying terribly hard to be polite. Nothing wrong with a dose of politeness when someone dies, but Mr. Assad's credentials as a force for peace are, well, tentative to put it delicately.
In one sense, Mr. Assad was indeed a force for stability in the region. He ruled Syria with an iron fist after coming to power in a military coup in 1970. He ruled neighboring Lebanon as well, which Syria invaded in 1976. In the wake of the recent Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon that control became uncontested. On the home front, in 1982, Mr. Assad quelled an uprising in the Syrian town of Hama that cost 10,000 lives. Yes, Mr. Assad very much favored stability. His support for terrorism was also quite consistent; year after year, Syria showed up in the U.S. State Department's report on terrorism-exporting nations.
It might also be argued that Mr. Assad favored stability in negotiations with Israel to the point of petrifaction. Even as Egypt made peace with Israel in 1979 and Jordan in 1994, Syria stubbornly refused any negotiated peace. The stumbling bloc was always the return of the Golan Heights, which Israel had won in 1967 when Syria and its other Arab neighbors launched the Six Day War. At the time, Mr. Assad was minister of defense, and when he had made it to the top, he launched with Egypt the Yom Kippur War to take the Golan back in 1973. This was equally disastrous for his own side. Americans, nonetheless, never tired of seeing glimmers of hope in the Syrian rejections to their peace overtures. Former Secretary of State Warren Christopher probably paid more visits to Mr. Assad than any other head of state in the entire world.
Whatever minute movement has been detected by the Clinton administration and the Barak government in Israel on the Syrian side of negotiations has been the result of disastrous economic conditions in Syrian and a need for American aid. Administration officials like U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dennis Ross, who has spoken glowingly of Mr. Assad's philosophical commitment to peace, have very little to show for it in practical terms. The Israeli-Syrian talks in West Virginia in January this year proved unsuccessful, though the fact of the meeting itself was hailed as giant leap forward. After Mr. Clinton's meeting with Mr. Assad in Geneva in March, he was practically livid at the Syrian leader's intransigence.
For now, though, the world will praise Mr. Assad as a man of peace and vision. After that, it will praise his successor as a reformer. And so it goes.

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