- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 18, 2000

DAMASCUS, Syria Standing under a huge portrait of his late father, Bashar Assad assumed Syria's presidency before a cheering legislature yesterday and quickly rejected Western-style democracy and territorial concessions to Israel.
Mr. Assad, a 34-year-old former eye doctor and the chosen successor of Hafez Assad, addressed the People's Assembly, or parliament, after a swearing-in ceremony that completed his smooth ascent to power. He pledged to carry on his father's policies.
"We cannot apply the democracy of others on ourselves," he said in his inaugural address. "We have to have our democratic experience which is special to us, which stems from our history, culture, civilization and which is a response to the needs of our society and the requirements of our reality.
"The political strategy which [Hafez Assad] devised and supervised … proved a great success until this very day," he said.
Discussing Middle East peace, Mr. Assad said the recovery of the Golan Heights, which Israel captured in 1967, "is at the top of our national priorities." He urged the United States "to play its full role as an honest broker and a co-sponsor" of Israeli-Syrian peace talks.
He stressed that Syria will not deviate from his father's rejection of any territorial compromises.
"We have the urge to reach a state of peace, but we have no urge to compromise an inch of our territory," he said.
Mr. Assad also told Syrians he will improve their lives by revitalizing the economy, reforming the administration and eliminating corruption.
Earlier, he arrived at parliament and was met by cheering crowds chanting: "With our blood and soul, we sacrifice ourselves to you." Inside, he placed his right hand on the Koran, the Muslim holy book, and vowed to "respect the constitution and the laws and preserve the people's interests."
The hall, decorated in traditional Syrian wood inlay and dominated by a large portrait of Hafez Assad, echoed with thunderous applause as 249 of parliament's 250 delegates one member was on sick leave gave the new president a standing ovation.
Eyal Zisser, a Syria expert at Tel Aviv University, said there was not much new in the speech, particularly on the issue of Syria-Israel peace talks but there were signs things could gradually change. Mr. Assad's pledge to bring his country "into the 21st century" means "Israel must give him a chance," Mr. Zisser told Israeli television.
In Jerusalem, spokesman Aviv Shiron said Foreign Minister David Levy was waiting to review a translation of the speech before commenting.
Mr. Assad's inauguration to a seven-year term as Syria's 16th president comes little more than a month after his father's June 10 death. Running as the only candidate, the younger Mr. Assad was elected last week by 97.29 percent of voters in a referendum orchestrated by the ruling Ba'ath party.
Since the election, pictures and banners with slogans supporting the new leader have to a large extent disappeared from the streets, government buildings and car windows of Damascus.
Their absence has been seen as sign of the new president's more modern approach to politics: He reportedly ordered their removal and has urged the state-run media to refrain from the exaggerated praise common under his autocratic father.
His speech yesterday was interrupted more than a dozen times by applause. He spoke at length about economic development the major concern in a country where unemployment is believed to be 20 percent and economic growth has fallen to 2 percent to 3 percent since 1996.
Mr. Assad promised to improve Syrians' lives by introducing transparency and accountability in government. He said he will gradually change the economy by modernizing antiquated laws, eliminating bureaucracy and revitalizing the private and public sectors.
"I find it absolutely necessary to call upon every single citizen to participate in the process of development and modernization," he said.
The new president, who has spearheaded a two-year anti-corruption campaign, also indicated he will continue the purge. "There is no escape from bringing the careless, the corrupt and the evildoers to justice," he said.
The purge has already landed two ministers in prison, and former Prime Minister Mahmoud Zu'bi committed suicide moments before a police commander could deliver a summons for his arrest.

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