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Lebanon Loses Partner in Death of Assad

Aired June 10, 2000 - 12:42 p.m. ET


JIM CLANCY, CNN ANCHOR: In case you have just joined us, we are continuing our special coverage of the passing of Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad. He ruled the country for some 30 years. He died at the age of 69. Details of that not known specifically. However, he had been in poor health for some time.

The Syrian parliament met shortly after the official announcement was made in Damascus. That parliament then acted very quickly to change the constitution, changes that could pave the way for his son, Dr. Bashar Al-Assad, to succeed his father. That apparently was the wish of Hafez Al-Assad. His son has been groomed for this post, and he is most likely to be the main contender at this time. That parliament will be meeting in two weeks' time, on the 25th of June, when it could make a decision, a formal decision, on a successor to Hafez Al-Assad.

But as we continue to cover reaction to that, the death, the passing of Hafez Al-Assad, we want to look at one of the areas where he was really perhaps felt the most, and that is in the country of Lebanon.

Let's go now to Beirut, CNN's Beirut bureau chief, Brent Sadler, standing by with the latest from there -- Brent.


As you say, the image of President Hafez Al-Assad, a very dominant feature here in the streets of Beirut. There are giant posters, have been for many years, of Hafez Al-Assad, the late Syrian president, dominating not just a military presence here over many years, since 1976, but also political life here, as the powerful neighbor, with some 35,000 troops in Lebanon, the voice of Hafez Al- Assad was always felt very strongly here, both within the military and intelligence communities, as well as the highest levels of the political spectrum here.

Now, news is being filtered out through the news stations here, radio and television. We've seen no special programming as such, but we have seen prayers from the holy Koran being read out on Lebanese television stations. No official comment yet from the Lebanese government and Prime Minister Salim al-Huss. We're still awaiting that, nor from President Emile Lahud.

Now, President Lahud, who assumed office within the past year, was very close to the late Syrian leader, and they had been working very closely on all matters, but particularly -- not only social and economic, but particularly the Middle East peace process, the parallel track of Syria and Lebanon being of paramount importance to the late Syrian leader and also, of course, the Lebanese.

So we now have a situation whereby Hafez Al-Assad has passed on, and also just over two weeks ago, the withdrawal of Israeli troops, occupation forces, from the southern tip of South Lebanon. They've been here in one form or another for 22 years.

So with this death and that Israeli troop withdrawal just a couple of weeks or so ago, two huge changes in the mosaic of the Middle East pattern here, which has been dominant.

Now, if we look at the future, let's see what the heir apparent, that's Dr. Bashar Assad, as he's known in Syria, as he's referred to here in Lebanon, Colonel Bashar Assad, from his rank within the Syrian army. Now, I saw President Hafez Al-Assad's son, Dr. Bashar, several months ago this year in Damascus. He was getting to know international journalists, spoke to CNN personnel. And we had a couple of hours with him off the record, and clearly he was very well aware at that stage of the responsibilities facing him.

As you probably know, his elder brother, BasiL, was killed in a car crash. It had always been assumed that his eldest brother was being groomed to take on the leadership, but Dr. Bashar here, a doctor, I might tell you, Jim, because of his ophthalmology training, an eye specialist in the United Kingdom, and that was his original future, his original career. That was changed dramatically after the death of his brother.

So Dr. Bashar, as I say, spoke to us for a couple of hours earlier this year about his ideas about peace. He seemed to be very clearly up to speed in terms of the Syrian view. He spoke obviously very lovingly and with great respect about his father, talked about how even when he was a boy, when Bashar was a boy, he would watch his father pore through all the Arabic press, through the newspapers, very well aware of what was being said in the Arab world.

Hafez Al-Assad very much trying to keep his finger on the pulse of Arab consensus in his own state, so he could keep control of Syria, and also throughout the Middle East. So Dr. Bashar Assad clearly aware of his father's influence and how that was built up. Hafez Al- Assad himself came from very humble beginnings and grew to become a strong Syrian leader for some three decades, as we know. And Bashar Assad, over the past several months, being groomed to take over this role, which he wasn't expected to do so.

We've seen Bashar Assad take over great responsibilities over the Lebanon file, on all aspects, maintaining regular contacts and public meetings with senior officials here in Lebanon. So more and more, even though he doesn't have a role yet, Dr. Bashar Assad expected to move into that position.

We were expecting, actually, just next week to start reporting on the regional command of the Baath Party, the ruling Baath Party, that was expected to be taking important decisions which related to the late president's son's future.

And now in terms of reaction here in Beirut, let's not forget that Syria had a great deal of influence and importance throughout the years of Lebanon's civil war, a great deal of importance in terms of support for Hezbollah, the guerrilla organization which fought the Israelis over South Lebanon for some 15 years...

CLANCY: Brent...

SADLER: ... Syrian influence here at the political level is indeed great, always has been, and will continue to be so...

CLANCY: All right, but Brent, at the same time...

SADLER: ... to people here.

So Jim, that's what -- how it looks here. Go ahead.

CLANCY: Brent, at the same time, there's certainly a part of Lebanese society that believes that the Syrians particularly have too big of a military presence, too much of a political say in the affairs of Lebanon. Are those voices likely to be raised as a result of the passing of Hafez Al-Assad?

SADLER: Well, Jim, indeed, there have been voices of protest, louder over the past months, about the Syrian presence, as I just referred to here some 35,000 strong soldiers in the country. And since the Israelis pulled out, there'd be more voices being raised about that, certainly within the Christian community of Lebanon, the campaigns having, it was felt, lost out after the 15 years of civil war, lost a lot of their power.

We've seen what the newspapers here, "Anana (ph)," which is published by Gibran Twani (ph), gave some very forceful comments, putting focus, trying to focus on the Syrian presence here, whether it was need -- how long it was needed for, and that the Syrians should consider their positions.

So all these forces, all these interests, are now have jelled together at a very interesting time, given the passing on of president Hafez Al-Assad.

And I'm just being told now the Lebanese prime minister, Salim Husss, has in the first comments called the death of the Syrian leader, quote, "a terrible catastrophe," close quote, for Lebanon, and the Lebanese prime minister, Salim Huss, has ordered one week of official mourning here in this country.

Now we've also got more reports, unconfirmed here, shots and explosions were heard Saturday across the city of Baalbek (ph) in the Syrian-patrolled eastern part of Lebanon, to mourn the death of the Syrian leader. The Baalbek area is a stronghold of Hezbollah, also staunchly pro-Syrian. Let's not forget there are something like a half million casual Syrian workers that are the backbone of the construction industry here in Lebanon. They take some $20 million a week back to Syria. They're very important economically for Syria, are these Lebanon workers. And one would expect that the very pro- Syrian Lebanese parties will indeed make themselves known in terms of how they respond to this death in the very near future -- Jim.

CLANCY: All right, CNN's Beirut bureau chief, Brent Sadler, the view from Lebanon -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Well, as we've been telling you all morning and into the afternoon, none of this does anything to shed light on the enigma that is the Middle East peace process.

Let's take it now to the State Department, where Andrea Koppel is. And Andrea, you know, he's been described, Hafez Al-Assad, that is, has been described as ruthless, a tough negotiator, a focused man. Nevertheless, you had the sense that the Clinton administration felt it could do business with Hafez Al-Assad.

ANDREA KOPPEL, CNN STATE DEPARTMENT CORRESPONDENT: They certainly did, Miles, and they had been heartened in the last seven years, since President Assad had made it known that he was interested in making peace with Israel, it was something that this administration has devoted an extraordinary amount of time, one of President Clinton's top foreign policy goals before he leaves office to try to achieve a comprehensive peace, both between Israel and the Palestinians, and then Israel and Syria, and, of course, with Lebanon as well.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is expected to issue a written statement shortly. There is also expected to be an on-camera statement from President Clinton as well within the very short period of time.

Aides to Secretary Albright say it is too soon to say what impact the passing of President Assad will ultimately have on the peace process. Most recently in January, the Israeli-Syrian track finally got going again not far from here in West Virginia, Shepherdstown. And then it just suddenly stopped, and there had been a lot of work behind the scenes to get it going, and just last week, in fact, Secretary Albright sat down with the Syrian foreign minister and briefed him on her trip, and that was in Egypt.

So there was a hope and expectation within this administration that there would be a comprehensive peace, that there was a possibility, at least, with President Assad in charge, that he had the kind of clout and the firm control of his country and his military to sell a peace deal to his people, which might involve losing some land as well.

Now, in addition, the U.S. is also concerned and waiting and looking for the possibility that there could be a power struggle behind the scenes, Miles. This is not something that they necessarily expect will happen in the next few weeks or even months, but they say it is something that they are watching for.

If, in fact, Dr. Bashar does become president, succeeding his father, he has a lot of work to do, because he doesn't have the kind of military background that his father had, and that his older brother had, who was supposed to and had been groomed to succeed President Assad before his untimely death in 1994 in a car accident.

And so right now, there is -- this is an incredible period of uncertainty, not just for the peace process but also for the Middle East as well -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Well, Andrea, do you know to what extent the administration at any level is familiar with Dr. Bashar, and has a read one way or another as to what he might be bringing to the table?

KOPPEL: Well, they certainly don't know Dr. Bashar as well as they know his father. There has been, of course, with an embassy in Damascus, they have, of course, had interaction with Dr. Bashar. But as far as having had the face time, President Assad had certainly made his -- kept his door open to U.S. officials, whether it was Secretary of State Warren Christopher, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, a number of Secretary Albright's aides, President Clinton, most recently, just met him in Geneva.

And so there is, of course, the U.S. knows something about Dr. Bashar, but they're going to be spending a great deal of time in the very near future trying to get to know him better.

O'BRIEN: All right, CNN's Andrea Koppel reporting to us live from the State Department. We will, of course, be checking in with her in -- as events warrant and all throughout the afternoon as we continue our coverage.

CLANCY: All right, yes, we are looking at the developments. Who will succeed Hafez Al-Assad, the Syrian president, who passed away at age 69, and what will be the effects of all of this on the Middle East peace process?

There's much more to come in our special coverage. Don't go away.




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