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                       THE LION OF DAMASCUS?

    "The Americans are snubbing both Syria and Arab nationalism"

MID-EAST REALITIES - www.MiddleEast.Org - Washington - 6/10/00:
Assad stood tall they say, attempting to preserve Arab honor and Arab nationalism.  He did not succumb to Israeli tricks and American promises.   He did not knuckle under to Israeli threats and American dictates.

But for all of his attempts at maintaining Arab nationalism and dignity, Assad did not really lead Syria anywhere.  He was ruthless and unbending in refusing to give his own country the room and institutions it really needed to grow and evolve.  It was during his reign that the Arab world was further reduced to a group of backward states whom all together have a population 30+ times greater than Israel but military and economic power now just a fraction of Israel's.  He did prevent the Israelis from twisting Lebanon into a client state of its own.  But he also presided over Lebanon's self-flaggelating orgy of bleeding and suffering; and he actually helped make possible and even participated in the West's rape and genocide of Iraq.

And now, in a final legacy of old rather than new, of national weakness rather than strength, Assad's last gesture is attempting to pass the throne to his son Bashar rather than having prepared Syria to be a modern-day state where institutions and talent are dominant rather than nepotism and tribalism.

The Americans are snubbing both Syria and Arab nationalism with neither the American President, nor Vice-President, attending Assad's funeral.  Of course the spin will be otherwise -- and soon the big push will be put on the new Syrian leadership once again -- but this slight may have unexpected resonance for a nation so sensitive to ever slight.  The power and importance of Syria, by Arab standards anyway, remains; even though it is in the end Syria's overall weakness that is responsible for the American Secretary of State heading to Damascus once again at this very symbolic time rather than the President who at much more sensitive times in office made his way to Rabat and Amman for other funerals in recent years.

This article about Assad from Robert Fisk is in Sunday's The Independent.


 By Robert Fisk, Middle East Correspondent

[The Independent, 11 June 2000]:
His 30-foot statues stand in gold along Syria's great highways. His armies of
intelligence agents rule every Ba'ath party meeting. His ministers gave total
allegiance to the man who ruled Syria for almost 30 years.

After such loyalty, after such faith and fear, who can follow him?

His son Bashar, who was expected to be appointed successor at a Ba'ath party
meeting in Damascus next Saturday? The cabal of ministers who have served him
with such fidelity "save for those just cut down in a corruption purge?
Assad's disgraced brother Rifaat, who was yesterday still languishing in his
French exile?

It is impossible even to imagine the unimaginable: the Middle East without

Before Assad, there was only chaos in Syria, rule by constant coup d'état.
But the Lion of Damascus gave his country stability and won even the respect
of those who most feared his army: the Israelis.

Before visiting diplomats, Assad would kneel on the floor, maps spread out
around him, expatiating for four, five, even six hours on Syria's need for a
return of the occupied Golan Heights.

When he met President Clinton in Geneva a few weeks ago, he spoke eloquently
and at length about his demand for an Israeli withdrawal to the very shores
of the Sea of Galilee where he, Assad, remembered playing as a child.

He had taken what he always called a "strategic decision" for peace. He
intended to sign a peace with Israel if he got back the whole of Golan "not
just in stages, or a peace treaty followed by negotiations on a retreat from
Golan or a withdrawal spaced over five years.

He was a pragmatic, hard, calculating man, perhaps the only opponent who
could match Israel's tough bargaining. Which is why he despised Yasser
Arafat's defeat at the hands of Israeli negotiators and Arafat's constant

Assad is said to have personally hated the PLO chairman; he once ordered
Arafat put on a private jet out of Damascus after the Palestinian leader
appeared to oppose Syria's Middle East policies.

But Assad has died at a critical moment for Syria "a moment of potential
weakness which Syria's enemies may well try to take advantage of. Without his
son appointed dauphin, with the government still weak from purges, with the
Israelis newly withdrawn from southern Lebanon and Golan still unreclaimed,
Syria is scarcely at the zenith of its power.

The guerrilla war against Israel's occupation force in southern Lebanon was
the one powerful card in Assad's hand to demand a retreat from Golan. But the
Israelis have now left.

Syria's old role of postman between the West and Iran "helping to arrange
hostage releases and passing on German, British or American messages to
Iran's religious leadership "had been receding as a modernist clerical
regime came to power in the Islamic Republic.

Its economy remained centrist, un-privatised at a time when Assad was
unwilling to disturb Ba'ath party sinecures with the radical measures needed
to free the country's economy and help pay off the billions of dollars in
military debts it still owes to Russia.

And what of Assad's 21,000 troops in Lebanon? No sooner had the Israelis left
the south of Lebanon than the country's Christian Maronite minority began
demanding a concomitant Syrian withdrawal; and Assad's death will inevitably
strengthen demands for the Beirut government "a satellite of Syrian rule in
the eyes of many other Arabs "to take Lebanon's affairs into its own hands.

America and Israel, whose Middle East policies have been interchangeable for
more than two decades, will be among the first to demand, at Syria's moment
of weakness, that it withdraws its forces from Lebanon.

Bashar Assad, 36, trained as an opthamologist in Britain, a believer in
global communication, a staff colonel in the army, is the man most likely to
take over.

Assad's favourite son Basil was killed in a car accident near Damascus
airport. But Bashar remains untried, save for his anti-corruption drive and
his reported role in purging senior ministers last month.

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