As Syrian President Hafez Assad was buried Tuesday following a fatal heart attack three days earlier, all eyes shifted to his son Bashar to see if the military and political establishment that thrust him into his father’s shoes would remain loyal to him.
Leaders in several countries also expressed the hope that Bashar, 34, a British-trained ophthalmologist, would break the stalemate that has prevented a Syrian-Israeli peace treaty.
“The best testimony to President Assad’s memory would be for all involved to redouble their efforts to bring a just and lasting peace to the region,” said British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
But analysts offered differing views on just how soon Bashar would turn his attention to making peace with Israel and ending a state of war that has lasted 52 years.
“He needs to first consolidate his rule,” said Moshe Maoz, a Hebrew University professor and one of Israel’s foremost experts on Syria.
But Maoz suggested that if Bashar could quickly negotiate a “creative solution” with Israel that would allow him to “tell his public that Israel returned to the June 4, 1967 border, it would make him more popular.”
Syria, with Hafez Assad as Syrian defense minister, lost the Golan Heights to Israel in the Six-Day War of June 1967. The elder Assad — who died at the age of 69 after having seized power in a bloodless coup in 1970 and ruled with an iron fist for the next 30 years — steadfastly refused to make peace with Israel until it returned every inch of the captured land.
President Bill Clinton met with Assad in March but failed to convince him to be flexible enough to return to peace talks that began in January.
The key issue appeared to be Israel’s insistence on keeping control of a strip of land along the northeastern corner of Lake Kinneret to ensure continued use of drinking water from the lake.
Maoz suggested a joint sovereignty or management of the land, or perhaps even the creation of a peace park there in order to “blur the issue” and let both sides emerge a winner.
Henry Siegman, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Policy, said he believed Bashar would focus so much attention on “establishing his power base that the peace process will be put in the freezer.”
“He will not venture into this field until he acquires confidence in his leadership and in the regime he puts together. He has the support of the army and the intelligence agencies for the moment, but there are clearly forces in Syria that would like to challenge him,” Siegman said.
On Monday, the late Assad’s estranged brother, Rifaat, issued a statement from Spain suggesting that he would work to overthrow the new government. Rifaat, accused by Hafez Assad of trying to seize power, has not been allowed back into Syria since his nephew’s funeral in 1994.
Malcolm Hoenlein, vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said another brother, Jamil, might also be a threat.
“All of them believe they should have this opportunity,” he said. “The issue of succession is temporarily resolved, but the long-term outcome is yet to be proven.”
Jonathan Paris, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said Bashar Assad might work out a “peace [treaty] with Israel as a way to cement his position. If he could make a deal and win back the Golan, he would be seen as a player to be reckoned with in Syria and the wider region.
“If I were Bashar, I would see if I could cut a deal when the next [U.S.] administration takes office. I could see him starting to make feelers to Israel using back channel intermediaries because the two sides are so close to a deal. Making peace with Israel is formidable, but not as difficult as it was for [the elder] Assad,” he said, because President Assad saw himself responsible for the loss of the Golan Heights.
Siegman noted that Bashar, in a recent series of informal back-channel discussions with Israel using an intermediary, did not rule out the idea of employing creative solutions to resolving the Golan Heights impasse. In fact, said Siegman, after the failed Clinton-Assad talks in March, Bashar “went out of his way through back channels to say that there were still ways” to resolve the impasse.
“He did not commit himself to a solution, but he said there were formulas out there that could bridge the differences,” said Siegman.
But in two interviews just days before his father’s death, Bashar said Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak was either unwilling or politically too weak to make the concessions necessary for peace. And he revealed that the Saudi ambassador to Washington had made four secret trips to Damascus in recent weeks with messages from the U.S. in a bid to resolve the stalemate.
Bashar charged in a Saudi newspaper that Israel’s concerns about the security of Lake Kinneret were just a pretext for not concluding a peace treaty.
“In any case,” Bashar was quoted as saying, “talking about these issues is premature and should follow discussion on land, which is the basic issue.”
In an Egyptian newspaper interview published June 5, he repeated his father’s insistence that Israel must “accept a full withdrawal to the June 4, 1967 border as a basic precondition in order for the Syrian side to accept the peace process.” He said Israel’s refusal to make that commitment was the reason the meeting with Clinton failed in March.
But Paris of the Council on Foreign Relations said he believes Assad deliberately balked at a deal with Israel in order to put his own house in order.
“He saw his impending death and he had to focus 100 percent on preparing for the transfer of power [to his son],” said Paris. “That was so important that he couldn’t finish the deal started” in the January talks.
After a 20-minute private meeting with Bashar Tuesday after paying her respects at his father’s funeral, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said she was “very encouraged by his desire to follow in his father’s footsteps. His father had taken a strategic decision for peace and Dr. Bashar said he would continue on the same road.”
In an earlier interview, Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said he was disturbed that many of the “eulogies forget who he was.” Listening to the eulogies, he said, is like seeing “history being rewritten before our eyes. Yes, he made a strategic decision [to make peace with Israel], but he did not act on it.”
Foxman noted that Assad supported Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon in their attacks on Israel and maintained 30,000 troops in Lebanon.
As far as Bashar is concerned, Foxman said simply: “He can’t be worse.”
Foxman said he hoped Bashar would “join the ranks” of the new generation of leaders in the Middle East and move toward peace with Israel. He was referring to Jordan’s King Abdullah, 38, who succeeded his late father in February 1999, and Morocco’s King Mohamed VI, 36, who assumed power last July following the death of his father, Hassan.
Observers noted that Bashar, who before his father’s death had been placed in charge of Syrian policy in Lebanon, has a reputation for honesty and as a modernizer who sought to end Syria’s isolation. And when his father changed the cabinet in March, Bashar recommended that his father have them implement administrative and economic reforms.