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Western Press Review: Syria, Korea, Turkey, Afghanistan

  • Joel Blocker

Prague, 14 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Western press commentary today continues to focus largely on two major events -- the death of Syrian dictator Hafez Assad and the meeting in North Korea's capital Pyongyang of that country's leadership and its long-time adversaries in South Korea. There are also comments on Turkey's growing association with Europe and on the plight of women in Afghanistan.


In a commentary for Canada's Globe and Mail daily, columnist Marcus Gee offers a blistering assessment of Hafez Assad's 30 years of rule in Syria. He writes: "It's amazing how death transforms a man. A vicious despot while he lived, [Assad] has been eulogized around the world since his death. U.S. President Bill Clinton said he had a great respect for the man who paid terrorists to go after innocent Americans. French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin said he felt 'great emotion' at the passing of the leader who had thousands of Syrians shot down in the streets of the city of Hama. Former Russian prime minister Yevgeny Primakov called him a 'wise statesman,' a reference, no doubt, to his role as a Soviet pawn in the Middle East."

"Enough of this sentimental nonsense," Gee exclaims. "Let us remember Hafez Assad for what he was -- a brutal, baleful, blinkered, obstinate, weak and fearful man who drove his country into the ground, tried to drive Israel into the sea and missed a historic chance to cement peace in the Middle East." He goes on: "People in the West often called Mr. Assad 'wily,' an adjective that often adheres to men who manage to stay in power for a long time -- the wily Cuban leader Fidel Castro, the wily Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein. But there is no guile in wielding a whip."

"What happens now?" Gee then asks. "Like many weak leaders," he says, "Mr. Assad was too afraid to groom a successor who might be a rival while he lived. So he chose his son: a bookish opthalmologist who seems wholly unprepared to fill his father's shoes." Gee sums up: "Whatever happens, things can hardly be worse for Syrians -- or for [Middle East] peace -- than they were under his father. The only 'great emotion' to feel at the death of Hafez Assad is joy."


Two German newspapers carry commentaries on Assad only slightly less critical than Gee's. Writing from Damascus for the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Rudolph Chimelli calls Assad's legacy "dangerous. The dynastic hand-over in Syria," he says, "does not make peace with Israel likelier."

Chimelli goes on: "Whereas Assad Senior was a man who made no concessions, Assad Junior [that is, son Bashar,] maintains he cannot afford to make any during the remaining months of Bill Clinton's presidency and given the current weakness of the Israeli prime minister's position. The Israelis," Chimelli adds, "have received nothing in return for their withdrawal from southern Lebanon. This was the final stroke of Assad's strategy, forced upon him by a war of attrition carried out in Syria's name by the Hizbollah forces in Lebanon. It was a strategy," the commentator says, "which has left Syria standing alone."

Citing other recent changes in leadership elsewhere in the Arab world, Chimelli says: "It is still to be seen whether the ascendancy of a new generation to the top will bring with it any fundamental change. Protocol is simplified," he acknowledges, "communication becomes easier, the face shown to the public is lifted, and politicians who are particularly corrupt or out of favor also find themselves out of office. But," he argues, "the power structures remain untouched. The fact that Syria is to become a hereditary monarchy -- announced to general approval -- is no indication that Damascus is on the road to modernization."


The second German commentary on Assad appears in Die Welt, where Evanglos Antonaros says that "Arabs everywhere are wondering what comes next in Syria. Most Arabs," he writes, "suspect that the succession will not -- at least initially -- go as smoothly as the swift nomination of son Bashar seems to suggest."

The commentary continues: "Especially those Arab states that are currently engaged in dialogue with Israel fear that internal power struggles in Syria will halt the peace process or even spell its end. [A major question for them] is whether the 34-year-old Bashar possesses his father's abilities to tame the radical Islamist Hizbollah organization and avoid unnecessarily provoking Israel."

In Beirut, Antonaros adds, "the main issue is the ever-louder call for a withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, and a free hand for the Lebanese government in its own affairs. How Bashar will deal with this," he writes, "is unlikely to become clear for some time." But the pressure on Assad's son is already strong, according to Antonaros. "Even before Assad's death," he notes, "the influential Beirut daily 'An Nahar' twice called on Bashar to end Syria's military occupation of Lebanon."


Addressing this week's summit meeting in Pyongyang, Britain's Daily Telegraph says that "its fruits are hard to predict, such are the differences and level of mistrust between the two halves of the Korean peninsula." The paper writes in an editorial: "The northern, and younger, Kim [Jong-Il] will doubtless demand the withdrawal of American troops from the South, something that his guest [Kim Dae-Jung] will not accept." Rather, the editorial says, "the southern leader's emphasis [will] be on gradually developing contacts with the North through the reunion of separated families, increased trade and the exchange of post and phone calls."

"However," the paper points out, "these seemingly modest and humane steps could be viewed as a threat by paranoid Kim Jong-Il's Stalinist regime. What," it asks, "if burgeoning ties across the demilitarized zone reveal to northerners that the South is not the hell that their rulers make it out to be, but rather -- after 52 years of separation -- has done incomparably better than the North? For that reason, Pyongyang is likely to respond cautiously to Seoul's proposals."

Still, the editorial adds: "In the meantime, much can be done to defuse a classic case of Cold War confrontation. Kim Jong-Il should return his guest's visit. Ministerial exchanges in the two Korean capitals should replace sterile stalemate on the [Korean demilitarized zone] in Panmunjom. The two countries," it also suggests, "should sign a peace treaty and start cutting back their armed forces." The paper ends on a hopeful note: "After decades of sporadic talks and attempts at mediation by respective allies, leaders of the two Koreas have at last got together. May their encounter bear fruit."


A commentary in the Irish Times by Conor O'Clery finds striking similarities in the histories of Korea and Ireland. He writes: "There are many parallels between Ireland and Korea, which is sometimes referred to as the Ireland of Asia. The two have a history of colonial occupation. The people of both Ireland and Korea also have an informality at odds with the more reserved social customs of the colonial power, which in Korea's case was Japan [and in Ireland's, Britain]."

O'Clery says further that "the most obvious shared experience is that of partition." But, he adds, "the border between North and South Korea is much more formidable than between the two parts of Ireland, where partition [by the British] was never an impediment to free movement." Korea's misfortune, he goes on, "was that it was an area of greater strategic importance than Ireland, and the border became a confrontation zone between two ideologies."

With the end of the Cold War, the commentator goes on, "North Korea's leaders refused to abandon their communist system, and their country became an anachronism in the modern world." The result, he says, "is a country without computers, the Internet, mobile telephones, modern vehicles, up-to-date medicines or modern household devices. Its people are stifled by censorship and forced to live in a cult-like atmosphere of worship for the Dear Leader. Millions have died from hunger and related diseases as crops and farming methods failed in the 1990s."


In a commentary from Istanbul for the Wall Street Journal Europe, the paper's editor Fred Kempe writes of what he calls "the fall of the Turkish wall [separating it from Europe]." Kempe says: "When the European Union gave Turkey the cold shoulder in 1997 [at a summit] in Luxembourg, rejecting it as a candidate member, human rights abuses increased and the economy worsened. When it again had the carrot of possible EU candidacy and then received the invitation [at a summit in 1999], Turkey's behavior improved."

"Most importantly," Kempe argues, "the EU has strengthened the hand of those Turks who would guide the country most wisely. They see the European Union and the International Monetary Fund as providing not only benchmarks but also political and economic 'straitjackets,' saving their country from its less controlled moments."

The commentary also says: "There is a cost for the EU, of course. Expanding to Poland expands Europe, but embracing Turkey redefines it. It would be second only to Germany in size, and the EU's first Islamic member. That said," Kempe sums up, "Poland primarily addresses Europe's obligations of the past, while embracing Turkey prevents the problems of the future."


Finally, in a commentary for the U.S. daily Baltimore Sun, health-care expert Lauren Goodsmith writes of what she calls "the dreadful fate" of Afghan women. "Imagine," she says, "a place where women are forbidden to work, and where many who were once doctors and lawyers now beg in order to support their children. A place where girls are no longer allowed to attend school, and female teachers furtively hold classes for them in private homes." It sounds, she suggests, "like the stuff of science fiction, horrific and absurd. But such is life for the women and girls of Afghanistan under extreme Islamic fundamentalist rule."

Goodsmith says further: "In the 90 percent of the country now under Taliban hold, girls are not permitted to attend schools or universities. Women are nearly universally barred from employment, and are not allowed to venture out publicly unless accompanied by a close male relative. They must cover themselves in the enshrouding 'burqa,' a bulky robe with a face-covering hood, or risk the ire of the special police force. " The penalty for such "immodest dress," she adds, "is usually a public lashing."

Goodsmith notes, too, that "the health status of Afghan women has plummeted. Taliban rules on separation of the sexes," she says, "dictate that a woman must be treated by a female doctor in a sex-segregated medical facility. However, only a handful of women have been given special dispensation to practice medicine, usually under dismal conditions. This in a country where formerly 40 percent of all doctors were women." She concludes: "It is little wonder that [recent studies show] Afghanistan's women are experiencing mass trauma."