Accessibility links

Breaking News

Western Press Review: Assad's Death, Korean Summit

Prague, 12 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The death of Syria's long-time president, Hafez Assad, announced on Saturday (June 10), has unleashed a flood of commentary in the Western press. Analysts assess Assad's more than 30 years of dictatorial power and what his death could mean for the Middle East peace process. There are also some comments looking forward to tomorrow's historic meeting between the leaders of North and South Korea.


Our selection of the extensive commentary on Assad begins with the U.S. press. The New York Times carries no less than three comments today, including an editorial that says Assad "has been a fixture of Syrian politics and diplomacy for so long that it is hard to imagine the Middle East without him." Assad, notes the paper, "maintained his tight grip through a cold-blooded instinct for power. He surrounded himself with loyal military commanders from his minority Alawite religious group and assured his domination through the competing machinations of 15 intelligence agencies. When all else failed," the editorial adds, "he did not hesitate to use violence, as in his 1982 massacre of 10,000 residents of the rebellious [Syrian] city of Hama."


New York Times columnist William Safire is even more critical of Assad. He writes in a commentary: "If you want to make a list of the Syrian dictator Hafez Assad's good deeds, begin with this: He was an enemy of Iraq's Saddam Hussein. That's where the list ends." Safire then adds: "On the debit side of [Assad's] life's ledger can be included his eager alliance with Soviet Communism; his slaughter of thousands of dissident Syrians in Hama; his avid support of terrorists worldwide; his military occupation of neighboring Lebanon; and most consuming of all, his abiding hatred of Israel, which made Assad the Arab world's most relentless rejectionist."


New York Times foreign-affairs columnist Thomas Friedman asks in his commentary: "What is Hafez Assad's legacy? How should his epitaph read? That's an easy one," he says. "His gravestone should read: 'Hafez Assad, feared and ferocious president of Syria: He stayed too long and he died too soon.'" Friedman goes on to say: "Assad -- for years the Middle East leader most incapable of change -- [finally] realized that change was mandatory if he wanted to turn over a stable Syria to his son, Bashar, [but] he bowed out before getting the really hard stuff done."

As for staying too long, Friedman argues: "In [1977], just before going to Jerusalem, President Anwar Sadat of Egypt went to Damascus to meet with Assad and encourage him to follow Egypt's lead with Israel. Assad refused," says Friedman, "and he spent the next 23 years [trying] to prove that he could get more from Israel and give less. And what does Assad have to show for those 23 years?" the commentator asks. "Not much. At best he will remembered for what he didn't do."


In an editorial yesterday, the Washington Post took a similar view of Assad, calling him "a ruthless dictator. Historians," the paper said, "will have to scour the record to find any positive traits. But he did embody a perverse sort of reliability. Usually, this too functioned as a negative: He was reliably intransigent, reliably hostile to Israel, and reliably supportive of terrorism." The paper also said that, "in the immediate term, Mr. Assad's death puts on ice the Israeli-Syrian negotiating track -- which, despite a recent flurry of activity, already seemed unpromising."


But the Washington Post today runs a commentary by Middle East specialist Daniel Pipes, which offers a quite different view. Pipes writes: "The death of Hafez Assad appears to have driven the final nail of the coffin of peace efforts between Israel and Syria -- so reads a typical assessment. But this analysis," he argues, "has it exactly wrong. So long as Syria's President Assad was alive, there was never a chance of a Syrian-Israeli peace treaty. Now that he is dead, it is newly possible." Pipes then adds: "With Assad's [death], the situation in Damascus changes completely. While it is far too early to tell who will have what future role there, it seems quite certain that whatever happens, the fears and logic that drove Hafez Assad are defunct." Pipes concludes: "The great constraint on Syrian peacemaking is gone."


Two French dailies also comment on Assad's death. In a news analysis for Le Monde, Jean Gueyras and Mouna Naem write: "[Called] 'the Arab Bismark' by his admirers and 'bloody despot' by his critics, Assad remained an enigma to the end. He governed his country with an iron fist," the analysts say, "and his death leaves a political vacuum difficult to fill."

They add: "Without doubt, he succeeded in creating -- by terror, when necessary -- a strongly centralized and stable state [and] made it a regional power that had to be reckoned with. But," they conclude, "he either did not know how -- or did not want to -- open his country up to the wider world, particularly in economic affairs. As for foreign policy, [he] was never able to realize his principal objective: erase the humiliation suffered by the Arabs [at the hands of the Israelis] in 1967, during the so-called 'Six-Day War."


In the daily Liberation, commentator Jean-Pierre Perrin calls Assad "a dictator who mixed guile and reason, a man both austere and pitiless." He adds: "Assad was one of the few tyrants who disdained palaces and gold ornaments, avoided parades and mistrusted the limelight. He preferred to rest in the shadows in order to control the invisible spheres of power. And it was this 'modesty' and those shadows that always concealed his intentions and his ambitions."


Several papers today comment on tomorrow's scheduled meeting in Pyongyang between the leaders of South and North Korea. The Wall Street Journal Asia says that "Pyongyang's surprise request Saturday to postpone the summit between the two Korean presidents by one day is a useful reminder that no speedy rapprochement between North and South is likely." The paper's editorial continues: "If the summit takes place -- and a once-unimaginable photo of the leaders of the two Koreas shaking hands is beamed around the world -- that in itself is significant progress. Considering that the North's leaders have threatened in the past to turn Seoul into a 'sea of fire,' this summit is at very least a welcome sign that [North Korean] President Kim Jong Il sees the value of diplomacy in achieving his objectives."


In the Washington Post, analyst Marcus Noland writes in a commentary: "Tomorrow, the leaders of North and South Korea are scheduled to hold their first-ever summit. Analysts have pondered whether this signals a strategic re-orientation by North Korea's increasingly confident leader Kim Jong-Il or is a ploy designed to extract even more resources from South Korea." Noland argues: "The secret visit to Beijing last week by Kim Jong-Il supports the argument that this is the real deal and that the North Koreans are serious about opening to the outside world."

His commentary goes on: "In the decade since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the breakup of the Eastern Bloc, the North Koreans in general and Kim Jong-Il in particular have been scathing in their denunciation of reforms undertaken in Eastern Europe, which have been likened to 'germs,' 'mosquitoes' and other vermin. In 1994," Noland adds, "the North Koreans described the Chinese as 'traitors to the socialist cause," but toned down the rhetoric as their growing desperation required increasing reliance on Chinese beneficence."

He concludes: "Clearly, North Korea's ultimate intentions are ambiguous. But Kim Jong-Il's visit to China suggests that the upcoming summit represents more than tactical maneuvering on his part and carries significant implications [whatever] his motives."


In a commentary for the Danish daily Aktuelt, Asger Roejle says: "The career of South Korea's President Kim Dae Jung -- who has spent all his life trying to bring the two Koreas closer to each other -- will reach new heights when he meets with the North's [Communist] Party boss in Pyongyang in what is the first summit between the two states for half a century. Jung, who has earned a reputation as an authoritarian democrat, hopes to be able to start a dialogue with the North [that] may get him this year's Nobel Peace Prize."

The commentary also says: "While it is unclear what concrete results the summit will produce, its declared aim -- at least as far as the South is concerned -- is to make it possible eventually to unite the two parts of the Korean peninsula in one state. For the time being, however, the most remarkable thing about the summit is that the leaders of the two Koreas are actually meeting at all, will talk Korean to each other, and will allow themselves to be photographed side by side. Since past relations between the two states have been -- at the least -- acrimonious, this in itself is an achievement."

(Anthony Georgieff in Copenhagen contributed to this report.)