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A Times Editorial

Syria's time of grief

After the death of Syria's President Hafez Assad, Syrians need time before continuing the peace process.

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 13, 2000

Hafez Assad was a man of large contradictions. Syria's president was Israel's most dangerous and implacable enemy, yet he dependably lived up to the postwar agreements he was forced to accept after his army's provocations against Israel backfired. Assad was murderous in maintaining his grip on power, but he lived relatively simply and accessibly. Syrians' extravagant displays of grief at the news of Assad's death were genuine.

The passing of Assad probably will put the Middle East peace process on hold for a few months. Young Bashar Assad is unlikely to make any bold overtures until he manages to consolidate his tenuous role as his father's successor. However, new leadership in Syria may ultimately hasten a genuine peace with Israel. Hafez Assad almost single-handedly blocked a regional peace for decades. He was said to have finally reconciled himself recently to coexistence with Israel, but his insistence on regaining every inch of Golan Heights territory Syria lost in the 1967 war made it impossible for him to take the final steps necessary to make a formal peace. Bashar Assad, unburdened by his father's paranoia and long memory, will have a chance to complete that journey.

Young Assad also will be watched for signs that he will relax his father's subjugation of political rights in Syria. Bashar, a Western-educated ophthalmologist who had held no official governmental role until now, has a chance to join with other younger leaders, such as Jordan's King Abdullah II and Morocco's King Mohammed VI, in expanding the rights of women, religious and ethnic minorities and political dissidents in a region that generally has been hostile to such freedoms.

Washington officials, who habitually find themselves in the middle of Middle East peace negotiations, are wise to step back for now. Hafez Assad moved tantalizingly close to an accord with Israel earlier this year, but he had retreated in recent weeks. His declining health may have been a factor, but he could not have easily moved Syria beyond decades of mistrust. Restarting that process should wait until Syrians have a chance to grieve and Bashar Assad has a chance to show he is a true leader.

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