Tens of Thousands Pay Respects To 'Lion of Damascus'

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:08 PM EDT

Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Tens of thousands of Syrians lined the black-draped streets of Damascus on Tuesday to catch a glimpse of the funeral cortege of their late leader, Hafez Assad, who died over the weekend.

Assad's coffin, draped with the red, white and black Syrian flag and followed by his heir apparent and son, Bashar, was carried from the palace where Assad had lived during most of his reign on the shoulders of the elite Republican Guard.

In a closed casket, the body of Assad, whose adopted name meant "lion" was laid in state at the Shaab, or "People's Palace," overlooking Damascus for five hours. He will be laid to rest at the family mausoleum in his hometown of Qardaha late on Tuesday, next to his firstborn son, Basel, who was killed in a car accident in 1994.

Foreign dignitaries from 50 nations paid their last respects to the Syrian leader and offered condolences to the family. However, many of those in attendance were not heads of state.

French President Jacques Chirac is the only leader from a Western nation to attend. France has strong ties with both Syria and Lebanon from the days when they were French colonies. Many countries are represented at Assad's funeral by their foreign ministers.

Arab leaders attended the funeral, among them Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, who is seeking to improve the strained relations he has had with Syria.

However, Arafat was honored only as the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization and not as the head of the PA at the funeral. After years of supporting Palestinian terrorist organizations, Assad had disapproved of Arafat's signing an agreement with Israel in 1993.

Peace Prospects

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who represented the US, said that she hoped that the new Syrian regime would become part of the Middle East peace process.

Prior to leaving Washington, Albright told reporters that it was "essential for Syria to be a part of a regional solution in the Middle East...[to make] a way that the whole region can prosper with Israel as an integral part of it."

Both President Clinton and Albright eulogized Assad, saying that he had been committed to peace with Israel. However, US-brokered talks were deadlocked at the time of Assad's death, and Syria remained on the State Department's list of states that sponsored terrorism.

When challenged on this point, Albright replied, "I think that it's totally appropriate that we pay our respects to a historic figure, and that we express our condolences to the people of Syria. There is no question that we need to work with the Syrian leadership in order to accomplish a comprehensive peace."

Six Arab-Israeli parliamentarians are the only Israelis attending the funeral. Syria refused entry to some 180 Syrian-born Druze who live on the disputed Golan Heights.

Israeli newspapers and television have only given a shared spotlight to the Assad funeral.

This contrasted starkly to the funeral of Jordan's late King Hussein last year. Dozens of Israeli government ministers and opposition Knesset members attended the funeral of Hussein that was broadcast live on Israeli television, and newspaper headlines blared that Israel had lost a friend.

Upon Assad's death, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak said that Israel would continue working towards the goal of peace with the new Syrian leadership.

Opposition Likud party leader Ariel Sharon said that he believes that Assad's death has presented "a chance to get better terms for a peace settlement with Syria."

Sharon said that Israel should demand a long-term interim agreement that would allow Israel to keep the Golan Heights and precious water resources.

Syrian expert, Dr. Eyal Zisser, from Tel Aviv University's Dayan Center, said he believes that with Assad's death a "great obstacle" was removed which had prevented an agreement between Israel and Syria.

However, Zisser said that Bashar can be expected to be "committed to the legacy of his father as far as territorial demands are concerned." But he (Bashar) may be able to open the hearts of Israel with better public relations. "Assad ignored Israeli public opinion," Zisser said.

Personal symbols are important for the Israeli public. During negotiations between Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shara outside of Washington in January, the Israelis waited with baited breath to see if Shara would shake hands with Barak. Instead, they saw their prime minister visibly snubbed by a lesser diplomat.

Zisser compared the negotiating styles of Assad to the assassinated Egyptian President, Anwar Sadat, who was the first Arab leader to sign a peace agreement with Israel in 1979.

Sadat created a "peace camp" by visiting Israel in the 1970's, Zisser said. "Assad used Hizballah," he added, referring to the Syrian-backed terrorist organization that is claiming victory for Israel's departure from south Lebanon last month.

Bashar Assad has been giving mixed messages regarding the continuation of the peace process with Israel.

Prior to his father's death, Bashar said in an interview with the Saudi newspaper Ashar al-Asat that a senior Saudi diplomat had shuttled between Washington and Damascus four times since a meeting between Assad and Clinton in March failed to restart talks.

He also said that the Syrian people now regard Barak as either unwilling to make peace or too weak politically to make necessary concessions.

However, Bashar took a much tougher line in an interview with an Egyptian opposition weekly, Al-Usbu.

Assad referred to Israel as an enemy and said its redeployment from south Lebanon was "the beginning of a new Arab history that will remind [people of] honorable pages of our Arab history that abound with victories over invaders and occupiers."

"This victory proves once again that the option of force is capable of imposing a new situation ... of forcing the occupier to withdraw using the weapon of force if the enemy does not respond to the voice of reason," Bashar was quoted as saying.
The senior Assad, who was Defense Minister during the 1967 Six-Day War, died 33 years to the day and almost to the hour, Zisser said, of having lost the Golan Heights to Israel.

After failing to reclaim it in the 1973 surprise attack on Israel, which resulted in the Yom Kippur War, Assad intensified a proxy war against Israel by using Palestinian and Lebanese terrorist organizations to launch attacks through southern Lebanon.

He died without realizing his dream of regaining the strategic plateau after he refused to accept the Heights without the shore of the Sea of Galilee as part of a US-brokered deal.