The death of Syrian President Hafez Assad Saturday dominated the weekend’s papers. Sunday’s British and Spanish newspapers had trouble pegging the age of Assad’s heir apparent, son Bashar, despite the lead time Assad’s poor health had given them. The Sunday Telegraph got it right at 34; the Sunday Times had 34 in one story, 38 in another; while the Observer pegged him as 35; and Spain’s El País as 36. Bashar was not always groomed for succession; he only joined the “family business” six years ago when his older brother Basil died in a car accident.
Britain’s Independent said that “one of the few positive legacies” of Assad is a country comparatively free of Islamic fundamentalism—”although it took the bloody suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood to do it.” However, many papers predicted possible problems between the Assads’ Alawite sect, which dominates the Syrian military, and the country’s Sunni Muslim majority. An analysis in the liberal Israeli daily Ha’aretz suggested that Bashar’s need to maintain the supremacy of the Alawite regime might militate against a peace agreement with Israel any time soon, since peace would shrink the defense budget and thus reduce the power of the army. “An Alawite successor to Assad will have to placate these disaffected army officers; and, in this effort to quell their dissent, the attainment of an acceptable accommodation with the United States could be important.” An editorial in the Jerusalem Post concurred, declaring that since the transition is uncertain, Syria is likely to be cautious in the short-term: “Until a new regime is firmly established in Damascus, it is unlikely to think about renewing talks with Israel. Yet this is not much of a setback. These negotiations were quite dead already because of Assad’s rigidity. A period of inaction under Bashar Assad would not be any worse.”
A JerusalemPost analysis, by Amotz Asa-El, the editor of the paper’s international edition, claimed that “[f]rom a Syrian viewpoint” Hafez Assad’s death “is anything but untimely.” Asa-El depicted Assad as an anachronistic Cold War holdover, whose outdated ideology and “narrow nationalism” inflicted “immeasurable damage on a country whose time-honored urban merchant class could have generated some prosperity, if only allowed more freedom of enterprise,” and described Syria as a country where “the regime’s inherent suspicion of freely flowing information has made it supervise and limit even the usage of such business essentials as computer modems and fax machines. … As he died, Assad’s economy disgracefully relied on remittances from more than half-a-million guest-workers he ended up exporting to Lebanon—a historically unique instance where vanquished employs victor—and from soon-to-be-exhausted oil exports.”
The economic benefits of Syria’s occupation of Lebanon—approximately one-thirteenth of Syria’s 17-million population work there—effectively guarantee its continuation. According to an op-ed in the Sunday Telegraph, which compared the political style of the deceased Assad to that of a “successful Mafia don,” the smuggling business—especially of hashish and opium—in and out of Lebanon was the booty he distributed to “his favored army and police cliques” in order to maintain his grip on power. “In Syria, would-be plotters were not paralysed so much by the fear of torture and execution as in Iraq, but rather by the more mundane fear of losing a nice bit of business.”
As Ha’aretz noted, “The death of Syrian President Hafez Assad takes from the stage the last of the leaders who were personally involved in the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War, experienced the wars’ results and shaped their attitudes toward Israel accordingly.” Several papers drew parallels between British-educated Bashar Assad and recently installed monarchs King Abdullah of Jordan and King Mohammed of Morocco, both of whom represent a modern, Western-friendly approach to the governance of Arab countries. An editorial in the Jordan Times reported that Abdullah “has repeatedly voiced, at home and abroad, his appreciation and admiration for Bashar, identifying him as one of the men in a new generation of Arab leaders eager to provide their people with higher living standards and integration in the global free market economy.”
South Korean papers expressed ecstatic anticipation about the prospects for the first summit meeting between the presidents of North and South Koreas. An editorial in the Korea Times gushed, comparing it to Neil Armstrong’s landing on the moon. “The analogy is by no means farfetched. The excitement and exuberance it has generated among Koreans is incredible and mind-blowing.” It concluded that when President Kim Dae-jung steps onto North Korean soil, “That’s, to ring Armstrong’s unforgettable words, one small step for reconciliation, one giant leap for reunification.” For the citizenry of the North, the priority is family reunion; as the Korea Times pointed out, “Any delay will make the issue meaningless for most of those senior generations for good.” An op-ed in the International Herald Tribune speculated that the North had called the meeting “as a way of extracting more money from the South.” Seoul can afford to provide more aid to the starving North, but will almost certainly withhold further donations until it sees concessions on trade and family reunions. The IHT concluded, “The outcome will primarily be determined by the one man whose goals and motives are the most obscure, [North Korean President] Kim Jong Il. Is he finally coming around to the wisdom of Beijing’s policies of opening and economic reform? Or will he seek to provide a new legitimacy to his regime by replacing old ideology and militarist rhetoric with appeals to Korean brotherhood? Or is this summit just a tactical maneuver that is part of no strategy other than survival, just another bid to improve relations with the outside world and raise some cash without changing anything at home?”
The euphoria was punctured when North Korean officials delayed the landing for a day just hours before the South Korean delegation was set to depart. The Korea Times said, “North Korea has embarrassed the international community” and blamed the rescheduling on “some opposition from an influential group in North Korea, possibly the military.” The Korea Herald noted, “Pyongyang’s sudden request for postponement of the unprecedented summit caused momentary concern among Seoul officials regarding the North’s intentions. With the whole world watching closely, the delay added to the already heavy burden imposed on the two leaders”
Before the postponement, Japan’s Asahi Shimbun reported that Seoul had a bad case of Pyongyang fever—100 Questions and 100 Answers About Kim Jong Il, which could normally be expected to sell one copy per week, had topped the best-seller list in the South.