By Munir K. Nasser
Former American Assistant Secretary of State Richard Murphy said that the death of President Assad would not have a direct impact on the Middle East process.
He told Albawaba.com in an interview in Washington that the principles that the late President brought to the peace process will not change with his successor.
Murphy predicted that the resumption of the Syrian-Israeli track would depend on developments inside Israel. He said the Israelis have apparently decided this is the time to focus extensively and try to get an overall agreement with the Palestinians.
The following are excerpts from the interview:
What is the impact of Assad ’s death on the peace process?
I do not expect a direct impact on the peace process. It is true that President Assad has spoken for Syria in the past 30 years, but what that means is the principle that he brought to the peace process is not going to change with his successor, in my opinion. The first principle was that Syria would not negotiate over the sovereignty of its land, which was occupied by Israel in June 1967, so I expect his successor to be bound by that principle. There will be a period of regrouping, and whenever Syria is ready to rejoin the negotiations, I am sure Washington will be ready to do what it can. The fact that the Geneva summit between President Assad and Clinton ended without setting a date for the resumption means there was no agreement on that basic principle of no negotiations about territory.
What are the chances of Syria joining the peace negotiations with Israel soon?
It all depends on developments within Israel. Barak is under pressure at the moment because of his cabinet disarray, but I think it would not be an immediate resumption of the talks. The Israelis have apparently decided this is the time to focus extensively and try to get an overall agreement with the Palestinians. So the Syrian track will be on hold for a while. There is no question that the Israeli leadership have long absorbed the concept that no war without Egypt and no peace without Syria. So Syria is important to Israel, and would like to reach a peace agreement.
Do you expect that Bashar Assad to continue with the legacy of his late father?
This has been a period of some change in Syria. I understand that very senior officials have been prosecuted for corruption and there was a campaign by Dr. Bashar Assad who was personally pushing to eliminate corruption, so with the upcoming party congress, which I assume will be held as scheduled June 17, I believe. This will be the first Party congress in 16 years, which was to bring about changes in the in the regional command. At a time like this Syrians will be looking for a transition.
You have served in the US Administration one time and dealt with President Assad, how do you see the future of American-Syrian relations after Assad?
I have always regretted that the American-Syrian relations were what I call “thin” relations. They never really flourished. I was fortunate of being there in 1974 as the first ambassador to Syria after the restoration of the diplomatic relations. That was a honeymoon period. President Assad was very much available in those tense times because of the civil war in Lebanon and he saw me whenever we needed to discuss the situation. I did deal with him extensively during the period from 1974-1976, even in 1977, then I came back when I was Assistant Secretary of State. I was always amazed at President Assad ’s retentiveness and strong memory. I don’t know if he ever dealt with files. Americans always keep files and written memorandums, but he always kept it in his mind very accurately.
How do you characterize Assad as a person?
He was adamant in his position that the Arabs have to stay together in peace negotiations. He was bitterly disappointed about President Sadat’s signing a peace treaty with Israel. He told me that he felt several times in the 1980s that a general peace could have been achieved by then had the Arabs remained united. On the Golan, he said from the beginning I will not negotiate over the sovereignty of my land. He believed that other arrangements affecting security could be discussed, but not sovereignty. He was absolutely adamant on this position, and I don’t expect that to change.
What was your impression about the Arab countries that you visited recently?
I was recently in both Lebanon and Syria, and felt the lingering effects of the civil war, and the wars between Arabs and Israelis, which have caused a stagnation in the economic development in the country and the whole region. And the region is in danger of stepping behind the rest of the world, which is really tragic. Even the resources, both human and material, people are making somber predictions that the non-oil producing countries might sink to the standards of sub-Saharan Africa. In Syria we have seen Bashar Assad taking up some steps to open up modern communications and opening Syria to the Internet, and he deserves the credit for that. And certainly we wish him the best of luck if he is the successor.
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)