There always seems to be the music. Whenever dictators pass away, it seems, state-controlled TV takes to the airwaves not with news reports but with music--as if a mellifluous melody could somehow soothe the anxieties of a leaderless populace, a commanderless army and a watching world. And so it was when Hafez Assad died last week. Syrian state media trumpeted classical music and koranic verses--a TV prayer vigil for the 69-year-old dictator. The cameras captured weeping members of the Syrian parliament mourning the onetime air force pilot who had taken a poor nation of 17 million and made it, well, still poor but nevertheless a pivotal player in the Middle East.
For three decades, Hafez Assad ruled Syria--and confounded the world. Six American Presidents found him frustrating, remote. The Egyptian pyramids lay to the southwest, but it was Assad who was dubbed the Sphinx. Assad remained a riddle. Austere, he neither smoked nor drank. He would summon aides at all hours to discuss an issue, then closet himself for days before abruptly announcing a decision. He never came to America; from Nixon to Clinton, they either traveled the road to Damascus or met him in neutral Geneva. They worried about elections and deadlines; a dictator, he never worried about the clock ticking. He was legendary for his marathon negotiating sessions and infuriating intransigence. But it was his actions that so befuddled American leaders. Syria helped lead the 1973 Yom Kippur War against Israel; in 1976, it marched into Lebanon and never left. Assad's Syria has been a stalwart of the State Department's terrorism list since its inception in 1979--but it was also part of the anti-Iraq coalition that fought in the Gulf War.
His death comes at another one of those precarious moments in the precarious Middle East. Eight months ago there were hopes--in both Washington and Jerusalem--that the end of the Clinton Administration would provide an incentive for a two-track peace deal, one that included the Palestinians and Syrians. This week Israeli and Palestinian leaders jet to Washington to resuscitate their settlement negotiations. But Assad's death seems likely to kill hopes for a fast Syrian-Israeli pact. President Clinton praised Assad for his "commitment to the path of peace." But that was an oversimplification. Assad was committed to peace--but only on his inflexible terms. He was intent on doing it his way, at his pace. White House insiders spent much of this past year privately speculating that Assad wouldn't pass up the chance to pull off a deal before Clinton left office. But in recent months he seemed willing to do just that, most notably snubbing the President during a hastily convened Geneva meeting in March. Clinton arrived at the meeting full of hope. He left--as so many negotiators have over the years--reminded that Assad's 30 years in power had made him one of the world's sharpest and most patient negotiators. Besides, American diplomats offered by way of excuse, the Syrian President was busy preparing his son Bashar to succeed him. Nobody suspected that would happen so abruptly.