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Jewish World Review June 19, 2000/ 16 Sivan, 5760

Charles Krauthammer

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Hafez Assad's Mourners -- JUST BECAUSE SYRIA is a totalitarian country, among the last to lumber into the 21st century, does not mean that the hysterical grief displayed by the Syrian people at President Hafez Assad's death was only show for police informers and state-run TV cameras.

At the funerals of Stalin, Mao and Kim Il Sung, after all, millions genuinely wept. Like Assad, these monsters succeeded in making themselves not just living gods but also objects of intense affection. This love of Big Brother is testimony to the efficacy of totalitarianism--and the truism that advertising works. Especially when you control all of it. And especially if you get to shoot anyone who shops another brand.

The genuine tears shed in Damascus were met by respectful and regretful outpourings from around the world. While the State Department made do with the usual blather, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan called Assad "a statesman of great authority and . . . of firm and consistent principle."

Europeans, too, saw the passing of a statesman. "A figure of stability in the Middle East," said Tony Blair. The French, as usual, pushed the envelope of good taste. They lavished a tribute--"A statesman who was attached to the grandeur of his country and the destiny of the Arab world"--and sent their president to Assad's funeral.

This is the same Europe that spent the past year luxuriating in moral superiority for its arrest of Chile's former dictator, Augusto Pinochet. Hafez Assad killed more people in one week than Pinochet did in 17 years.

This is no turn of phrase. In 1982 Assad put down a Muslim Brotherhood rebellion in the city of Hama by killing about 20,000 people in a week. The exact number will never be known. Assad paved the town over, leaving no trace.

But Assad killed far more than Syrians. He specialized in killing Lebanese, too--Christians, Druze, Shiites, Palestinian refugees, anyone who resisted his drive for hegemony in Lebanon. He was behind the 1982 bombing that destroyed the headquarters of President-elect Bashir Gemayel, killing him and much of his government. And he was behind the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks that killed 241 Americans.

He turned hostage-taking and hostage-releasing into an art (as Jesse Jackson's presence at Assad's funeral reminded us). He was, in sum, the great late-20th-century master of both small- and large-scale terrorism.

He was a master because he successfully courted the very powers he was terrorizing. Secretary of State Warren Christopher was legendary for having made more trips to Damascus in four years than most kids make to theme parks in a lifetime. (Christopher's trips were similarly fanciful.)

While the European attitude toward Assad was steeped in cynicism, the American view was steeped in naivete. At Assad's death, as was his wont in Assad's life, President Clinton congratulated him for having made "a strategic choice" for peace. This is sheer nonsense. It implies that Assad was ready to make peace but tactical obstacles kept getting in the way.

The fact is that Assad deliberately created tactical problems every time the Israelis offered him the strategic prize he ostensibly wanted. Both Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak offered Assad the entire Golan Heights. Assad found ways to turn them down. Just months ago, he humiliated Barak, even in the eyes of the Israeli left, by pocketing an offer of all the Golan Heights and then demanding control over part of the Sea of Galilee. On every map since 1923, when Britain and France demarcated the border, the Sea of Galilee lies within Israel/Palestine and outside Syria.

In 1977 Anwar Sadat flew to Damascus to ask Assad to join Egypt in making peace with Israel. Assad said no, loudly. Ever since, Assad's strategic choice was to lead the Arab world in rejecting peace.

In the '90s, he played with peace to placate the United States, which had become the undisputed hegemon in the region with its victories in the Cold War and the Gulf War. Having lost his patron in Moscow, Assad decided to appease the Americans by deigning to send representatives to peace talks.

It worked. He had secretaries of state fawning over him, presidents praising him. And whenever peace was at hand, whenever Israel went all the way to meet his demands, he simply moved the goalposts. The referee never blew the whistle.

A strategic choice for peace? Well, yes--peace as defined by Ambrose Bierce in "The Devil's Dictionary": "Peace, n. In international affairs, a period of cheating between two periods of fighting." That was Assad's definition--and he refused to sign on even to that. His passing should evoke not regret but hope.

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