Syria. According to
Countryaah, the talks with Israel on peace and on the Golan
Heights had been in effect since February 1996. In July,
Israel took steps to enact legislation that would
consolidate the annexation of the Golan Heights, but at the
same time came reports that the Israeli military was
investigating how it could defend northern Israel without
Golan. In addition, the Syrian leadership had contacts with
the Israeli opposition within the Labor Party Israel Labor
Party, which before it lost government power in 1996 had, in
principle, promised to return the Golan in exchange for a
During the year, speculation was raised about who will
succeed President Hafiz al-Asad (born 1928) when he dies. He
had heart problems and underwent a prostate surgery in
January. Since his son Basil died in a car accident in 1994,
al-Asad lacks an obvious successor but tried to launch his
second son, 33-year-old Bashar. However, he was said to have
no power base in both the ruling Baath party and the
military. The Syrian constitution also states that the
president must be over 40 years. Most people, therefore,
expect the current Vice President Abd al-Halim Khaddam to
take over at al-Asad's possible departure.
In 1999, Al-Assad was re-elected to his 7th term of
office for 5 years. During one of his election speeches, the
aging president declared that the government needed "new
blood" to carry out the economic reforms.
In December, peace talks with Israel were resumed in
Washington, but they were postponed indefinitely in January,
when Syria could not guarantee that Israel would withdraw
from the occupied territories in 1967 - primarily the Golan
In March 2000, all 37 members of Mahmoud el-Zouebi's
government submitted their resignation to the president.
Instead, the old leader of the Baath party, Mohamed Mustafa
Miro, was deployed as prime minister. He had been governor
of Alleppo province until then.
On June 10, Assad died, leaving the country in mourning.
He was the only president most of the population had
experienced. The political maneuvers were quickly initiated
in order for Assad's only son, Bashar al-Assad to take over
his father's post. He was first appointed Commander-in-Chief
of the Armed Forces and assumed the post of President in
In April 2001, the new president approved the creation of
private banks, and he also approved the creation of a
private radio station, albeit only broadcast music, and
without political content.
The Pope visited Syria in May and at the welcome ceremony
al-Assad took the opportunity to launch a violent attack
against Israel, comparing the suffering of the Palestinians
with the persecution of Jesus. He also asked the pope to
remember to include the people of the Israeli-occupied Golan
Heights and Palestine in his sermons. In his response, the
Pope urged all parties to seek lasting peace and to build
understanding and respect between Christians, Muslims and
In October 2001, with the support of the Asian and
African countries, Syria gained a seat on the UN Security
Council. Neither opposition from Israel nor 38 North
American congressmen who urged President Bush to oppose
Syria's representation succeeded. The United States was
bound because, in the wake of the New York attack, it sought
support from the most influential Arab countries in its
global anti-terrorist struggle.
Syria's foreign policy was rapidly changing in 2001.
Following intense pressure from the Lebanese government,
Syria removed its troops from the Beirut area and withdrew
them to other parts of the country. In August, Syrian Prime
Minister Miro visited Iraq during the first high-level visit
in nearly 20 years after Syria supported Iran during the
Iraqi-Iranian war of 1980-88. In November, British Prime
Minister Tony Blair visited Damuskus in an effort to secure
Syrian support for the US global war on terror. Yet Blair
and al-Assad were unable to come up with a common definition
of the concept of terrorism, the British leader having to
return home without concrete results.
In November, several dozen political prisoners from the
Muslim Brotherhood were released after spending more than 20
years in prison. The release was characterized by Amnesty
International as "an important step towards respect for
human rights in Syria". Nearly all the released had been
held in solitary confinement during their prison time,
subjected to torture and ill-treatment.
In April 2002, a Syrian radar station in Lebanon was
attacked by Israeli aircraft following a partisan attack by
Hezbollah. It sparked fears of a military escalation, but
Israeli aggression remained unanswered on the Syrian side.
In May, North American Deputy Foreign Minister John
Bolton included Syria on the axis of evil. He also accused
Damascus of trying to procure weapons of mass destruction.
In April 2003, a month after the start of the US war on
Iraq, the United States threatened Syria with economic and
diplomatic sanctions, accusing the country of hosting Iraqi
refugees. The Syrian government rejected US accusations.