Watch CBSN Live

Assad's Death Shakes Peacemakers

The death Saturday of Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, one of the Middle East's most enduring figures, plunges the region into deep and potentially dangerous uncertainty.

CBS News Chief White House Correspondent John Roberts reports that President Clinton put an optimistic spin on the Syrian leader's passing, stating that Assad had made a "strategic choice" for peace that the United States fully expects Syria's new leader to support.

But behind the scenes, there is a new sense of uncertainty in the always complicated arena of Middle Eastern politics.

While not beloved by those who had warred or negotiated with him, Assad was a fixture in the region, and his absence could alter the balance of power and the building momentum toward peace, CBS News Correspondent Jesse Schulman reports.

"For thirty years, Syria was Assad and Assad was Syria, and that is why it is so difficult to know what might be there in the future," said Yossi Beilin, an Israeli cabinet minister.

Nowhere is the danger of uncertainty greater than on Israel's border with Lebanon, a country that has for decades taken its marching orders from Syria.

Israeli troops pulled out of Lebanon only last month, leaving behind a tense calm that might not last. Just this spring there were large-scale clashes in Lebanon between Israel and guerillas backed by Syria.

Assad's relationship with other leaders was complicated to begin with.

After receiving confirmation of Assad's death at a commencement ceremony in Minnesota, President Clinton said that while he and the Syrian president had their differences, he believed Assad truly wanted to end the state of war with Israel.

"I regret that that peace was not achieved in his lifetime and I hope that it can still be achieved in no small measure because of the commitment that he made," Mr. Clinton said.

Mr. Clinton's dealings with Assad had been frustrating. Twice in negotiations with the Syrian leader, Mr. Clinton came to what appeared to be the brink of peace, only to be rebuffed by a man described by previous negotiators as uncompromising and difficult.

Negotiations between Israel and Syria about returning the Golan Heights have produced only deadlock. The last round of talks broke down over Assad's demands that Israel give back every inch of the Golan Heights.

Israelis fear that a new leader in Damascus may be just as unbending as the old.

Negotiators hope, however, that Assad's anointed successor—his 34-year-old son son Bashar—may be open to some "creative" solutions that allow both sides to say they got what they wanted.

Bashar Assad, an eye doctor by training, is unknown and untested. And he may never actually rule—Syria has little tradition of peaceful transfer of power.

But should he take power, diplomats who ply the murky waters of Middle East peace negotiations have some confidence that Bashar would keep the door open.

said Dennis Ross, a leading U.S. diplomat in the region.

If Assad was concerned with bringing his country out of isolation, Bashar is even more so. An advocate of the Internet and modernization, Bashar's desire to move Syria into the global market may mean his father's passing is a bump on an what is an inexorable path to peace.

"It interrupts the peace process during the period of mourning and consolidation," conceded former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, but adds, "In the long run, it will probably accelerate it."

Indeed, Hafez Assad's death is just the latest a step in a changing of the guard in the Middle East. Last year, Jordan's young King Abdullah succeeded his father King Hussein, and he's proven a man of the modern world.

Governments around the world reacted to the news of Assad's death.

Israel said that it understood Syria's grief and would strive to forge a peace deal with whoever succeeds him.

"The government of Israel understands the grief of the Syrian people following of the death of President Assad," said a statement issued by Prime Minister Ehud Barak's office.

"Israel worked in the past for a peace deal with Syria and will continue to work for this in the future with all future leadership," the statement said.

Russia's Interfax news agency, quoting a senior source in the Foreign Ministry, said Moscow was saddened by the death of Assad and hoped it would not derail the Middle East peace process.

"Moscow was deeply saddened by the news of Syrian President Hafez al-Assad's passing," Interfax quoted the unnamed source as saying.

"Russia expresses hope that the passing of the Syrian leader will not have a negative impact on the Middle East peace process, in which Assad was a major figure."

British Prime Minister Tony Blair also paid tribute to Assad. "President Assad was a figure of stability in the Middle East and much respected in the Arab world and beyond," said Blair. "He will be badly missed. The best testament to President Assad's memory would be for all involved to redouble their efforts to bring a just and lasting peace to the region and I will do everything I can to support their efforts."