11 -17 February 1999
Issue No. 416
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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Competing forBy Atef Saqr
The participation of Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad in King Hussein's funeral was a clear signal of support from the long-serving Syrian leader to Jordan's newly-appointed King Abdullah.
Al-Assad was the first world leader to pay his respects at the late King Hussein's coffin at the Raghdan Palace, and the first to offer condolences to Abdullah after the burial of his father.
The two leaders later held a one-on-one meeting at the palace following two hours of talks between Al-Assad and Jordanian Prime Minister Fayez Tarawneh. During these talks, Syrian officials said, Al-Assad assured Abdullah of full support and expressed the desire "to open a new page" with Jordan.
Relations between Damascus and Amman soured after Jordan signed its peace treaty with Israel in 1994. Al-Assad criticised what he described as Jordan's "unilateral move" and the lack of coordination with other Arab countries which weakened their position in talks with Israel.
Relations deteriorated further as the late King Hussein pushed for a speedy process of normalisation of relations with Israel, ignoring Syrian pleas to link normalisation to achieving progress in the peace process and Israel's withdrawal from occupied Arab territories.
After news broke that the late King Hussein was dying in hospital, there were a few days of silence in Damascus, fuelling reports in the Israeli press about alleged Syrian ambitions to control Jordan.
Two days before the king's death, however, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Al-Sharaa expressed his country's sorrow over reports of the late king's health, but insisted that his country was not responsible for the deterioration of relations with Jordan.
"It is not in our interest to have differences with Jordan, but it seems that Israel has been pressuring them to a great extent, making Jordanian-Israeli ties more intimate than Jordan's relations with other Arab countries. Such an attitude made Syria feel bitter," Al-Sharaa told reporters.
However, after the king's demise on Sunday, Syrian papers highlighted the event and expressed deep regret over Hussein's passing. Syrian authorities also decided to postpone a referendum on Al-Assad's presidency for a fifth seven-year term and declared three days of mourning. The referendum, originally scheduled for Monday, was held yesterday and early reports indicated that Al-Assad, the only candidate, won with a sweeping majority.
According to analysts, Al-Assad's participation in Hussein's funeral was an intelligent move which aimed at assuring Jordan of Arab support and preventing Israel from claiming that Tel Aviv is Jordan's only ally in the region.
Meanwhile, Jordanian funeral organisers went out of their way to ensure that the Syrian president would not come into contact with any member of the high-level Israeli delegation which attended the funeral, particularly right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. There was a 12-minute gap between Al-Assad's arrival to pay respects at Hussein's coffin and the arrival of the Israeli delegation led by President Ezer Weizman.
When presidents and other world leaders were waiting in front of the Raghdan Palace, US President Bill Clinton spoke briefly to Al-Assad. Their conversation "dealt with the situation in the region and the willingness to revive contacts between the two countries," a Syrian official said.