Who's In, Who's Out at Assad's Funeral

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There's no better thumbnail sketch of the Mideast's shifting sands than an important funeral. As in the Cold War science of "Kremlinology," a careful analysis of who shows up, who stays away and how much fuss is made over different guests can yield priceless information to the carefully trained eye. TIME West Bank correspondent Jamil Hamad has kept close watch on the region's political arcana for the past four decades, and offered these observations:

  • "The new leader, Bashar Assad, revealed his priorities in the way he treated different guests. He fussed over Iran's President Mohammed Khatami and over the leaders of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, while Madeleine Albright was mostly left for former foreign minister Farouk al-Sharaa to take care of. Peace with Israel is not a priority for Bashar right now; his priority is survival and consolidating his power at home. He's looking to the Saudis for financial support, while Iran remains Syria's most important strategic ally against Israel, Turkey and the U.S."

  • "The absence of Western leaders was very noticeable. The only one there was France's President Jacques Chirac. He's trying to get the Syrians to restore France's once-influential role in Lebanon." (France was in charge of both Syria and Lebanon during colonial times.)

  • "The most interesting face on the Russian delegation was former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov. [Once favored to succeed Boris Yeltsin, the Soviet-era intelligence chief was eclipsed by the rise of President Vladimir Putin.] He was the only non-Arab leader who could speak directly with Bashar in Arabic. As a long-time Arabist with an intimate knowledge of the region, he could be an important asset for any role Moscow hopes to play in the future."

  • "Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak looked sad, but Assad's death certainly presents him with an opportunity. With Assad gone and Iraq out of the picture, he's now the only leader in the region who can stake a claim to pan-Arab leadership."

  • "While they treated Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Lebanon's Hezbollah movement, as a VIP guest, the Syrians made no fuss over Yasser Arafat, who'd flown to Damascus with Egypt's President Mubarak as if for protection. The Syrians wouldn't have been especially pleased to see Arafat, but that didn't deter him. [Arafat has been persona non grata in Syria since the 1993 peace pact with Israel.] He even insisted on giving a hug and a traditional Arab kiss to Syrian defense minister Mustafa Tlas, who recently publicly called Arafat "the son of 60,000 whores."