Hafez al-Assad, Who Turned Syria Into a Power in the Middle East, Dies at 69
By NEIL MacFARQUHAR| The New York Times | 11-Jun-2000
Hafez al-Assad, the air force officer who ruled Syria for three decades, transforming a Middle East backwater into an introverted regional power that endured as the center of unbending Arab hostility toward Israel, died yesterday in Damascus. He was 69.
Mr. Assad, a survivor of several assassination attempts and at least one heart attack, died of a heart attack, according to medical officials quoted by Agence France-Presse.
Among the Arab autocrats who became stock players in the perpetual drama of negotiating Middle East peace, none was more courted, nor more aloof, than the Syrian leader. No lasting peace could hold without him, but none could be negotiated with him either. A treaty remained elusive largely due to his stubborn role in demanding back every inch of Syrian territory.
At home, Mr. Assad’s longevity in office rested on a rigid intolerance of dissent, most starkly illustrated by the slaying of thousands of residents of Hama in February 1982 to end a swelling Islamic insurgency. His was a suspicious police state, limiting access to modern instruments like the fax or the Internet that might somehow become tools to help undermine his government.
The stream of American presidents, secretaries of state and other officials who crossed his doorstep over the years, hoping to keep the latest peace effort from foundering there, emerged with a grudging respect for Mr. Assad. He was at once courteous and calculating, professorial and persistent, unleashing flashes of self-deprecating humor during marathon negotiating sessions. The length of the sessions were as legendary as they were nerve-racking.
When Henry A. Kissinger arrived in 1973, becoming the first American secretary of state to visit Syria in 20 years, their initial meeting lasted 6 hours and 30 minutes. The waiting press, uninitiated in the ways of the Syrian leader, wondered aloud if the American had been kidnapped.
”His tactic was to open with a statement of the most extreme position to test what the traffic would bear,” Mr. Kissinger wrote in ”Years of Upheaval,” the volume of his memoirs published in 1982. ”He might then allow himself to be driven back to the attainable, fighting a dogged rear guard action that made clear that concessions could be exacted only at a heavy price and that discouraged excessive expectations of them. (His negotiating style was in this respect not so different from that of the Israelis, much as both of them would hate the comparison.)”
The lengthy exchanges got to the point that one task of the American ambassador was to brief visiting dignitaries before any meeting with President Assad to pace themselves on the constant offerings of coffee, tea and lemonade lest they bruise protocol by interrupting the Syrian leader to ask for a bathroom break. ”We dubbed it bladder diplomacy,” said Edward P. Djerejian, the American ambassador from 1988 to 1991.
Mr. Assad was most renowned for lecturing foreigners, even American presidents, about the unfair colonial fragmentation of the Middle East. In case anyone missed the point, his reception hall was dominated by a large painting depicting the Arab armies under Saladin defeating the Crusaders during the battle of Hittin in 1187, a not-so-subtle reminder that he considered present circumstances temporary.
”Even in his bitterness toward Israel, he retained a certain wry humor about their conflicting views, and he seemed to derive great patience from his obvious sense of history,” President Jimmy Carter wrote in ”The Blood of Abraham,” a 1985 study of the region.
Syria was a young nation adrift before Mr. Assad’s rule. The government had been a revolving door swung repeatedly by coups after independence from France in 1946, resulting in little development and a population weary of chaos.
The bloodless power grab he staged in November 1970 brought stability and the first modern construction of roads, schools and hospitals. Mr. Assad followed the Soviet model of a single-party police state, constructing a network of 15 competing intelligence agencies that spied on his own people.
It was in regional politics, however, that Mr. Assad most sought to create a legacy, remaking Syria into a power among the Arabs rather than a political football. He was inspired by the Arab nationalism preached by President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, and like many of his generation, he sought to inherit Nasser’s role as the voice of Arab unity.
But Mr. Assad, more than most, experienced the bitter chasm between the vaunted oratory of unity and the constant scheming and back-stabbing that marked actual relations between the Arab states in watershed events like the wars against Israel. He often told negotiators that he would face assassination if he negotiated a separate peace.
”Nobody expects us to raise banners of happiness and pleasure with such a clandestine agreement held behind our backs,” he said in an American television interview in October 1993, right after Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, led by Yasir Arafat, announced a peace agreement worked out in secret under Norwegian auspices. ”The Arabs are one people. If I were to sign an agreement similar to that signed by Arafat, I would have faced great problems. You all know that there are Arab leaders who paid with their lives as the price for such separate behavior.”
Mr. Assad’s roots in an isolated, impoverished religious minority made him an unlikely candidate to become leader of Syria. But for a man who spent his lifetime railing against the legacy of Western colonization, its waning years brought unprecedented change to sleepy villages like his.
The Brilliant Son Of a Mountain Family
Hafez al-Assad was the ninth of 11 children, born on Oct. 6, 1930, to minor notables in the village of Qurdaha, in the Ansariya Mountains, which rise sharply from the Mediterranean coast. (The adopted family name, sometimes transliterated Asad, means lion.) The mountain redoubts were a secure home for his ethnic group, the Alawite sect, a tiny branch of the Shiite school of Islam and a sect often branded as heretical by the Sunni Muslim majority that dominated Syria.
The mountain tribes had been all but ignored during the 400 years that the Ottoman Empire controlled Syria, left to their subsistence farming in villages consisting of small stone hovels. Patrick Seale, in his 1988 biography, ”Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East,” said that at the time of Mr. Assad’s birth, Qurdaha consisted of about 100 houses at the end of a dirt track. It had neither mosque, nor shop, nor cafe. His father and two wives lived in a two-room, flat-roofed stone house.
The Arabs had expected independence in exchange for their rebellion against Ottoman rule during World War I, but in a secret 1916 pact known as the Sykes-Picot agreement, the British and French divided the Levant. Their action is still vividly remembered in Syria, and a long commentary on the perfidies of the Sykes-Picot accord was a perennial favorite of Mr. Assad’s lectures to foreigners.
The French, seeing the Alawite clans as potential allies in the old divide-and-rule method of colonial government, introduced schools to their villages.
In 1944 Mr. Assad became the first member of his family to be sent down to Latakia, on the coast, to start his secondary education. He was soon caught up in the debates among Communists, Arab nationalists and Islamic fundamentalists, which intensified as Syria gained independence in 1946.
Mr. Assad joined the new Arab Baath Socialist Party, which preached that a secular, socialist state encompassing all the Arabs would revive their past glory and undermine Western dominance. When he was elected to head his high school’s student affairs committee, he used the position to try to foment nationwide student protests against other parties and the government.
By the time he finished high school in 1951, at the age of 20, his interest in politics was cemented even as he embarked on an air force career. Fees for military school were abolished with independence, so he enrolled in the new Air Force College in Aleppo. The Alawites, like the underprivileged throughout the Middle East, used the military to gain an education and then to supplant the elite that scorned them.
His years at Aleppo, from 1952 to 1955, when he graduated as a lieutenant, coincided with Nassar’s rise in Egypt. In 1958 Syria’s government rushed to join Egypt in the United Arab Republic, imagining that the idea would prove so seductive that all Arab governments would either join or be swept aside. The union collapsed in 1961.
Mr. Assad missed most of the first year of the union, having been sent to the Soviet Union to learn how to fly the MIG-15’s and MIG-17’s being delivered to Syria. Soon after he returned his squadron was transferred to Egypt. He and a fellow group of officers, dismayed by the degree to which Syrians had been marginalized, formed a secret committee to plot to take control in Damascus.
The years after the union brought turmoil. The highly politicized officer corps jockeyed for control of the country, with each faction taking power thinning the ranks of its rivals through execution or exile. By the time the Arab-Israeli war erupted in June 1967, Syrian military officers were ill-prepared to do battle.
Two Disastrous Wars Pave Way to Power
Mr. Assad was minister of defense during that war, having gained that position in February 1966 when the group of officers he helped found in Cairo seized power in a violent putsch. He was 35, serving in his first Syrian government, the most extreme the country had yet known. It was repressive at home, seeking to topple the old Sunni Muslim elite, and radical abroad, funneling aid to Palestinian guerrillas to attack Israel.
The 1967 war, over in a week, was as much a military as a mental blow to the Arabs. All their exaggerated oratory about the bankruptcy of the Zionist cause proved fruitless, and the Arabs suffered the embarrassment of losing the eastern sector of Jerusalem, the Sinai peninsula and the Golan Heights in Syria.
Mr. Assad came to power in the wake of another debacle, in September 1970, when Palestinian guerrillas in Jordan sought to topple King Hussein. Syria sent tanks over the border to support the guerrillas, then retreated under Jordanian air attacks, and King Hussein kept his throne. Mr. Assad used the disarray to stage a bloodless coup called ”the corrective movement.”
Mr. Assad ruled through the Baath Party, using its secular ideology as the cover for bringing the Alawite minority into key positions. Eventually the commanders of the special forces, intelligence, the armored corps and key divisions were all Alawites, a remarkable achievement for a group that used to produce the servant class.
His first priority as president was trying to erase the stain of the 1967 defeat. In that he had a ready ally in President Anwar Sadat of Egypt. The two profited from the superpower competition between the United States and the Soviet Union, with Moscow pouring billions of dollars of weaponry into both their arsenals and stationing thousands of advisers in both countries.
They struck on Oct. 6, 1973, with the Egyptian forces crossing the Suez Canal and the Syrians advancing into the Golan Heights. The Israelis, while monitoring the troop buildup along their borders in the days preceding the attack, were caught unaware, seeing the massive mobilization as more bluster than threat.
For days it seemed the survival of Israel was at stake, but it gradually gained the advantage. The Egyptians had basically captured the eastern shore of the Suez Canal and dug in, their two top generals at loggerheads over how much of the army could advance into the Sinai. President Assad believed bitterly that Mr. Sadat had betrayed him. He thought Mr. Sadat had crossed the canal and then deliberately stopped, seeking a limited victory that would both restore the image of the Egyptian Army and, more important, attract American patronage. By the time of a shaky cease-fire at the end of October, it was clear the Arabs had again been defeated.
The United States attempted to build a comprehensive peace settlement, Secretary Kissinger shuttling between Arab capitals and Israel. Mr. Kissinger was the first of many American officials to have their hopes dashed by the Syrian leader, discovering at the end of lengthy negotiations about a peace conference that Syria had no intention of taking part.
Still, Mr. Assad felt that the Americans got the upper hand because the talks paved the way for Egypt to forge a separate peace. The cease-fire negotiated then on the Golan did stick, however, and it became Israel’s quietest border despite the upheaval that followed.
Playing Both Sides In Lebanon’s Civil War
The conflagration of 1973 was barely extinguished when the next crisis erupted, in Lebanon. Its civil war pitted the Lebanese Christians, whose power was enshrined in the Constitution despite their shrinking population, against the Palestine Liberation Organization and more economically deprived communities like the Shiites and the Druze. As the army and government fractured along sectarian lines, the Christian defeat by the more numerous Muslim factions seemed a foregone conclusion.
Although Mr. Assad acknowledged that Syria and Lebanon were sovereign nations, Syrians had long viewed Lebanon as a natural part of their country that had been unfairly severed by European colonial meddling. Mr. Assad intervened with his army to preserve the status quo.
Critics said his defense of the Christian minority reflected his own insecurity that majority rule in Lebanon might inspire attempts to unseat his Alawite minority. The intervention in Lebanon, though sanctioned by the Arab League, also gave Mr. Assad a chance to try to reassert control over the P.L.O. He had long been at odds with Mr. Arafat, even jailing him briefly in Damascus in 1966 for trying to dilute Syrian influence over the Palestinian movement.
But the Lebanese chaos gave an opening to a deadlier conflict, providing Syria and Israel the space to fight another war. After Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, the Syrian Air Force performed poorly, losing 79 MIG’s, plus tanks and missile batteries.
But Mr. Assad retained his influence over his neighbor. In September 1982, Syria was apparently the hand behind the assassination of the Lebanese leader Bashir Gemayel, which effectively aborted the attempt to negotiate a separate peace between Israel and Lebanon.
Mr. Assad nonetheless put renewed emphasis on his doctrine of ”strategic parity” with Israel. He believed that the Arabs would always be hindered unless they could use military aid from the Soviet bloc to build a credible force to face the high-tech weaponry that flowed to Israel from the United States. The Soviet Union poured an estimated $2 billion into the Syrian arsenal after the war, including about 160 fighter aircraft and 800 T-72 tanks.
An Attempted Coup And Violent Suppression
As the proxy war in Lebanon had been simmering, a more threatening rebellion was brewing at home.
The first hint of the impending attempt to overthrow Baath Party rule came in June 1979, when the Muslim Brotherhood massacred 50 Alawite cadets in the dining room of the military academy in Aleppo.
Then in June 1980 extremists lobbed at least two grenades at the Syrian leader. President Assad kicked one grenade away while a bodyguard flung himself on the second, losing his life. In revenge, the military unit controlled by Mr. Assad’s headstrong younger brother, Rifaat, descended on a desert prison near Palmyra and gunned down at least 250 religious dissidents in their cells.
The Muslim extremists next rose up in 1982 in Hama. They killed Baath Party officials and broadcast appeals from the mosques for a nationwide insurrection.
In pursuing the rebels, the Syrian military leveled half the city, killing at least 10,000 residents. The carnage brought widespread condemnation in the West, but it was the kind of act that insured Mr. Assad’s utter control. When the choice came down to spilling blood or preserving his hold on power, there was really no question.
”He wouldn’t be apologetic,” recalled Ambassador Christopher Ross, who served as American envoy to Damascus for most of the 1990’s. ”Assad would justify it entirely by saying it was the necessary price to end years and years of Muslim Brotherhood terrorism.”
His alliance with Iran after the 1979 Islamic revolution there brought Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power was based on similar calculus. Although Iran’s attempts to export its revolution quickly made it anathema in the Middle East, Mr. Assad cared little that the Damascus-Tehran accord provoked his fellow Arab leaders.
For one thing, the Iranians were at war with Iraq, long Syria’s competitor for supremacy in the larger Arab world. For another, Iran was willing to arm and train the increasingly radical Shiite militias in southern Lebanon who engaged Israel’s occupying army in guerrilla warfare.
Syria could use the guerrillas to pressure Israel while at the same time denying responsibility. Instead Mr. Assad could blame the violence, or acts like the kidnapping of Western hostages, on the anarchy of Lebanon that Syria’s 30,000-strong troops were ostensibly trying to suppress.
Syria was also linked to brutal attacks carried out by notorious terrorist groups like the Abu Nidal organization, whose targets included Israelis and Jews, Syrian dissidents, Jordanian diplomats and pro-Arafat Palestinians.
Mr. Assad’s ability to distance himself from the worst violence collapsed in 1986, when a man attempting to blow up an El Al airliner leaving London was given refuge in the Syrian Embassy before turning himself in. Britain broke relations and other Western nations temporarily withdrew their ambassadors.
Syria, which had been identified by Washington as a sponsor of terrorism since 1979, became firmly entrenched on that roster. Though Mr. Assad’s government was not linked to directly supporting terrorism after about 1986, it continued to give safe haven to the political leadership of the most radical Palestinian organizations.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union after 1989, Mr. Assad realized that he could no longer harvest military or economic aid in the Kremlin, and he began looking West.
Iraqi Invasion Pushes Syria Toward West
For that, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 proved a godsend, with Syria joining the gulf war coalition pieced together by the United States. Only a few thousand Syrian troops deployed in Saudi Arabia facing Iraq, but the presence of soldiers from such a staunch Arab nationalist country carried symbolic weight. The gulf Arab states responded with billions of dollars in new aid.
The momentum from the war coalition carried into another American effort to build an Arab-Israeli peace treaty, and Syria for the first time set aside its refusal to sit face-to-face with the Israeli negotiators.
The difficulty in negotiating with Syria was underscored under the Clinton administration, when Secretary of State Warren Christopher began shuttling around the Middle East trying to build on the agreement that the Israelis and Palestinians worked out themselves in Oslo. Mr. Assad was appalled that Mr. Arafat had become yet another Arab leader making a separate peace with the Jewish state.
However, with broad if nebulous assurances from the Israeli government of Yitzhak Rabin that a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights could be negotiated, Mr. Assad too indicated that Syria was willing to talk peace. Mr. Christopher made more than 20 trips to Damascus, and President Clinton met with the Syrian leader twice in 1994, once in Geneva and once in Damascus, becoming the first American president to visit since Richard M. Nixon.
Yet another attempt to revive the peace effort with Syria collapsed this spring after Mr. Clinton had a failed meeting with Mr. Assad in Geneva.
Despite the absence of clashes on the Golan Heights after the 1974 disengagement accord, the peace talks between Syria and Israel ultimately foundered on their mutual suspicions. The Israelis had no plans to withdraw to the 1967 lines, which would put Syria in control of a chunk of the shoreline of Lake Tiberias, their main water source.
For his part, Mr. Assad apparently felt he could not make peace without regaining every inch of lost territory, and he resisted Israeli attempts to tie peace to completely normal relations with free trade and open borders. Mr. Assad feared that Israel, having fought the Arabs to a stalemate, wanted to dominate them economically.
Inside Syria in the 1990’s, Mr. Assad was consolidating his position and preparing for his eldest son, Basil, an army officer and an equestrian champion, to succeed him.
In a December 1991 plebiscite on a fourth seven-year term as president, Mr. Assad got 99.9 percent of the vote. As one Syrian writer noted wryly, ”Even if Allah had run, he wouldn’t have done as well.”
But Mr. Assad’s dynastic plans were threatened when Basil died in an automobile accident in 1994. Then, Mr. Assad picked his next son in line, Bashar, who had been training in London to be an eye surgeon, as his heir apparent. Bashar was made a lieutenant colonel, given a top military post and referred to publicly as ”the hope” of Syria.
To emphasize his own line for succession, Mr. Assad in February 1998 stripped his brother Rifaat of the largely ceremonial title of vice president.
In late 1983, when Mr. Assad was hospitalized with a heart attack, Rifaat had tried to use his control of the military to assume power. As the president recuperated, Rifaat proved reluctant to back down and brought the country to the brink of civil war. Mr. Assad checked his brother, who spent the years from 1984 to 1992 in exile.
Mr. Assad is survived by four of his five children.
Although he set up the dynastic guidelines so his son would succeed him, it is unclear whether the second generation has the clout needed to control the competing security and intelligence agencies. Mr. Assad was the lone Syrian who had sufficient influence to make peace with Israel and to make it stick, but he never found the formula for getting the Golan back.
Secretary of State James A. Baker 3rd, in his 1995 memoir, ”The Politics of Diplomacy,” quoted Mr. Assad as saying: ”The land is important. It connotes dignity and honor. A man is not chosen to go to paradise unless he can do so in a dignified way.”