Of the five members of the Ba’ath Party’s Military Committee who seized power in Syria in 1963, Hafez Al-Assad went the furthest. Of the other four, one took the blame for Syria’s loss of the Golan Heights during the Six Day War and was pushed out of politics; one committed suicide; a third was assassinated; the other died in prison after 25 years.
Assad was born into a modest family in Qurhada in Syria’s north-western mountains, a village which was said to be 10 kilometres from the nearest road. He went to school in Latakia at a time when less than a quarter of Syrian children received an education. According to Patrick Seale’s unofficial biography, Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East, he inherited his father’s love of books, poetry and Arabic language.
Much has been made of the Assad family’s Alawi background and what it means to have members of a minority Shia Muslim sect rule over a predominantly Sunni Muslim country. Assad senior did not surround himself entirely by other Alawites, though; amongst those associates whom he kept close was a Palestinian Christian speechwriter and a Palestinian soldier who was his bodyguard. His foreign minister, chief aide and first three prime ministers were Sunni Muslims. Ultimately, the military was where a number of Assad’s loyal contacts and alliances lay. After joining the military academy in Homs, Assad joined the flying school at Aleppo, graduating into the air force in his early twenties.
In the period between France’s exit of the country in 1946 and Hafez Al-Assad becoming president a number of coups rocked Syria. Hence, Assad’s arrival on the scene (what he labelled the “corrective movement”) and his ability to hold power for the next thirty years is regarded by most observers as characteristic of one of his strengths – stability. He also set about portraying himself as a man of the people by visiting remote provinces of the country and talking to the people who lived there. According to Seale, he would bring back “sackfuls” of complaints for his staff to deal with.
Perhaps one of the most defining moments, or losses, in Hafez Al-Assad’s life was the Six Day War with Israel in which Syria lost the Golan Heights. He believed that this defeat could be overturned and Syria’s position vis-a-vis Israel became the vanguard of his presidency. His image as an Arab leader willing to confront Israel was confirmed on 6 October 1973 when his forces attacked the occupying Israeli forces in the Golan Heights; at the same time, taking such a stand isolated him. His co-belligerents Egypt and Jordan went on to sign separate peace treaties with Israel.
To face Israel Assad needed friends and so he moved Syria closer to the Soviet Union. As Patrick Seale recognises, though, “he grasped early on that the Soviet Union’s friendship for the Arabs would never match the United States’ generous, sentimental and open-handed commitment to Israel.” Israel’s presence was particularly unsettling for a region that had been under the control of both the Europeans and the Ottoman Empire within living memory.
Assad was known to be an ardent supporter of the Palestinian cause, but his involvement in the Lebanese civil war tarnished this reputation immensely. The “red-line” agreement saw the White House issue support for Syria to take a constructive role in the civil war; the chief architect of the agreement, then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, felt that if Assad could be tempted to crush the Palestinians in order to prevent an Israeli attack on Lebanon it would discredit the Syrian leader and curb Soviet power.
It worked. Assad sent in troops, sieges were broken and Palestinians were massacred. Whilst Assad’s relationship with the Palestinians and the Soviet Union took a severe blow, Israel’s relations with Lebanese Christians were strengthened.
Following Assad’s intervention in Lebanon in 1976 there was a series of explosions and assassinations in Syria, many of which were attributed to the Muslim Brotherhood. On 16 June 1979, Alawite officer cadets were assembled in the dining hall of the Aleppo Artillery School when gunmen opened fire on them, killing up to 83. Assassins targeted members of the government and prominent Alawites.
Internally, Assad’s biggest threat came from the Brotherhood. In retaliation for an assassination attempt on Assad in 1980 his brother Rifaat led the Defence Brigades in committing the Tadmor Prison massacre; 1,000 prisoners were killed. The notorious prison was known for holding many members and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. The crackdown on the group reached its apogee in 1982 in Hama. Regime soldiers rolled into the city and spent three weeks massacring the residents before the air force was sent in to finish off the job. Tens of thousands were killed, mosques were flattened and whole neighbourhoods were destroyed.
The ability to crush opposition to his rule was a prominent theme throughout Assad’s presidency. He had succeeded in eliminating other members of the Military Committee, tried to wipe out the Brotherhood and would later banish his brother Rifaat when he suspected that he was moving closer to his own position as president. Yet, despite his opposition to Israel and the west also being a presidential norm for Hafez Al-Assad, Syrian troops were sent to fight in the 1990 Gulf War on the American side. It is claimed that he went on to conduct peace talks with Israel, which stalled thanks to Tel Aviv’s refusal to give back the Golan Heights.
During his 30 years in power Assad cut basic food prices in Syria and built schools, hospitals, roads, damns and railways. The economy grew with foreign aid reaching £600 million from a starting point of £50 million. At the same time, he established an authoritarian state, curtailed freedom of speech and secured his tenure with 99 per cent “yes” referendums. He was Chief Judge, gave himself the power to dissolve parliament and permitted civilians to be tried in military courts and tortured in secret prisons.
Hafez Al-Assad died on 10 June 2000. His eldest son Basil was a lieutenant colonel in the military and was being groomed to take over as president when he was killed in a car crash on 21 January 1994. Basil’s brother, Bashar, was recalled from London where he was training as an ophthalmologist and pushed through the military in preparation to take over as head of the Assad dynasty; Bashar remains at the helm in Damascus to this day.