Hafez al-Assad (Arabic: حافظ الأسد Ḥāfiẓ al-ʾAsad,
Levantine pronunciation: [ˈħaːfezˤ elˈʔasad] Modern Standard
Arabic: [ħaːfɪðˤ al'ʔasad]; 6 October 1930 – 10 June
2000) was a Syrian statesman, politician, and general who served as
President of Syria
President of Syria from 1971 to 2000. He was also Prime Minister from
1970 to 1971, as well as Regional Secretary of the Regional Command of
the Syrian Regional Branch of the Arab Socialist
Ba'ath Party and
Secretary General of the National Command of the
Ba'ath Party from
1970 to 2000.
Assad participated in the
1963 Syrian coup d'état
1963 Syrian coup d'état which brought the
Syrian Regional Branch of the Arab Socialist
Ba'ath Party to power,
and the new leadership appointed him Commander of the Syrian Air
Force. In 1966, Assad participated in a second coup, which toppled the
traditional leaders of the
Ba'ath Party and brought a radical military
faction headed by
Salah Jadid to power. Assad was appointed defense
minister by the new government. Four years later, Assad initiated the
Corrective Revolution which ousted Jadid, and appointed himself as the
undisputed leader of Syria.
Assad de-radicalised the Ba'ath government when he took power by
giving more space to private property and by strengthening the
country's foreign relations with countries which his predecessor had
deemed reactionary. He sided with the
Soviet Union during the Cold War
in turn for support against Israel, and, while he had forsaken the
pan-Arab concept of unifying the
Arab world into one Arab nation, he
sought to make
Syria the defender of Arab interests against Israel.
When he came to power, Assad organised state services along sectarian
lines (the Sunnis became the heads of political institutions, while
Alawites took control of the military, intelligence, and security
apparatuses). The formerly collegial powers of Ba'athist
decision-making were curtailed, and were transferred to the Syrian
presidency. The Syrian government ceased to be a one-party system in
the normal sense of the word, and was turned into a one-party state
with a strong presidency. To maintain this system, a cult of
personality centered on Assad and his family was created by the
president and Ba'ath party.
Having become the main source of initiative inside the Syrian
government, Assad began looking for a successor. His first choice was
his brother Rifaat, but Rifaat attempted to seize power in 1983–84
when Hafez's health was in doubt. Rifaat was subsequently exiled when
Hafez's health recovered. Hafez's next choice of successor was his
eldest son, Bassel. However Bassel died in a car accident in 1994, and
Hafez turned to his third choice—his younger son Bashar, who at that
time had no political experience. This move was met with criticism
within some quarters of the Syrian ruling class, but Assad persisted
with his plan and demoted several officials who opposed this
succession. Hafez died in 2000 and Bashar succeeded him as President.
1 Early life and education: 1930–1950
1.2 Education and early political career
2 Air Force career: 1950–1958
3 Runup to 1963 coup: 1958–1963
Ba'ath Party rule: 1963–1970
4.1 Aflaqite leadership: 1963–1966
4.1.1 Military work
4.1.2 Power struggle and 1966 coup
4.2 Jadid as strongman: 1966–1970
4.2.2 Seizing power
22.214.171.124 Differences with Jadid
126.96.36.199 "Duality of power"
188.8.131.52 1970 coup d'état
5 Presidency: 1970–2000
5.1 Domestic events and policies
5.1.1 Consolidating power
5.1.3 Islamist uprising
5.1.4 1983–1984 succession crisis
5.1.5 Autocracy, succession and death
5.2 Foreign policy
5.2.1 Yom Kippur War
184.108.40.206 The war
5.2.2 Lebanese Civil War
7 External links
Early life and education: 1930–1950
Main article: Al-Assad family
Hafez was born on 6 October 1930 in
Qardaha to an
Alawite family of
the Kalbiyya tribe. His parents were Na'sa and Ali Sulayman
al-Assad. Hafez was Ali's ninth son, and the fourth from his
second marriage. Sulayman married twice, had eleven children
and was known for his strength and shooting abilities; locals
nicknamed him Wahhish (wild beast). By the 1920s he was respected
locally, and like many others he initially opposed the French Mandate
for Syria. Nevertheless, Ali Sulayman later cooperated with the
French administration and was appointed to an official post. For
his accomplishments he was called "al-Assad" (a lion) by local
residents and in 1927 made the nickname his surname. in 1936,
he was one of 80
Alawite notables who signed a letter addressed to the
French Prime Minister saying that "[the] Alawi people rejected
Syria and wished to stay under French protection."
Education and early political career
Alawites initially opposed a united Syrian state (since they thought
their status as a religious minority would endanger them), and
Hafez's father shared this belief. As the French left Syria, many
Alawites because of their alignment with
France. Hafez left his
Alawite village, beginning his education at
age nine in Sunni-dominated Latakia. He was the first in his
family to attend high school, but in
Latakia Assad faced Sunni
Alawite bias. He was an excellent student, winning several
prizes at about age 14. Assad lived in a poor, predominantly
Alawite part of Latakia; to fit in, he approached political
parties that welcomed Alawites. These parties (which also espoused
secularism) were the Syrian Communist Party, the Syrian Social
Nationalist Party (SSNP) and the
Arab Ba'ath Party; Assad joined the
latter in 1946, and some of his friends belonged to the SSNP.
The Ba'ath (Renaissance) Party espoused a pan-Arabist, socialist
Assad was an asset to the party, organizing Ba'ath student cells and
carrying the party's message to the poor sections of
Alawite villages. He was opposed by the Muslim Brotherhood, which
was allied with wealthy and conservative Muslim families. His high
school accommodated students from rich and poor families, and
Assad was joined by poor, anti-establishment
Sunni Muslim youth from
Ba'ath Party in confrontations with students from wealthy
Brotherhood families. He made many
Sunni friends, some of whom
later became his political allies. While still a teenager, Assad
became increasingly prominent in the party as an organizer and
recruiter, head of his school's student-affairs committee from 1949 to
1951 and president of the Union of Syrian Students. During his
political activism in school, he met many men who would serve him when
he was president.
Air Force career: 1950–1958
Hafez al-Assad (above) standing on the wing of a Fiat G.46-4B with
fellow cadets at the Syrian AF Academy outside Aleppo, 1951–52
After graduating from high school, Assad aspired to be a medical
doctor, but his father could not pay for his study at the Jesuit
University of St. Joseph in Beirut. Instead, in 1950 he decided to
join the Syrian Armed Forces. Assad entered the military academy
in Homs, which offered free food, lodging and a stipend. He wanted
to fly, and entered the flying school in
Aleppo in 1950. Assad
graduated in 1955, after which he was commissioned a lieutenant in the
Syrian Air Force. Upon graduation from flying school he won a
best-aviator trophy, and shortly afterwards was assigned to
Mezze air base near Damascus. In his early 20s, he married
Anisa Makhlouf in 1957, a distant relative of a powerful family.
In 1954, the military split in a revolt against President Adib
Shishakli. Hashim al-Atassi, head of the National Bloc and briefly
president after Sami al-Hinnawi's coup, returned as president and
Syria was again under civilian rule. After 1955, Atassi's hold on
the country was increasingly shaky. As a result of the 1955
election Atassi was replaced by Shukri al-Quwatli, who was president
before Syria's independence from France. The
Ba'ath Party grew
closer to the Communist Party not because of shared ideology, but a
shared opposition to the West. At the academy Assad met Mustafa
Tlass, his future minister of defense. In 1955, Assad was sent to
Egypt for a further six months of training. When Gamal Abdel
Nasser nationalised the
Suez Canal in 1956,
Syria feared retaliation
from the United Kingdom, and Assad flew in an air-defense mission.
He was among the Syrian pilots who flew to Cairo to show Syria's
commitment to Egypt. After finishing a course in Egypt the
following year, Assad returned to a small air base near Damascus.
During the Suez Crisis, he also flew a reconnaissance mission over
northern and eastern Syria. In 1957, as squadron commander, Assad
was sent to the
Soviet Union for training in flying MiG-17s. He
spent ten months in the Soviet Union, during which he fathered a
daughter (who died as an infant while he was abroad) with his
Syria and Egypt formed the
United Arab Republic
United Arab Republic (UAR),
separating themselves from Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, and
Turkey (who were
aligned with the United Kingdom). This pact led to the rejection
of Communist influence in favor of Egyptian control over Syria.
All Syrian political parties (including the Ba'ath Party) were
dissolved, and senior officers—especially those who supported the
Communists—were dismissed from the Syrian armed forces. Assad,
however, remained in the army and rose quickly through the ranks.
After reaching the rank of captain he was transferred to Egypt,
continuing his military education with future president of Egypt Hosni
Runup to 1963 coup: 1958–1963
Main article: 1963 Syrian coup d'état
Assad was not content with a professional military career, regarding
it as a gateway to politics. After the creation of the UAR, Ba'ath
Michel Aflaq was forced by Nasser to dissolve the
party. During the UAR's existence, the
Ba'ath Party experienced a
crisis for which several of its members—mostly young—blamed
Aflaq. To resurrect the Syrian Regional Branch of the party,
Muhammad Umran, Salah Jadid, Assad and others established the Military
Committee. In 1957–58 Assad rose to a dominant position in the
Military Committee, which mitigated his transfer to Egypt. After
Syria left the UAR in September 1961, Assad and other Ba'athist
officers were removed from the military by the new government in
Damascus, and he was given a minor clerical position at the Ministry
Assad played a minor role in the failed 1962 military coup, for which
he was jailed in Lebanon and later repatriated. That year, Aflaq
convened the 5th National Congress of the
Ba'ath Party (where he was
reelected as the Secretary General of the National Command) and
ordered the re-establishment of the party's Syrian Regional
Branch. At the Congress, the Military Committee (through Umran)
established contacts with Aflaq and the civilian leadership. The
committee requested permission to seize power by force, and Aflaq
agreed to the conspiracy. After the success of the Iraqi coup
d'état led by the Ba'ath Party's Iraqi Regional Branch, the Military
Committee hastily convened to launch a Ba'athist military coup in
March 1963 against President Nazim al-Kudsi (which Assad helped
plan). The coup was scheduled for 7 March, but he announced a
postponement (until the next day) to the other units. During the
coup Assad led a small group to capture the
Dumayr air base, 40
kilometres (25 mi) northeast of Damascus. His group was the
only one that encountered resistance. Some planes at the base were
ordered to bomb the conspirators, and because of this Assad hurried to
reach the base before dawn. Because the 70th Armored Brigade's
surrender took longer than anticipated, however, he arrived in broad
daylight. When Assad threatened the base commander with shelling,
the commander negotiated a surrender; Assad later claimed that the
base could have withstood his forces.
Ba'ath Party rule: 1963–1970
Aflaqite leadership: 1963–1966
Not long after Assad's election to the Regional Command, the Military
Committee ordered him to strengthen the committee's position in the
military establishment. Assad may have received the most important
job of all, since his primary goal was to end factionalism in the
Syrian military and make it a Ba'ath monopoly; as he said, he had
to create an "ideological army". To help with this task Assad
recruited Zaki al-Arsuzi, who indirectly (through Wahib al-Ghanim)
inspired him to join the
Ba'ath Party when he was young. Arsuzi
accompanied Assad on tours of military camps, where Arsuzi lectured
the soldiers on Ba'athist thought. In gratitude for his work,
Assad gave Arsuzi a government pension. Assad continued his
Ba'athification of the military by appointing loyal officers to key
positions and ensuring that the "political education of the troops was
not neglected". He demonstrated his skill as a patient planner
during this period. As
Patrick Seale wrote, Assad's mastery of
detail "suggested the mind of an intelligence officer".
Assad was promoted to major and then to lieutenant colonel, and by the
end of 1963 was in charge of the Syrian Air Force. By the end of
1964 he was named commander of the Air Force, with the rank of major
general. Assad gave privileges to Air Force officers, appointed
his confidants to senior and sensitive positions and established an
efficient intelligence network. Air Force Intelligence, under the
Muhammad al-Khuli, became independent of Syria's other
intelligence organizations and received assignments beyond Air Force
jurisdiction. Assad prepared himself for an active role in the
power struggles that lay ahead.
Power struggle and 1966 coup
Main article: 1966 Syrian coup d'état
In the aftermath of the 1963 coup, at the First Regional Congress
(held 5 September 1963) Assad was elected to the Syrian Regional
Command (the highest decision-making body in the Syrian Regional
Branch). While not a leadership role, it was Assad's first
appearance in national politics; in retrospect, he said he
positioned himself "on the left" in the Regional Command. Khalid
al-Falhum, a Palestinian who would later work for the Palestine
Liberation Organization (PLO), met Assad in 1963; he noted that Assad
was a strong leftist "but was clearly not a communist", committed
instead to Arab nationalism.
During the 1964 Hama riot, Assad voted to suppress the uprising
violently if needed. The decision to suppress the Hama riot led to
a schism in the Military Committee between Umran and Jadid. Umran
opposed force, instead wanting the
Ba'ath Party to create a coalition
with other pan-Arab forces. Jadid desired a strong one-party
state, similar to those in the communist countries of Europe.
Assad, as junior partner, kept quiet at first but eventually allied
himself with Jadid. Why Assad chose to side with him has been
widely discussed; he probably shared Jadid's radical ideological
outlook. Having lost his footing on the Military Committee, Umran
aligned himself with Aflaq and the National Command; he told them that
the Military Committee was planning to seize power in the party by
ousting them. Because of Umran's defection, Rifaat al-Assad
(Assad's brother) succeeded Umran as commander of a secret military
force tasked with protecting Military Committee loyalists.
In its bid to seize power the Military Committee allied themselves
with the regionalists, a group of cells in the Syrian Regional Branch
that refused to disband in 1958 when ordered to do so. Although
Aflaq considered these cells traitors, Assad called them the "true
cells of the party"; this again highlighted differences between the
Military Committee and the National Command headed by Aflaq. At
the Eighth National Congress in 1965 Assad was elected to the National
Command, the party's highest decision-making body. From his
position as part of the National Command, Assad informed Jadid on its
activities. After the congress, the National Command dissolved the
Syrian Regional Command; Aflaq proposed
Salah al-Din al-Bitar
Salah al-Din al-Bitar as prime
minister, but Assad and
Ibrahim Makhus opposed Bitar's nomination.
According to Seale, Assad abhorred Aflaq; he considered him an
autocrat and a rightist, accusing him of "ditching" the party by
ordering the dissolution of the Syrian Regional Branch in 1958.
Assad, who also disliked Aflaq's supporters, nevertheless opposed a
show of force against the Aflaqites. In response to the imminent
coup Assad, Naji Jamil, Husayn Mulhim and
Yusuf Sayigh left for
In the 1966 Syrian coup d'état, the Military Committee overthrew the
National Command. The coup led to a permanent schism in the Ba'ath
movement, the advent of neo-
Ba'athism and the establishment of two
centers of the international Ba'athist movement: one Iraqi- and the
Jadid as strongman: 1966–1970
After the coup, Assad was appointed Minister of Defense. This was
his first cabinet post, and through his position he would be thrust
into the forefront of the Syrian–Israeli conflict. His
government was radically socialist, and sought to remake society from
top to bottom. Although Assad was a radical, he opposed the
headlong rush for change. Despite his title, he had little power
in the government and took more orders than he issued. Jadid was
the undisputed leader at the time, opting to remain in the office of
Assistant Regional Secretary of the Syrian Regional Command instead of
taking executive office (which had historically been held by
Nureddin al-Atassi was given three of the four top
executive positions in the country: President, Secretary-General of
the National Command and Regional Secretary of the Syrian Regional
Command. The post of prime minister was given to Yusuf
Zu'ayyin. Jadid (who was establishing his authority) focused on
civilian issues and gave Assad de facto control of the Syrian
military, considering him no threat.
During the failed coup d'état of late 1966,
Salim Hatum tried to
overthrow Jadid's government. Hatum (who felt snubbed when he was
not appointed to the Regional Command after the February 1966 coup
d'état) sought revenge and the return to power of Hammud al-Shufi,
the first Regional Secretary of the Regional Command after the Syrian
Regional Branch's re-establishment in 1963. When Jadid, Atassi and
Regional Command member Jamil Shayya visited Suwayda, forces loyal to
Hatum surrounded the city and captured them. In a twist of fate,
Druze elders forbade the murder of their guests and
demanded that Hatum wait. Jadid and the others were placed under
house arrest, with Hatum planning to kill them at his first
opportunity. When word of the mutiny spread to the Ministry of
Defense, Assad ordered the 70th Armored Brigade to the city. By
this time Hatum, a Druze, knew that Assad would order the bombardment
of Suwayda (a Druze-dominated city) if Hatum did not accede to his
demands. Hatum and his supporters fled to Jordan, where they were
given asylum. How Assad learned about the conspiracy is unknown,
but Mustafa al-Hajj Ali (head of Military Intelligence) may have
telephoned the Ministry of Defense. Due to his prompt action,
Assad earned Jadid's gratitude.
In the aftermath of the attempted coup Assad and Jadid purged the
party's military organization, removing 89 officers; Assad removed an
estimated 400 officers, Syria's largest military purge to date.
The purges, which began when the
Ba'ath Party took power in 1963, had
left the military weak. As a result, when the
Six-Day War broke
Syria had no chance of victory.
The Arab defeat in the Six-Day War, in which
Israel captured the Golan
Heights from Syria, provoked a furious quarrel among Syria's
leadership. The civilian leadership blamed military incompetence,
and the military responded by criticizing the civilian leadership (led
by Jadid). Several high-ranking party members demanded Assad's
resignation, and an attempt was made to vote him out of the Regional
Command, the party's highest decision-making body. The motion was
defeated by one vote, with
Abd al-Karim al-Jundi
Abd al-Karim al-Jundi (who the anti-Assad
members hoped would succeed Assad as defense minister) voting, as
Patrick Seale put it, "in a comradely gesture" to retain him.
During the end of the war, the party leadership freed Aflaqites Umran,
Amin al-Hafiz and
Mansur al-Atrash from prison. Shortly after his
release, Hafiz was approached by dissident Syrian military officers to
oust the government; he refused, believing that a coup at that time
would have helped Israel, but not Syria.
The war was a turning point for Assad (and Ba'athist
general), and his attempted ouster began a power struggle with
Jadid for control of the country. Until then Assad had not shown
ambition for high office, arousing little suspicion in others.
1963 Syrian coup d'état
1963 Syrian coup d'état to the
Six-Day War in 1967, Assad
did not play a leading role in politics and was usually overshadowed
by his contemporaries. As
Patrick Seale wrote, he was "apparently
content to be a solid member of the team without the aspiration to
become number one". Although Jadid was slow to see Assad's threat,
shortly after the war Assad began developing a network in the military
and promoted friends and close relatives to high positions.
Differences with Jadid
Assad believed that Syria's defeat in the
Six-Day War was Jadid's
fault, and the accusations against himself were unjust. By this
time Jadid had total control of the Regional Command, whose members
supported his policies. Assad and Jadid began to differ on
policy; Assad believed that Jadid's policy of a people's war (an
armed-guerrilla strategy) and class struggle had failed Syria,
undermining its position. Although Jadid continued to champion the
concept of a people's war even after the Six-Day War, Assad opposed
it. He felt that the Palestinian guerrilla fighters had been given too
much autonomy and had raided
Israel constantly, which in turn sparked
the war. Jadid had broken diplomatic relations with countries he
deemed reactionary, such as
Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Because of
Syria did not receive aid from other Arab countries. Egypt and
Jordan, who participated in the war, received £135 million per
year for an undisclosed period.
While Jadid and his supporters prioritised socialism and the "internal
revolution", Assad wanted the leadership to focus on foreign policy
and the containment of Israel. The
Ba'ath Party was divided over
several issues, such as how the government could best use Syria's
limited resources, the ideal relationship between the party and the
people, the organization of the party and whether the class struggle
should end. These subjects were discussed heatedly in Ba'ath Party
conclaves, and when they reached the Fourth Regional Congress the two
sides were irreconcilable.
Assad wanted to "democratize" the party by making it easier for people
to join. Jadid was wary of too large a membership, believing that
the majority of those who joined were opportunists. Assad, in an
Patrick Seale in the 1980s, stated that such a policy
would make Party members believe they were a privileged class.
Another problem, Assad believed, was the lack of local-government
institutions. Under Jadid, there was no governmental level below
the Council of Ministers (the Syrian government). When the
Ba'athist Iraqi Regional Branch (which continued to support the
Aflaqite leadership) took control of
Iraq in the 17 July Revolution,
Assad was one of the few high-level politicians wishing to reconcile
with them; he called for the establishment of an "Eastern Front"
Israel in 1968. Jadid's foreign policy towards
Soviet Union was also criticised by Assad, who believed it had
failed. In many ways the relationship between the countries was
poor, with the Soviets refusing to acknowledge Jadid's scientific
socialism and Soviet newspapers calling him a "hothead". Assad, on
the contrary, called for greater pragmatism in decision-making.
"Duality of power"
At a meeting someone raised the case of X. Should he not be brought
back? Asad gave the questioner a hard look but said nothing. A little
later the subject came up again and this time Asad said: I've heard
something disagreeable about this officer. When he was on a course in
England in 1954, his brother wrote asking for help for their sick
mother. X took a £5 note out of his pocket, held it up and said he
wouldn't part with it to save her life. Anyone who can't be loyal to
his mother is not going to be loyal to the air force.
—General Fu'ad Kallas on the importance in which Assad laid on
The conflict between Assad and Jadid became the talk of the army and
the party, with a "duality of power" noted between them. Shortly
after the failed attempt to expel Assad from the Regional Command, he
began to consolidate his position in the military
establishment—for example, by replacing Chief of Staff Ahmad
al-Suwaydani with his friend Mustafa Tlass. Although Suwaydani's
relationship with Jadid had deteriorated, he was removed because of
his complaints about "Alawi influence in the army". Tlass was
later appointed Assad's Deputy Minister of Defense (his
second-in-command). Others removed from their positions were Ahmad
al-Mir (a founder and former member of the Military Committee, and
former commander of the Golan Front) and Izzat Jadid (a close
supporter of Jadid and commander of the 70th Armoured Brigade).
By the Fourth Regional Congress and Tenth National Congress in
September and October 1968, Assad had extended his grip on the army,
and Jadid still controlled the party. At both congresses, Assad
was outvoted on most issues, and his arguments were firmly
rejected. While he failed in most of his attempts, he had enough
support to remove two socialist theoreticians (Prime Minister Yusuf
Zu'ayyin and Minister of Foreign Affairs Ibrahim Makhus) from the
Regional Command. However, the military's involvement in party
politics was unpopular with the rank and file; as the gulf between
Assad and Jadid widened, the civilian and military party bodies were
forbidden to contact each other. Despite this, Assad was winning
the race to accumulate power. As
Munif al-Razzaz (ousted in the
1966 Syrian coup d'état) noted, "Jadid's fatal mistake was to attempt
to govern the army through the party".
Assad (center) and
Nureddin al-Atassi (left) meeting with Egyptian
President Gamal Abdel Nasser, 1969
While Assad had taken control of the armed forces through his position
as Minister of Defense, Jadid still controlled the security and
intelligence sectors through
Abd al-Karim al-Jundi
Abd al-Karim al-Jundi (head of the
National Security Bureau). Jundi—a paranoid, cruel man—was
feared throughout Syria. In February 1969, the Assad-Jadid
conflict erupted in violent clashes through their respective proteges:
Rifaat al-Assad (Assad's brother and a high-ranking military
commander) and Jundi. The reason for the violence was Rifaat
al-Assad's suspicion that Jundi was planning an attempt on Assad's
life. The suspected assassin was interrogated and confessed under
torture. Acting on this information,
Rifaat al-Assad argued that
unless Jundi was removed from his post he and his brother were in
From 25 to 28 February 1969, the Assad brothers initiated "something
just short of a coup". Under Assad's authority, tanks were moved
Damascus and the staffs of al-Ba'ath and al-Thawra (two party
newspapers) and radio stations in
Aleppo were replaced
with Assad loyalists.
Latakia and Tartus, two Alawite-dominated
cities, saw "fierce scuffles" ending with the overthrow of Jadid's
supporters from local posts. Shortly afterwards, a wave of arrests
of Jundi loyalists began. On 2 March, after a telephone argument
with head of military intelligence Ali Dhadha, Jundi committed
suicide. When Zu'ayyin heard the news he wept, saying "we are all
orphaned now" (referring to his and Jadid's loss of their
protector). Despite the fact that Assad drove Jundi to suicide, he
is said to have also wept when he heard the news.
Assad was now in control, but he hesitated to push his advantage.
Jadid continued to rule Syria, and the Regional Command was
unchanged. However, Assad influenced Jadid to moderate his
Class struggle was muted, criticism of reactionary
tendencies of other Arab states ceased, some political prisoners were
freed, a coalition government was formed (with the
Ba'ath Party in
control) and the Eastern Front—espoused by Assad—was formed with
Iraq and Jordan. Jadid's isolationist policies were curtailed, and
Syria reestablished diplomatic relations with many of its foes.
Around this time, Gamal Abdel Nasser's Egypt, Houari Boumediene's
Algeria and Ba'athist
Iraq began sending emissaries to reconcile Assad
1970 coup d'état
Assad began planning to seize power shortly after the failed Syrian
military intervention in the Jordanian
Black September crisis, a power
struggle between the PLO and the Hashemite monarchy. While Assad
had been in de facto command of Syrian politics since 1969, Jadid and
his supporters still held the trappings of power. After attending
Nasser's funeral, Assad returned to
Syria for the Emergency National
Congress (held on 30 October). At the congress Assad was condemned
by Jadid and his supporters, the majority of the party's
delegates. However, before attending the congress Assad ordered
his loyal troops to surround the building housing the meeting.
Criticism of Assad's political position continued in a defeatist tone,
with the majority of delegates believing that they had lost the
battle. Assad and Tlass were stripped of their government posts at
the congress; these acts had little practical significance.
When the National Congress ended on 12 November 1970, Assad ordered
loyalists to arrest leading members of Jadid's government.
Although many mid-level officials were offered posts in Syrian
embassies abroad, Jadid refused: "If I ever take power, you will be
dragged through the streets until you die." Assad imprisoned him
Mezze prison until his death. The coup was calm and bloodless;
the only evidence of change to the outside world was the disappearance
of newspapers, radio and television stations. A Temporary Regional
Command was soon established, and on 16 November the new government
published its first decree.
Main article: Presidency of Hafez al-Assad
Domestic events and policies
Main article: Corrective Movement (Syria)
Assad in November 1970, shortly after seizing power
According to Patrick Seale, Assad's rule "began with an immediate and
considerable advantage: the government he displaced was so detested
that any alternative came as a relief". He first tried to
establish national unity, which he felt had been lost under the
leadership of Aflaq and Jadid. Assad differed from his predecessor
at the outset, visiting local villages and hearing citizen
Syrian people felt that Assad's rise to power
would lead to change; one of his first acts as ruler was to visit
Sultan Pasha al-Atrash, father of the Aflaqite Ba'athist Mansur
al-Atrash, to honor his efforts during the Great Arab Revolution.
He made overtures to the Writers' Union, rehabilitating those who had
been forced underground, jailed or sent into exile for representing
what radical Ba'athists called the reactionary classes: "I am
determined that you shall no longer feel strangers in your own
country." Although Assad did not democratize the country, he eased
the government's repressive policies.
He cut prices for basic foodstuffs 15 percent, which won him support
from ordinary citizens. Jadid's security services were purged,
some military criminal investigative powers were transferred to the
police, and the confiscation of goods under Jadid was reversed.
Restrictions on travel to and trade with Lebanon were eased, and Assad
encouraged growth in the private sector. While Assad supported
most of Jadid's policies, he proved more pragmatic after he came to
Most of Jadid's supporters faced a choice: continue working for the
Ba'ath government under Assad, or face repression. Assad made it
clear from the beginning "that there would be no second chances".
However, later in 1970 he recruited support from the Ba'athist old
guard who had supported Aflaq's leadership during the 1963–1966
power struggle. An estimated 2,000 former Ba'athists rejoined the
party after hearing Assad's appeal, among them party ideologist
Georges Saddiqni and Shakir al-Fahham, a secretary of the founding,
1st National Congress of the
Ba'ath Party in 1947. Assad ensured
that they would not defect to the pro-Aflaqite
Ba'ath Party in Iraq
with the Treason Trials in 1971, in which he prosecuted Aflaq, Amin
al-Hafiz and nearly 100 followers (most in absentia). The few who
were convicted were not imprisoned long, and the trials were primarily
At the 11th National Congress Assad assured party members that his
leadership was a radical change from that of Jadid, and he would
implement a "corrective movement" to return
Syria to the true
"nationalist socialist line". Unlike Jadid, Assad emphasised "the
advancement of which all resources and manpower [would be] mobilised
[was to be] the liberation of the occupied territories". This
would mark a major break with his predecessors and would, according to
Raymond Hinnebusch, dictate "major alterations in the course of the
Assad's first inauguration as President in the People's Council, March
1971. L–R: Assad, Abdullah al-Ahmar, Prime Minister Abdul Rahman
Khleifawi, Assistant Regional Secretary Mohamad Jaber Bajbouj, Foreign
Abdul Halim Khaddam
Abdul Halim Khaddam and People's Council Speaker Fihmi
al-Yusufi. In the third civilian row are Defense Minister Mustafa
Tlass (MP in the 1971 Parliament) and Air Force Commander Naji Jamil.
Behind Tlass is Rifaat al-Assad, Assad's younger brother. On the far
right in the fourth row is future vice president Zuhair Masharqa, and
Abdullah al-Ahmar is Deputy Prime Minister Mohammad Haidar.
Assad turned the presidency, which had been known simply as "head of
state" under Jadid, into a position of power during his rule. In
many ways, the presidential authority replaced the Ba'ath Party's
failed experiment with organised, military Leninism;
a hybrid of
Leninism and Gaullist constitutionalism. According to
Raymond Hinnebusch, "as the president became the main source of
initiative in the government, his personality, values, strengths and
weaknesses became decisive for its direction and stability. Arguably
Assad's leadership gave the government an enhanced combination of
consistency and flexibility which it hitherto lacked."
Assad institutionalised a system where he had the final say, which
weakened the powers of the collegial institutions of the state and
party. As fidelity to the leader replaced ideological conviction
later in his presidency, corruption became widespread. The
state-sponsored cult of personality became pervasive; as Assad's
authority strengthened at his colleagues' expense, he became the sole
symbol of the government. Because Assad wanted to become an
Arab leader, he considered himself a successor to Nasser since he rose
to power in November 1970 (a few weeks after Nasser's death). He
modeled his presidential system on Nasser's, hailed Nasser for his
pan-Arabic leadership and publicly displayed photographs of Nasser
with posters of himself. Pictures of Assad—often engaged in
heroic activities—were ubiquitous in public places. He named a
number of locations and institutions after himself and family
members. In schools, children were taught songs praising
Assad. Teachers began each lesson with the song "Our Eternal
Leader, Hafez al-Assad", and he was sometimes portrayed with
seemingly divine attributes. Sculptures and portraits depicted him
with the Islamic prophet, Muhammad, and after his mother's death the
government produced portraits of her with a halo. Syrian officials
were compelled to call Assad "the sanctified one" ("al-Muqaddas").
This strategy was also pursued by his son, Bashar al-Assad.
While Assad did not rule alone, he increasingly had the last word;
those with whom he worked eventually became lieutenants, rather than
colleagues. None of the political elite would question a decision
of his, and those who did were dismissed. General Naji Jamil is an
example, being dismissed after he disagreed with Assad's handling of
the Islamic uprising. The two highest decision-making bodies were
the Regional Command and the National Command, both part of the Ba'ath
Party. Joint sessions of these bodies resembled politburos in
socialist states which espoused communism. Assad headed the
National Command and the Regional Command as Secretary General and
Regional Secretary, respectively. The Regional Command was the
highest decision-making body in Syria, appointing the president and
(through him) the cabinet. As presidential authority strengthened,
the power of the Regional Command and its members evaporated. The
Regional and National Commands were nominally responsible to the
Regional Congress and the National Congress—with the National
Congress the de jure superior body—but the Regional Congress had de
facto authority. The National Congress, which included delegates
from Ba'athist Regional Branches in other countries, has been compared
to the Comintern. It functioned as a session of the Regional
Congress focusing on Syria's foreign policy and party ideology.
The Regional Congress had limited accountability until the 1985 Eighth
Regional Congress, the last under Assad. In 1985, responsibility
for leadership accountability was transferred from the Regional
Congress to the weaker National Progressive Front.
Sunni members of the political elite: (L–R) Ahmad
Abdullah al-Ahmar and Mustafa Tlass
When Assad came to power, he increased
Alawite dominance of the
security and intelligence sectors to a near-monopoly. The coercive
framework was under his control, weakening the state and party.
According to Hinnebusch, the
Alawite officers around Assad "were
pivotal because as personal kinsmen or clients of the president, they
combined privileged access to him with positions in the party and
control of the levers of coercion. They were, therefore, in an
unrivalled position to act as political brokers and, especially in
times of crisis, were uniquely placed to shape outcomes". The
leading figures in the Alawite-dominated security system had family
Rifaat al-Assad controlled the Struggle Companies, and
Assad's son-in-law Adnan Makhluf was his second-in-command as
Commander of the Presidential Guard. Other prominent figures were
Ali Haydar (special-forces head), Ibrahim al-Ali (Popular Army head),
Muhammad al-Khuli (head of Assad's intelligence-coordination
committee) and Military Intelligence head Ali Duba. Assad
controlled the military through
Alawites such as Generals Shafiq
Fayyad (commander of the 3rd Division),
Ibrahim Safi (commander of the
1st Division) and Adnan Badr Hasan (commander of the 9th
Division). During the 1990s, Assad further strengthened Alawite
dominance by replacing
Hikmat al-Shihabi with General
Ali Aslan as chief of staff. The Alawites, with their high status,
appointed and promoted based on kinship and favor rather than
professional respect. Therefore, an
Alawite elite emerged from
these policies. Assad's elite was non-sectarian; prominent
Sunni figures at the beginning of his rule were Abdul Halim Khaddam,
Shihabi, Naji Jamil,
Abdullah al-Ahmar and Mustafa Tlass.
However, none of these people had a distinct power base from that of
Assad. Although Sunnis held the positions of Air Force Commander
from 1971 to 1994 (Jamil, Subhi Haddad and Ali Malahafji), General
Intelligence head from 1970 to 2000 (Adnan Dabbagh, Ali al-Madani,
Nazih Zuhayr, Fuad al-Absi and Bashir an-Najjar), Chief of Staff of
the Syrian Army from 1974 to 1998 (Shihabi) and defense minister from
1972 until after Assad's death (Tlass), none had power separate from
Assad or the Alawite-dominated security system. When Jamil headed
the Air Force, he could not issue orders without the knowledge of
Alawite head of Air Force Intelligence). After the
failed Islamic uprising, Assad's reliance on his relatives
intensified; before that, his
Sunni colleagues had some
autonomy. A defector from Assad's government said, "Tlass is in
the army but at the same time seems as if he is not of the army; he
neither binds nor loosens and has no role other than that of the tail
in the beast." Another example was Shihabi, who occasionally
represented Assad. However, he had no control in the Syrian
military; Ali Aslan, First Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations during
most of his tenure, was responsible for troop maneuvers. Although
the Sunnis were in the forefront, the
Alawites had the power.
Main article: Islamist uprising in Syria
Assad's pragmatic policies indirectly led to the establishment of a
"new class", and he accepted this while it furthered his aims
against Israel. When Assad began pursuing a policy of economic
liberalization, the state bureaucracy began using their positions for
personal gain. The state gave implementation rights to "much of
its development program to foreign firms and contractors, fueling a
growing linkage between the state and private capital". What
ensued was a spike in corruption, which led the political class to be
"thoroughly embourgeoised". The channeling of external money
through the state to private enterprises "created growing
opportunities for state elites' self-enrichment through corrupt
manipulation of state-market interchanges. Besides outright
embezzlement, webs of shared interests in commissions and kickbacks
grew up between high officials, politicians, and business
Alawite military-security establishment got the
greatest share of the money; the
Ba'ath Party and its leaders
ruled a new class, defending their interests instead of those of
peasants and workers (whom they were supposed to represent). This,
coupled with growing
Sunni disillusionment with what Hinnebusch calls
"the regime's mixture of statism, rural and sectarian favouritism,
corruption and new inequalities", fueled the growth of the Islamic
movement. Because of this, the
Muslim Brotherhood of
the vanguard of anti-Ba'athist forces.
The Brotherhood had historically been a vehicle for moderate Islam
during its introduction to the Syrian political scene during the 1960s
under the leadership of Mustafa al-Siba'i. After Siba'i's
imprisonment, under Isam al-Attar's leadership the Brotherhood
developed into the ideological antithesis of Ba'athist rule.
However, the Ba'ath Party's organizational superiority worked in its
favor; with Attar's enforced exile, the
Muslim Brotherhood was in
disarray. It was not until the 1970s that the Muslim Brotherhood
established a clear, central collective authority for its organization
under Adnan Saad ad-Din, Sa'id Hawwa,
Ali Sadr al-Din al-Bayanuni and
Husni Abu. Because of their organizational capabilities, the
Muslim Brotherhood grew tenfold from 1975 to 1978 (from 500–700 in
Aleppo); nationwide, by 1978 it had 30,000 followers.
The Islamic uprising began in the mid-to-late 1970s, with attacks on
prominent members of the Ba'ath
Alawite elite. As the conflict
worsened, a debate in the party between hard-liners (represented by
Rifaat al-Assad) and Ba'ath liberals (represented by Mahmoud
al-Ayyubi) began. The Seventh Regional Congress, in 1980, was
held in an atmosphere of crisis. The party leadership—with the
exception of Assad and his proteges—were criticised severely by
party delegates, who called for an anti-corruption campaign, a new,
clean government, curtailing the powers of the military-security
apparatus and political liberalization. With Assad's consent, a
new government (headed by the presumably clean Abdul Rauf al-Kasm) was
established with new, young technocrats. The new government
failed to assuage critics, and the
Sunni middle class and the radical
left (believing that Ba'athist rule could be overthrown with an
uprising) began collaborating with the Islamists.
Section of Hama after attack by government forces
Believing they had the upper hand in the conflict, beginning in 1980
the Islamists began a series of campaigns against government
installations in Aleppo; the attacks became urban guerilla
warfare. The government began to lose control in the city and,
inspired by events, similar disturbances spread to Hama, Homs, Idlib,
Latakia, Deir ez-Zor, Maaret-en-Namen and Jisr esh-Shagour. Those
affected by Ba'athist repression began to rally behind the insurgents;
Ba'ath Party co-founder Bitar supported the uprising, rallying the
old, anti-military Ba'athists. The increasing threat to the
government's survival strengthened the hard-liners, who favored
repression over concessions. Security forces began to purge all
state, party and social institutions in Syria, and were sent to the
northern provinces to quell the uprising. When this failed, the
hard-liners began accusing the United States of fomenting the uprising
and called for the reinstatement of "revolutionary vigilance".
The hard-liners won the debate after a failed attempt on Assad's life
in June 1980, and began responding to the uprising with state
terrorism later that year. Under
Rifaat al-Assad Islamic
prisoners at the Tadmur prison were massacred, membership in the
Muslim Brotherhood became a capital offence and the government sent a
death squad to kill Bitar and Attar's former wife. The military
court began condemning captured militants, which "sometimes
degenerated into indiscriminate killings". Little care was taken
Muslim Brotherhood hard-liners from their passive
supporters, and violence was met with violence.
The final showdown, the Hama massacre, took place in February
1982 when the government crushed the uprising. Helicopter
gunships, bulldozers and artillery bombardment razed the city, killing
thousands of people. The Ba'ath government withstood the uprising
not because of popular support, but because the opposition was
disorganised and had little urban support. Throughout the
Sunni middle class continued to support the Ba'ath Party
because of its dislike of political Islam. After the uprising the
government resumed its version of militaristic Leninism, reverting the
liberalization introduced when Assad came to power. The Ba'ath
Party was weakened by the uprising; democratic elections for delegates
to the Regional and National Congresses were halted, and open
discussion within the party ended. The uprising made
totalitarian than ever, and strengthened Assad's position as
undisputed leader of Syria.
1983–1984 succession crisis
Assad (r) with his brother, Rifaat al-Assad, 1980s
In November 1983 Assad, a diabetic, had a major heart attack
complicated by phlebitis; this triggered a succession
crisis. On 13 November, after visiting his brother in the
Rifaat al-Assad reportedly announced his candidacy for
president; he did not believe Assad would be able to continue ruling
the country. When he did not receive support from Assad's inner
circle, he made, in the words of historian Hanna Batatu, "abominably
lavish" promises to win them over.
Until his 1985 ouster,
Rifaat al-Assad was considered the face of
corruption by the Syrian people. Although highly paid as
Commander of Defense Companies, he accumulated unexplained
wealth. According to Hanna Batatu, "there is no way that he could
have permissibly accumulated the vast sums needed for the investments
he made in real estate in Syria, Europe and the United States".
Although it is unclear if any top officials supported Rifaat al-Assad,
most did not. He lacked his brother's stature and charisma, and
was vulnerable to charges of corruption. His 50,000-strong
Defense Companies were viewed with suspicion by the upper leadership
and throughout society; they were considered corrupt, poorly
disciplined and indifferent to human suffering. Rifaat al-Assad
also lacked military support; officers and soldiers resented the
Defense Companies' monopoly of Damascus' security, their separate
intelligence services and prisons and their higher pay. He did
not abandon the hope of succeeding his brother, opting to take control
of the country through his post as Commander of Defense
Companies. In what became known as the "poster war", personnel
from the Defense Companies replaced posters of Assad in
those of Rifaat al-Assad. The security service, still loyal to
Assad, responded by replacing Rifaat al-Assad's posters with
Assad's. The poster war lasted for a week, until Assad's health
Shortly after the poster war, all Rifaat al-Assad's proteges were
removed from positions of power. This decree nearly sparked a
clash between the Defense Companies and the Republican Guard on 27
February 1984, but conflict was avoided by Rifaat al-Assad's
appointment as one of three Vice Presidents on 11 March. He
acquired this post by surrendering his position as Commander of
Defense Companies to an Assad supporter.
Rifaat al-Assad was
succeeded as Defense Companies head by his son-in-law. During the
night of 30 March, he ordered Defense Company loyalists to seal
Damascus off and advance to the city. The Republican Guard was
put on alert in Damascus, and 3rd Armored Division commander Shafiq
Fayyad ordered troops outside
Damascus to encircle the Defense
Companies blocking the roads into the city. Rifaat al-Assad's
plan might have succeeded if
Special Forces commander Ali Haydar
supported him, but Haydar sided with the president. Assad
Rifaat al-Assad with exile, allowing him to return in later
years without a political role. The Defense Companies were
reduced by 30,000–35,000 people, and their role was assumed by
the Republican Guard. Makhluf, the Republican Guard commander,
was promoted to major general, and
Bassel al-Assad (Assad's son, an
army major) became influential in the guard.
Autocracy, succession and death
Assad and his wife, Anisa Makhlouf; back row, left to right: Maher,
Bashar, Bassel, Majid and Bushra al-Assad
Hafez al-Assad in Qardaha
Assad's first choice of successor was his brother Rifaat al-Assad, an
idea he broached as early as 1980, and his brother's coup attempt
weakened the institutionalised power structure on which he based his
rule. Instead of changing his policy, Assad tried to protect his
power by honing his governmental model. He gave a larger role to
Bassel al-Assad, who was rumored to be his father's planned
successor; this kindled jealousy within the government. At a
1994 military meeting, Chief of Staff Shihabi said that since Assad
wanted to normalize relations with Israel, the Syrian military had to
withdraw its troops from the Golan Heights. Haydar replied angrily,
"We have become nonentities. We were not even consulted." When he
heard about Haydar's outburst, Assad replaced Haydar as Commander of
Special Forces with the
Alawite Major General Ali Habib. Haydar
also reportedly opposed dynastic succession, keeping his views secret
until after Bassel's death in 1994 (when Assad chose Bashar al-Assad
to succeed him); he then openly criticised Assad's succession
Bassel al-Assad became a security officer at the Presidential Palace
in 1986, and a year later he was appointed Commander of the Defense
Companies. About this time, rumors spread that Assad planned to
make Bassel his successor.
Bassel al-Assad continued his climb to
the top; at the time of the 1991 presidential referendum, citizens
were ordered to sing songs praising him. Vehicles belonging to
the military and the secret police began bearing images of
Bassel, and Assad began to be called the "Father of Bassel" in
Bassel al-Assad went on his first foreign mission
representing his country, traveling to
Saudi Arabia to visit King
Fahd. Shortly before his death, he represented his absent father
at an official event. On 21 January 1994,
Bassel al-Assad died in
a car accident. In his eulogy, Assad called his son's death a
"national loss". Bassel al-Assad, in death, played as great a
role in his country's life as he did alive: his picture appeared on
walls, cars, stores, dishes, clothing and watches. The Syrian
Regional Branch of the
Ba'ath Party began indoctrinating youths with a
Bassel al-Assad course. Almost immediately after Bassel's death,
Assad began to groom his 29-year-old son
Bashar al-Assad for
Abdul Halim Khaddam, Syria's foreign minister from 1970 to 1984,
opposed dynastic succession on the grounds that it was not
socialist. Khaddam has said that Assad never discussed his
intentions about succession with members of the Regional Command.
By the 1990s, the
Sunni faction of the leadership was aging; the
Alawites, with Assad's help, had received new blood. The Sunnis
were at a disadvantage, since many were opposed to any kind of
After [Assad's] illness [in 1983] this matter was too sensitive to be
discussed. His love for the family was even stronger than his duty as
president. The decision was very wrong. This decision was in total
contradiction to all laws and regulations in Syria. In the late 1990s,
when he was becoming more and more sick, this sentiment grew stronger
—Abdul Halim Khaddam, on Assad's succession plans
When he returned to Syria,
Bashar al-Assad enrolled in the Homs
Military Academy. He was quickly promoted to Brigadier Commander,
and served for a time in the Republican Guard. He studied most
military subjects, "including tank battalion commander, command and
staff" (the latter two of which were required for a senior
command in the Syrian army).
Bashar al-Assad was promoted to
lieutenant general in July 1997, and to colonel in January 1999.
Official sources ascribe Bashar's rapid promotion to his "overall
excellence in the staff officers' course, and in the outstanding final
project he submitted as part of the course for command and
staff". With Bashar's training, Assad appointed a new generation
Alawite security officers to secure his succession plans.
Shihabi's replacement by Aslan as Chief of Staff on 1 July
1998—Shihabi was considered a potential successor by the outside
world—marked the end of the long security-apparatus overhaul.
Skepticism of Assad's dynastic-succession plan was widespread within
and outside the government, with critics noting that
Syria was not a
monarchy. By 1998
Bashar al-Assad had made inroads into the
Ba'ath Party, taking over Khaddam's Lebanon portfolio (a post he had
held since the 1970s). By December 1998
Bashar al-Assad had
replaced Rafiq al-Hariri,
Prime Minister of Lebanon
Prime Minister of Lebanon and one of
Khaddam's proteges, with Selim Hoss.
Several Assad proteges, who had served since 1970 or earlier, were
dismissed from office between 1998 and 2000. They were sacked not
because of disloyalty to Assad, but because Assad thought they would
not fully support Bashar al-Assad's succession. "Retirees"
Muhammad al-Khuli, Nassir Khayr Bek and Ali Duba. Among
the new appointees (Bashar loyalists) were Bahjat Sulayman, Major
General Halan Khalil and Major General Asaf Shawkat (Assad's
By the late 1990s, Assad's health had deteriorated. American
diplomats said Assad had difficulty staying focused and seemed tired
during their meetings; he was seen as incapable of functioning
for more than two hours a day. His spokesperson ignored the
speculation, and Assad's official routine in 1999 was basically
unchanged from the previous decade. Assad continued to conduct
meetings, traveling abroad occasionally; he visited Moscow in July
1999. Because of his increasing seclusion from state affairs, the
government became accustomed to working without his involvement in
day-to-day affairs. On 10 June 2000, at the age of 69, Hafez
al-Assad died of a heart attack while on the telephone with Lebanese
prime minister Hoss. 40 days of mourning was declared in Syria
and 7 days in Lebanon thereafter. His funeral was held three days
later. Assad is buried with his son, Bassel al-Assad, in a
mausoleum in his hometown of Qardaha.
Tabqa Dam (center), built in 1974
Assad called his domestic reforms a corrective movement, and it
achieved some results. He tried to modernize Syria's agricultural and
industrial sectors; one of his main achievements was the completion of
Tabqa Dam on the Euphrates River in 1974. One of the world's
largest dams, its reservoir was called Lake Assad. The reservoir
increased irrigation of arable land, provided electricity, and
encouraged industrial and technical development in Syria. Many
peasants and workers received increased income, social security, and
better health and educational services. The urban middle class, which
had been hurt by the Jadid government's policy, had new economic
By 1977 it was apparent that despite some success, Assad's political
reforms had largely failed. This was partly due to Assad's foreign
policy, failed policies, natural phenomena and corruption. Chronic
socioeconomic difficulties remained, and new ones appeared.
Inefficiency, mismanagement, and corruption in the government, public,
and private sectors, illiteracy, poor education (particularly in rural
areas), increasing emigration by professionals, inflation, a growing
trade deficit, a high cost of living and shortages of consumer goods
were among problems faced by the country. The financial burden of
Syria's involvement in Lebanon since 1976 contributed to worsening
economic problems, encouraging corruption and a black market. The
emerging class of entrepreneurs and brokers became involved with
senior military officers—including Assad's brother Rifaat—in
smuggling from Lebanon, which affected government revenue and
encouraged corruption among senior governmental officials.
During the early 1980s, Syria's economy worsened; by mid-1984, the
food crisis was severe, and the press was full of complaints. Assad's
government sought a solution, arguing that food shortages could be
avoided with careful economic planning. The food crisis continued
through August, despite government measures.
Syria lacked sugar,
bread, flour, wood, iron and construction equipment; this resulted in
soaring prices, long queues and rampant black marketeering. Smuggling
goods from Lebanon became common. Assad's government tried to combat
the smuggling, encountering difficulties due to the involvement of his
brother Rifaat in the corruption. In July 1984, the government formed
an effective anti-smuggling squad to control the Lebanon–Syria
borders. The Defense Detachment commanded by
Rifaat al-Assad played a
leading role in the smuggling, importing $400,000 worth of goods a
day. The anti-smuggling squad seized $3.8 million in goods during
its first week.
The Syrian economy grew five to seven percent during the early 1990s;
exports increased, the balance of trade improved, inflation remained
moderate (15–18 percent) and oil exports increased. In May 1991
Assad's government liberalised the Syrian economy, which stimulated
domestic and foreign private investment. Most foreign investors were
Arab states around the Persian Gulf, since Western countries still had
political and economic issues with the country. The Gulf states
invested in infrastructure and development projects; because of the
Ba'ath Party's socialist ideology, Assad's government did not
privatize state-owned companies.
Syria fell into recession during the mid-1990s. Several years later,
its economic growth was about 1.5 percent. This was insufficient,
since population growth was between 3 and 3.5 percent. Another symptom
of the crisis was statism in foreign trade. Syria's economic crisis
coincided with recession in world markets. A 1998 drop in oil prices
dealt a major blow to Syria's economy; when oil prices rose the
following year, the Syrian economy partially recovered. In 1999, one
of the worst droughts in a century caused a drop of 25–30 percent in
crop yields compared with 1997 and 1998. Assad's government
implemented emergency measures, including loans and compensation to
farmers and the distribution of free fodder to save sheep and cattle.
However, those steps were limited and had no measurable effect on the
Assad's government tried to decrease population growth, but this was
only marginally successful. One sign of economic stagnation was
Syria's lack of progress in talks with the EU on an agreement. The
main cause of this failure was the country's difficulty in meeting EU
demands to open the economy and introduce reforms. Marc Pierini, head
of the EU delegation in Damascus, said that if the Syrian economy was
not modernised it would not benefit from closer ties to the EU.
Assad's government gave civil servants a 20-percent pay raise on the
anniversary of the corrective movement that brought him to power.
Although the foreign press criticised Syria's reluctance to liberalize
its economy, Assad's government refused to modernize the bank system,
permit private banks and open a stock exchange.
Yom Kippur War
Main article: Yom Kippur War
Since the Arab defeat in the Six-Day War, Assad was convinced that the
Israelis had won the war by subterfuge; after gaining power, his
top foreign-policy priority was to regain the Arab territory lost in
the war. Assad reaffirmed Syria's rejection of the 1967 UN
Security Council Resolution 242 because he believed it stood for the
"liquidation of the Palestine question". He believed, and
continued to believe until long into his rule, that the only way to
Israel to negotiate with the Arabs was through war.
When Assad took power,
Syria was isolated; planning an attack on
Israel, he sought allies and war material. Ten weeks after
gaining power, Assad visited the Soviet Union. The Soviet
leadership was wary of supplying the Syrian government, viewing
Assad's rise to power with reserve and believing him to lean further
West than Jadid did. While he soon understood that the Soviet
relationship with the Arabs would never be as deep as the United
States' relationship with Israel, he needed its weapons. Unlike
his predecessors (who tried to win Soviet support with socialist
policies), Assad was willing to give the Soviets a stable presence in
the Middle East through Syria, access to Syrian naval bases (giving
them a role in the peace process) and help in curtailing American
influence in the region. The Soviets responded by sending arms to
Syria. The new relationship bore fruit, and between February 1971
and October 1973 Assad met several times with Soviet leader Leonid
Assad believed that
Syria would have no chance in a war against Israel
without Egyptian participation. He believed that if the United
Arab Republic had not collapsed, the Arabs would already have
liberated Palestine. For a war against Israel,
Syria needed to
establish another front. However, by this time Syria's relations
with Egypt and
Jordan were shaky at best. Planning for war began
in 1971 with an agreement between Assad and Anwar Sadat. At the
beginning, the renewed Egyptian–Syrian alliance was based upon the
Federation of Arab Republics
Federation of Arab Republics (FAR), a federation initially
encompassing Egypt, Libya, Sudan (which left soon after FAR's first
summit) and Syria. Assad and Sadat used the FAR summits to plan
war strategy, and by 1971 they had appointed Egyptian General Muhammad
Sadiq supreme commander of both armies. From 1972 to 1973, the
countries filled their arsenals and trained their armies. In a
secret meeting of the Egyptian–Syrian Military Council from 21 to 23
August 1973, the two chiefs of staff (Syrian Yusuf Shakkur and
Egyptian Sad al-Shazly) signed a document declaring their intention to
go to war against Israel. During a meeting of Assad, Sadat and
their respective defense ministers (Tlass and Hosni Mubarak) on
26–27 August, the two leaders decided to go to war together.
Egypt went to war for a different reason than
Syria did. While
Assad wanted to regain lost Arab territory, Sadat wished to strengthen
Egypt's position in its peace policy toward Israel. The Syrians
were deceived by Sadat and the Egyptians, which would play a major
role in the Arab defeat. Egyptian Chief of Staff Shazly was
convinced from the beginning that Egypt could not mount a successful
full-scale offensive against Israel; therefore, he campaigned for a
limited war. Sadat knew that Assad would not participate in the
war if he knew his real intentions. Since the collapse of the
UAR, the Egyptians were critical of the Ba'athist government; they saw
it as an untrustworthy ally.
Mustafa Tlass on the Golan front
At 14:05 on 6 October 1973, Egyptian forces (attacking through the
Sinai desert) and Syrian forces (attacking the Golan Heights) crossed
the border into
Israel and penetrated the Israeli defense lines.
The Syrian forces on the
Golan Heights met with more intense fighting
than their Egyptian counterparts, but by 8 October had broken through
the Israeli defenses. The early successes of the Syrian army were
due to its officer corps (where officers were promoted because of
merit and not politics) and its ability to handle advanced Soviet
weaponry: tanks, artillery batteries, aircraft, man-portable missiles,
the Sagger anti-tank weapon and the
2K12 Kub anti-aircraft system on
mobile launchers. With the help of these weapons, Egypt and Syria
defeated Israel's armor and air supremacy. Egypt and Syria
announced the war to the world first, accusing
Israel of starting it,
mindful of the importance of avoiding appearing as the aggressor
Israel accused the Arab powers of starting the
Six-Day War when they
launched Operation Focus). In any case, early Syrian successes
helped rectify the loss of face they had suffered following the Six
The main reason for the reversal of fortune was Egypt's operational
pause from 7 to 14 October. After capturing parts of the Sinai,
the Egyptian campaign halted and the Syrians were left fighting the
Israelis alone. The Egyptian leaders, believing their war aims
accomplished, dug in. While their early successes in the war had
surprised them, War Minister General
Ahmad Ismail Ali
Ahmad Ismail Ali advised
caution. In Syria, Assad and his generals waited for the
Egyptians to move. When the Israeli government learned of Egypt's
modest war strategy, it ordered an "immediate continuous action"
against the Syrian military. According to Patrick Seale, "For
three days, 7, 8, and 9 October, Syrian troops on the Golan faced the
full fury of the Israeli air force as, from first light to nightfall,
wave after wave of aircraft swooped down to bomb, strafe and napalm
their tank concentration and their fuel and ammunition carriers right
back to the Purple Line." By 9 October, the Syrians were
retreating behind the Purple Line (the Israeli–Syrian border since
the Six-Day War). By 13 October the war was lost, but (in
contrast to the Six-Day War) the Syrians were not crushed; this earned
Assad respect in
Syria and abroad.
On 14 October, Egypt began a limited offensive against
political reasons. Sadat needed Assad on his side for his peace
Israel to succeed, and military action was a means to
an end. The renewed Egyptian military offensive was
ill-conceived. A week later, due to Egyptian inactivity, the Israelis
had organised and the Arabs had lost their most important
advantage. While the military offensive gave Assad hope, this was
an illusion; the Arabs had already lost the war militarily.
Egypt's behavior during the war caused friction between Assad and
Sadat. Assad, still inexperienced in foreign policy, believed
that the Egyptian–Syrian alliance was based on trust and failed to
understand Egypt's duplicity. Although it was not until after the
war that Assad would learn that Sadat was in contact with American
National Security Advisor
Henry Kissinger almost daily during the war,
the seeds of distrust had been sown. Around this time, Sadat
called for an American-led ceasefire agreement between Egypt, Syria
and Israel; however, he was unaware that under Kissinger's tenure the
United States had become a staunch supporter of Israel.
Assad in a rage after Sadat visits Israel, 1977
On 16 October, Sadat—without telling Assad—called for a ceasefire
in a speech to the People's Assembly, the Egyptian legislative
body. Assad was not only surprised, but could not comprehend why
Sadat trusted "American goodwill for a satisfactory result".
Alexei Kosygin visited Cairo, urging Sadat to accept a
ceasefire without the condition of Israeli withdrawal from the
occupied territories. While Sadat was reluctant at first, Kosygin
returned on 18 October with satellite images showing 300 Israeli tanks
in Egyptian territory. The blow to Sadat's morale was such that
he sent a cable to Assad, obliquely saying that all hope was
lost. Assad, who was in a better position, was still
optimistic. Under Soviet influence Egypt called for a ceasefire
on 22 October 1973, direct negotiations between the warring parties
and the implementation of the UN Security Council Resolution 242.
The ceasefire resolution did not call for Israeli withdrawal from its
occupied territories. Assad was annoyed, since he had not been
informed beforehand of Sadat's change in policy (which affected them
both). On 23 October the Syrian government accepted the
ceasefire, spelling out its understanding of UN Resolution 338
(withdrawal of Israeli troops from the occupied territories and the
safeguarding of Palestinian rights).
Lebanese Civil War
Main article: Syrian occupation of Lebanon
We did not go into Lebanon to achieve any regional ambitions, nor for
any selfish or opportunistic motives. On the contrary, it was at the
expense of our economy and our daily bread.
—Assad, reviewing Syria's intervention in Lebanon
Syria intervened in Lebanon in 1976 during the civil war which began
in 1975. With the establishment of an Egyptian–Israeli
Syria was the only neighboring state which threatened
Syria initially tried to mediate the conflict; when that
failed, Assad ordered the
Palestine Liberation Army
Palestine Liberation Army (PLA), a
regular force based in
Syria with Syrian officers, troops into
Lebanon to restore order. Around this time, the Israeli
government opened its borders to
Maronite refugees in Lebanon to
strengthen its regional influence. Clashes between the
Syria-loyal PLA and militants occurred throughout the country.
Despite Syrian support and Khaddam's mediation,
Rashid Karami (the
Sunni Muslim Prime Minister of Lebanon) did not have enough support to
appoint a cabinet.
In early 1976 Assad was approached by Lebanese politicians for help in
forcing the resignation of Suleiman Frangieh, the Christian President
of Lebanon. Although Assad was open to change, he resisted
attempts by some Lebanese politicians to enlist him in Frangieh's
ouster; when General Abdul Aziz al-Ahdāb attempted to seize
power, Syrian troops stopped him. In the meantime, radical
Lebanese leftists were gaining the upper hand in the military
conflict. Kamal Jumblatt, leader of the Lebanese National
Movement (LNM), believed that his strong military position would
compel Frangieh's resignation. Assad did not wish a leftist
victory in Lebanon which would strengthen the position of the
Palestinians. He did not want a rightist victory either, instead
seeking a middle-ground solution which would safeguard Lebanon and the
region. When Jumblatt met with Assad on 27 March 1976, he tried
to persuade him to let him "win" the war; Assad replied that a
ceasefire should be in effect to ensure the 1976 presidential
elections. Meanwhile, on Assad's orders
Syria sent troops into
Lebanon without international approval.
Yasser Arafat and the PLO had not officially taken a side in the
conflict, several PLO members were fighting with the LNM. Assad
attempted to steer Arafat and the PLO away from Lebanon, threatening
him with a cutoff of Syrian aid. The two sides were unable to
reach an agreement. When Frangieh stepped down in 1976, Syria
pressured Lebanese members of parliament to elect Elias Sarkis
president. One-third of the Lebanese members of parliament
(primarily supporters of Raymond Edde) boycotted the election to
protest American and Syrian interference.
On 31 May 1976,
Syria began a full-scale intervention in Lebanon to
(according to the official Syrian account) end bombardment of the
Maronite cities of Qubayat and Aandqat. Before the intervention,
Assad and the Syrian government were one of several interests in
Lebanon; afterwards, they were the controlling factors in Lebanese
politics. On Assad's orders, the Syrian troop presence slowly
increased to 30,000.
Syria received approval for the intervention
from the United States and
Israel to help them defeat Palestinian
forces in Lebanon. The Ba'athist group
As-Sa'iqa and the PLA's
Hittīn brigade fought Palestinians who sided with the LNM.
Within a week of the Syrian intervention, Christian leaders issued a
statement of support. In a 1976 diplomatic cable released by
WikiLeaks, a US diplomat stated "if I got nothing else from my meeting
Chamoun and Gemayel, it is their clear, unequivocal and
unmistakable belief that their principal hope for saving Christian
necks is Syria. They sound like Assad is the latest incarnation of the
Muslim leaders established a joint command of all Palestinian groups
except As-Sa'iqa, which was driven by the PLO to its stronghold
near the main airport. Shortly afterwards,
As-Sa'iqa and other
Damascus forces were absorbed by the Syrian military. On
8 June 1976 Syrian forces were pushed back from Sidon, encountering
stiff resistance in
Beirut from the LNM. Assad's actions angered
much of the
Arab world however and the sight of
Syria trying to
eliminate the PLO brought criticism upon him. There was
considerable hostility to Assad's alliance with the Maronites in
Syria. As a result, the Syrian government asked the Arab League
to assist in the conflict. The
Arab League began to mediate,
Arab Deterrent Force (ADF) for peacekeeping.
Syrian strategy at this point was to gradually weaken the LNM and its
Palestinian collaborators, continuing to support the Christian
militia. However, the Syrians were unable to capture the LNM's
stronghold of Aley before the
Arab League called for a ceasefire on 17
Arab League strengthened the ADF to 30,000 troops,
most Syrian. While some heavy fighting continued, by December
1976 and January 1977 most Palestinian and Lebanese groups had
disposed of their heavy weaponry. According to Charles Winslow,
the "main phase" of the
Lebanese Civil War
Lebanese Civil War had ended by 1977; until
the early 1990s most violence was attributed to turf, proxy,
inter-communal and state wars. Assad used terrorism and
intimidation to extend his control over Lebanon. Jumblatt died in
a 1977 assassination allegedly ordered by Syria; in 1982, Syrian
agents assassinated Lebanese President
Bachir Gemayel (who was helped
to power by the Israelis during the 1982 Lebanon War). Jumblatt
and Gemayel had resisted Assad's attempts to dominate Lebanon.
Assad caused the failure of the 1983 Lebanon–
Israel agreement, and
by proxy guerrilla warfare forced the Israeli Defense Forces to
withdraw to southern Lebanon in 1985. Terrorism against
Palestinians and Jordanian targets during the mid-1980s thwarted the
rapprochement between King Hussein of
Jordan and the PLO, slowing
Jordanian–Israeli cooperation in the West Bank.
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