Al-Assad, Hafez (Syria)

Reference work entry


Hafez al-Assad, soldier and Ba’athist politician, came to power in Syria in 1970 after staging a successful coup while serving as defence minister. Having become Prime Minister, he was then sworn in as President in March 1971. He was reappointed for a fifth 7-year presidential term in 1999 but died in June 2000 when he was succeeded by his son Bashar. Assad is credited with bringing political stability to Syria, albeit through repression, and increasing his country’s influence in the Arab world.

Early Life

Born on 6 Oct. 1930 in Qardaha, Lattakia district, Assad belonged to the minority Alawi Islamic sect. As a student activist, he was active against French colonial rule. Independence came in 1946, the year he joined the Arab Socialist Renaissance (Ba’ath) Party. In 1952 Assad entered the Military Academy at Homs, graduating in 1955 as a fighter pilot. His later military training included a period in the former Soviet Union, with which he was to maintain close political and military links. During Syria’s brief federation with Egypt (as the United Arab Republic from 1958–61) Assad served in the air force in Cairo. He was transferred to a civilian post following Syria’s secession from the federation after a new government took power in a coup in Sept. 1961. With other officers, he formed an underground military committee that plotted the Ba’athist takeover in March 1963. Factional conflict within the Ba’ath Party led to a further coup in Feb. 1966 by nationalist and military elements (including Assad) against the progressive, mainly civilian politicians. As minister of defence and air force commander, Assad was unable to prevent Syria’s territorial loss of the Golan Heights during the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War of June 1967. Implacable hostility to Israel defined his political career from that time.

Career Peak

On 12 Nov. 1970 Assad took full control in the fifth coup attempt in Syria in a decade, arresting his chief rival (and the effective leader) Salah al-Jadid, and other members of the government. Once in power, he launched his ‘corrective movement’ aimed at stemming corruption in government and bringing Syria back into the Arab political mainstream. He became Prime Minister and then, following a referendum, President in March 1971. In Aug. 1971 the Syrian regional command of the Ba’ath Party elected Assad as secretary-general. A new constitution in 1973 confirmed the Ba’ath Party as ‘the leading party in the state and society’. It also became the dominant force within the National Progressive Front, a broad umbrella grouping of the country’s legal parties, formed in 1972.

With Soviet assistance, Assad sought to strengthen the Syrian military. He also courted wider domestic support by promoting economic development (under state control), land reform measures and the expansion of education. He would not, however, tolerate any challenge to his rule. Political and religious opposition, principally from within the Sunni Muslim majority population, was suppressed — most obviously in his military crackdown against a rebellion by the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood in Hama in 1982, which resulted in a shattered city and thousands of deaths.

In 1983 Assad suffered a heart attack. His brother and rival, Rifaat, used troops under his control to try to seize power in the early months of 1984, but Assad recovered sufficiently to regain control. Although stripped of any power base, Rifaat retained his nominal position as a vice president until his dismissal and exile in 1998.

Assad’s foreign policy was founded on Arab nationalism, independence from foreign (particularly Western) influences, and opposition to Israel. His relations with other Middle Eastern states varied, periodic disputes erupting with Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and the more conservative Arab governments. A surprise Syrian-Egyptian offensive against Israel in Oct. 1973 (to recover territories lost in 1967 and in support of the Palestinian cause) proved unsuccessful despite initial military successes. In 1982, when Israel invaded and occupied Lebanon, Syrian forces were again repulsed. Although throughout his presidency Assad declared his readiness to conclude a peace agreement with Israel, he maintained his demand right up to his death that all occupied Syrian territory be returned. He also resented President Sadat of Egypt, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and King Hussein of Jordan for abandoning the common Arab nationalist front by signing their own bilateral peace agreements with Israel.

Assad’s military intervention in the Lebanese civil war in 1976 led eventually to Syrian hegemony over its neighbour (despite further clashes with Israeli forces). He also established close links with Iran following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, a stance condemned by some Arab regimes during the war between Iraq and Iran in the 1980s. His alliance with Iran was partly for reasons of longstanding rivalry with the Iraqi wing of the Ba’ath Party and personal enmity towards Iraq’s President Saddam Hussein. Assad contributed Syrian troops to the US-led coalition that drove Iraqi forces out of Kuwait following Saddam’s invasion and occupation in Aug. 1990. This co-operation led to better relations with Western governments which had previously imposed diplomatic and other sanctions and accused Syria of sponsoring terrorism.

Re-elected overwhelmingly as President in Feb. 1999 (and similarly returned in 1978, 1985 and 1992), Assad died of a heart attack on 10 June 2000 in Damascus.

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