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American Diplomacy
Commentary and Analysis

August 2000

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The author, president of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, assesses the Syrian leader over the three decades he exercised power. Developing the theme of the subtitle to his article, Dr. Sicherman makes clear how, and in what respects, Assad in his view was strategically slow to act. ~ Ed.

HE DEBATE OVER WHETHER Hafez al-Assad of Syria would ever make peace with Israel has now been settled: not in his lifetime. Assad’s death at the age of 69 on June 10, 2000, removes from the scene a stubborn enemy of the Jewish state and also a persistent foe of American policy for nearly three decades. Curiously enough, he died following yet one more attempt to construct a new line to the United States although, as always, on Assad’s own peculiar terms. He leaves his son Bashar a machine for holding power but no obvious way out of dead-ends at home and abroad.

Ascent to power

Hafez al-Assad emerged from the hothouse of Syrian politics following independence from France in 1946. Born Hafez al-Wahash to an Alawite village family in the coastal hills near Latakia in 1930, he might have lived a life of low status, as a member of a despised rural community considered religious heretics by the dominant Sunnis. But the old order was rapidly changing and Assad’s own rise to power came to symbolize that shift.

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Trained as a fighter pilot and sporting a new name, al-Assad (the lion vs. Wahash, “beast”), the young cadet entered the conspiracy- and coup-ridden politics of the new state. He survived the tumultuous United Arab Republic experiment with Nasser’s Egypt (1958-62) to become a key figure in the 1966 coup that brought the Alawites to supreme power. Assad then methodically eliminated his rivals. Neither the loss of the Golan Heights to Israel in June 1967 (he was Defense Minister) nor Syria’s failed intervention into the Jordanian war with the PLO in September 1970 prevented his ascent. Two months later he became master of Damascus.

Assad preached the ideology of the Baath (Renewal) Party, advocating a secular Arab unity across the Middle East under the direction of a small vanguard, itself controlled by a supreme leader. He used Baathi ideas to justify the Alawite domination over the Sunni majority and to advance the claim to “Greater Syria,” an area encompassing Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, and parts of Turkey. Assad soon reorganized the state along totalitarian lines and he would employ terror at home and abroad. He joined Nasser’s Egypt and Baathist Iraq in seeking Soviet aid but he would never become Moscow’s supplicant. Any hand that fed him could expect to be bitten.

Triumph and betrayal

Assad was a man of few illusions. Syria could never fulfill his objectives without allies, stronger powers who might need him less than he needed them. Assad joined Anwar Sadat in the surprise attack on Israel on October 6, 1973, only to discover on the edge of military disaster that Sadat’s purpose was not his purpose. The Egyptian leader used the war to switch patrons, seeking a new alliance with Washington through the inimitable Kissinger shuttle. Assad also got his own shuttle from the Secretary of State, but declined to build upon the disengagement agreements either a solid bridge to Washington or a diplomatic route to Israel. He never forgave Sadat, preferring to stay with Moscow while constructing a united Arab front that would also constrain Egypt.

In 1977 this approach seemed to bear fruit even in Washington when newly elected President Jimmy Carter adopted the so-called comprehensive approach, a grand bargain with the major Arab states that would end the Arab-Israeli conflict. Assad liked this idea because it allowed him to control the diplomacy and to play his favorite argument that Syria was the key piece in the puzzle.

Egypt, however, would not be constrained by Assad’s conceit. Sadat and Begin broke loose from both U.S. and Syrian policy in 1978 to achieve peace, and despite Sadat’s assassination in 1981, Egypt remained free of Assad’s brand of Arab unity thereafter. But the Syrian leader would remain adamantly opposed to Sadat’s “capitulations” and, to the despair of later U.S. and Israeli diplomats, sometimes seemed to be fighting Sadat’s ghost, as if to prove that he could make a “better” deal, regaining the losses of 1967 without Sadat’s warm gestures, visits, or talk of reconciliation with Israel.

The crisis of 1981-84

Following the Camp David Accords, Syria, Iraq, and the PLO created the so-called Rejectionist Front, opposing negotiations with Israel under U.S. auspices. In 1980, Assad also signed a treaty with the Soviet Union, when Moscow seemed at the height of its power, to provide him strategic depth.

Assad never gave up the notion of somehow controlling his weaker Arab neighbors. His influence on the King of Jordan waxed and waned, but he had more success in Lebanon. There, he fanned the flames of sectarian rivalry, while posing as the fireman, saving the Christians from the Shiites, Druze, and Arafat’s Palestinians and then reversing alliances to prevent a Christian victory.

Israel and the U.S. had reluctantly agreed to Syria’s direct military intervention in Lebanon in 1975, hoping that Assad would also constrain Arafat’s PLO from conducting raids against Israel’s northern border. He did not. Israeli Prime Minister Begin and his ambitious Defense Minister, Ariel Sharon, then sought to remake the political map of Lebanon, but Syria would not allow Israel to do so without a fight. The result was the Lebanon War of June 1982.

We have an indelible picture of Assad from that conflict. On June 9, 1982, U.S. special emissary Philip Habib was ushered into Assad’s office not long after Israel had destroyed both his air defense systems in Lebanon and forty-odd Syrian jets without a loss. In the face of this disaster, Assad was cool and collected. These were the fortunes of war, and the Syrian army had not been defeated. Tomorrow would be another day.

Assad soon proved adept at exploiting the mistakes of others. He secured a new arms supply from a badly embarrassed Moscow when the U.S. put Marines into Beirut as part of a multinational force. Assad took more direct action against his Lebanese enemies, conspiring in the assassination of Bashir Gemayel, the Christian president-elect, on September 15, 1982. Later, the U.S. embassy was blown up; then the U.S. marine barracks at the Beirut airport suffered the same fate, at the cost of 241 lives. No one doubted the Syrian hand.

Assad estimated correctly that Washington would not make war with Syria on Lebanon’s behalf. He also opposed an Israeli-Lebanon agreement negotiated under U.S. auspices and when Secretary of State George Shultz came to Damascus to argue otherwise, he was rewarded by Assad’s standard diatribe about injustices dating back to the creation. (Those were trying times for U.S. diplomats, who were often subjected to Begin’s notorious “short” course in Jewish history and then a day later, Assad’s even longer lecture on Syria’s primordial greatness.) The Syrian leader seemed to think he could bully Shultz; they would never transact any business.

By 1984, the Americans were out, the Israeli-Lebanese agreement negated, the Israelis confined to a security zone in the south where Assad could aid a guerrilla war against them, and Syria was supreme in Lebanon, a position confirmed in 1987 by the Taif Accord.

These astounding victories were bracketed by two reminders of Assad’s ruthlessness. Angered by violent resistance to his rule, Assad decided to make Hama, stronghold of Sunni resistance, an example; in 1982, his brother Rifaat razed it, killing thousands. This horrific act reinforced Assad’s message: you could be an accomplice or a rebel, and if you were a rebel, he would kill you if he could find you. In return for good behavior, Assad offered “stability” in contrast to the savage civil war that weakened Lebanon.

In late 1983, Assad suffered a severe heart attack. Rifaat, commander of his own special forces, apparently attempted a coup, but Assad recovered in time to exile Rifaat. All of this emphasized the one-man nature of his rule, and the traditional family and clan structure hiding behind the vapor of Baath rhetoric.

NEXT: Changing horses


Harvey Sicherman, Ph.D., is the editor of Peacefacts, FPRI’s bulletin on the Arab-Israeli peace process, Dr. Sicherman has also written profiles of the late King Hussein of Jordan (February 1999) and the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (November 1995).

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