Hafiz Assad (al-'Asad; born 1930) took power in Syria in 1970 and became president, a position he retained longer than any other person since Syrian independence in 1946.
Hafiz Assad was born on October 6, 1930 into a large, poor peasant family that lived in a rural, mountainous village of Qurdaha, southeast of the Syrian port city of Latakia. He was one of nine children of 'Ali Assad, a farmer, who opposed the French rule that prevailed in Syria prior to independence. Assad was a member of the minority Muslim religious sect called the Alawis and of the Haddadi Clan. The Alawis sect represented roughly 12 percent of the Syrian population but was dominant in the rural areas near Syria's coastline.
Assad received his primary education in his local village. Secondary education did not exist in the poor mountain regions of Syria in the 1940s so his family moved to the coast where Assad could receive the secondary education necessary to advance his career.
Assad's political views, personal attitudes, and social philosophy were molded in part by his Alawi background, the enormous poverty he witnessed in his youth, and the struggle he and his family experienced to improve their own lives. His original family name was said to be "Wahish," which means "wild beast," but the family apparently changed the name to "Asad," which means "lion." The original name reflected the lot associated with Alawis at that time. They were deprived, and many of their daughters often migrated to the rich homes in the Syrian capital of Damascus in order to seek work as servants or to take hard working, low paying jobs. Assad was determined from a young age that the next generation of Alawis would have a better life. As an adult, Assad had many colleagues who espoused his socialism, but few had the genuine humble background he did. His past resulted in both fierce determination and suspicions of his peers.
While still a teenager in the mid-1940s, Assad joined the Ba'th Party, which preached a mixture of socialism and Arab nationalism. The Ba'th Party at that time had a large following in the Alawi regions in part because the party advocated secularism in public life and a new non-sectarian national community, something always popular for many in minority groups.
When he was admitted to the Homs Military Academy in 1952, Assad embarked on a military career. He was attracted by the hope that a military career would offer good pay and a chance for advancement. Three years later he graduated as a lieutenant in the Syrian Air Force, one of the first Alawis to join that service. In the service, he continued his political activities but also became a proficient combat pilot and a master in aerial maneuvers. He often performed his acrobatics on parade days in the skies above Damascus.
His expertise won him a place to further study military science in Russia in 1957 at a time of intense political activity in Syria which led to the 1958 union between Syria and Egypt. In the process of that union, the careers of many known Ba'th Party members in the armed forces were sacrificed, and Assad and some of his colleagues were assigned to posts in rural Egypt, far from their political bases. While in Egypt, Captain Assad joined forces with two other exiled Alawi officers—Salah Jadid and Muhammad 'Umran—and formed a secret military committee dedicated to terminating the union with Egypt and to throwing out the old Ba'th Party civilian leadership which had promoted the union in the first place.
Although some Ba'th officers participated in the 1961 coup which ended the union with Egypt, several, including Assad, were forced to temporarily quit the air force in a political purge. Assad then worked for two years as an official of the Ministry of Sea Transportation, a period during which he concentrated on Ba'th Party activities and, with other members of the secret military committee, planned the March 8, 1963, revolution which brought the Ba'th Party to power in Syria.
Following the Ba'th Party takeover, Assad was appointed commander of the air force with the rank of major. In 1964, he was promoted to the rank of general and placed on the party's regional command, and a year later he was made commander-in-chief of the air force. In that capacity, he joined ranks with Salah Jadid in 1966 to overthrow the Ba'th government of Amin al-Hafiz. In the new government, he became minister of defense.
The year 1967 was not a happy one for Syria or for Assad. The June defeat in the Six Day War at the hands of Israel was a bitter experience. Syria had half its air force planes destroyed on the ground and the troops lost one-seventh of Syria's territory to the Israelis. As defense minister, Assad should have been a target for major blame, but he deftly passed it along to the clumsy party apparatus and leadership for having ruined the military prior to the war due to its purges and choosing party over national interests. An absolute necessity for Assad was to rebuild and strengthen the armed forces, while others in the leadership—many of them radical and doctrinaire Marxists—sought consolidation of power and the championing of Marxist economic development. Assad was able to outmaneuver many opponents in 1968 and 1969 and challenged the party leadership and Salah Jadid. He even tried in 1969 to take over the government but was thwarted by Soviet pressure. The stage, however, had been set for a showdown between Assad and Jadid.
Assad did his homework well in the party, and when the showdown came with Jadid, he prevailed and took over the reins of government in November 1970. At that time Assad became prime minister. Four months later he was elected president, a position to which he was re-elected several times. To many observers his bloodless coup in 1970 represented merely the replacement of one Alawi officer with another. But below the surface there were several changes, including a shift away from a solely Marxist-socialist socio-economic policy in internal affairs and away from the uncompromising orientations in regional and international affairs which had isolated Syria from its neighbors in the post-1967 war period.
Assad was associated with a pragmatic group which sought a more moderate path of socialism in social and economic policy. This would allow Syria's commercial sector a freer existence and a more flexible and realistic foreign policy which would permit the ability to adjust to events and changing circumstances without the constraints of any ideological straightjacket. One factor precipitating Assad's coup was a fear among some that the directions in which policies were headed under Jadid were destined to undermine the whole Ba'th revolution on one level and the new found prominence of elements of the Alawi community on another.
The political position and power of Assad and the unprecedented political continuity he provided after 1970 was the result of his three principal pillars of support: the army, the Ba'th Party, and his Alawi community. In the early 1980s, as various groups tested Assad and his leadership, and as Assad suffered a heart attack, he had to rely more on an elaborate system of security, with many key security positions occupied by Alawi officers, including his brothers, cousins and nephews.
Serious outbursts of civil unrest occurred in Syria between 1979 and 1982, and these prompted increasingly heavy-handed, often ruthless, measures by security forces of the Assad government. Discontent of Alawi rule and perceived corruption and abuse of power, along with a stagnating economy burdened by heavy military expenditures, and a developing Muslim fundamentalist challenge to Assad's rule, was fueled by resentment on the part of the Syrian Sunni Muslim majority especially in the northern Syrian towns of Aleppo and Hama. Well over 10,000 Syrians died in Hama in 1982 when security forces leveled some one-fourth of the city.
The Assad presidency of Syria was a curious combination of pragmatism and decisive action, of cool and deliberate approaches to problem solving and rash impulses, of dogged determination and live-and-let-live policies, and of impassioned rhetoric and quiet diplomacy. His opportunism, astuteness, and ability to adjust put opponents off guard time and time again.
Assad's presidency, in the eyes of many Syrians, was strengthened by his handling of foreign policy matters and his emergence as a regional figure of stature. Assad was a champion of the causes of Arab unity, Palestinian nationalism, and confrontation with Israel. He consistently said that a just and lasting solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict would only occur when the Arab world attained military parity with Israel, and he roundly attacked Egypt for breaking Arab ranks to negotiate with Israel.
His hard line toward peace negotiations and opposition to direct talks with Israel was consistent and was clearly demonstrated in his strong opposition to the Camp David Accords and the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. He also opposed the May 17, 1983, Lebanese-Israeli withdrawal agreement, which he saw as a violation of Lebanese sovereignty and a threat to Syrian and Arab security. Syrian intentions and those of Assad in Lebanon may be unknown, but it is clear that Assad wanted a government in Lebanon he could trust and control and that he could not tolerate a Lebanon which had any separate relationship, overt or covert, with Israel.
Assad also sought to control the Palestinian national movement in order to prevent any Palestinian leadership from seeking a separate peace with Israel either directly or through Jordan. This stance would protect Syria from isolation and promote Syria as the champion of the Palestinian cause.
Assad's handling of relations with the United States and Soviet Union demonstrated the same qualities seen in his handling of other issues. While he came to rely heavily on the Soviets for military aid and political backing, he showed no intention of sacrificing Syria's independence to Soviet interference. His views of the United States were mostly negative, but he wanted to leave the door open to better ties. Assad was deeply suspicious of American policies in the region, in part because of American economic and military support for Israel, but he clearly recognized the importance of maintaining some relationship with all world powers.
Assad has carved out a unique role for himself and Syria in the Middle East peace process. He has been seen as trying to placate many sides involved in the process from the United States and the Palestinians to mending a long standing rift with Jordan. Assad was determined to remain true to his own personal agenda rather than another nation's interests and sought to act accordingly. Assad's feeble attempts at trying to come to terms with Israel and the possible return to Syria of the Golan Heights has been his in the mid 1990s. The emphasis on Syria as the one who held the key to Middle Eastern peace shifted the spotlight away from the allegations of massive domestic terrorism campaigns and rampant human rights violations Assad undertook in order to maintain power and thwart the chance for armed resistance to his policies. Wary of being viewed as the one who gave in, Assad was choosing to play his trump very carefully.
The longevity of the Assad regime in Syria resulted from Assad's ability to keep control of many diverse groups in Syria and his handling of regional issues, especially Lebanon and his confrontation with Israel. Syria's wars with Israel in 1967, 1973, and 1980 had a negative impact on the country, but Assad brought his armed forces back each time with more weapons, more men, and more sophisticated weaponry. The costs for Syria of Assad's continuous arms buildup were enormous because of the increasing share of Syria's resources needed to fuel the armed forces. President Assad was Syria's longest surviving head of state and a regional leader everyone had to reckon with, although he continued to confront and overcome serious domestic and regional challenges.
Assad and recent events in Syria are discussed prominently in several books written about post-independence Syria. Among the better volumes are: Syria by Tabitha Petran (1972); Syria under the Ba'th, 1963-1966 by Itamar Rabinovich (1972); Syria and the Lebanese Crisis by Adeed Dawisha (1980); Syria, Modern State in an Ancient Land by John F. Devlin (1983); The Ba'th and Syria, 1947-1982: the Evolution of Ideology, Party and State by Robert W. Olson (1983); and The Islamic Struggle in Syria by Umar Ab-Allah (1984).
For further reading on Assad see also "Just Kidding," New Republic (January 8-15, 1996); "Holy Terror," New Republic (April 22, 1996); "The Shame of Lebanon," New York Review (April 25, 1996) and "Preparing for War," Time (December 9, 1996).