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Hafiz al Assad

Hafiz al AssadHafiz al-Asad was born October 6, 1930 to a family of the Islamic Alawite clan in the mountains of Syria. Hafiz al-Asad was born in a two-room flat-roofed house of undressed stone giving on to a front yard of beaten earth. No one really knows his real name, but his Father Salmon (Suleiman) was called Suleiman Al Wahsh ( Suleiman the Monster). He was born in poor family, and moved to place called Querda’heh formed by peasants and farmers.

Hafez joined the military academy in Homs in 1952, then joined the aviation academy and graduated as a First Lieutenant in 1955. Lieutenant Hafez Al Wahsh later became Hafez Al Asad (the lion), the name he chose. He became an active member of the Ba'ath party in 1946. After the assassinations of general Adnan Al Malki, there was power conflict between the National Social Syrian party and Ba'ath party. At that time he was chosen to fly the new Mig-15 and Mig 17 jet fighters. After Al Baath party overthrew the government on 08 March 1963, Hafez Al Asad was promoted from major to First General.

On November 19, 1970, the Regional Command announced the designation of Ahmad al Khatib, a respected but hitherto little- known politician, as acting chief of state and of Lieutenant General Assad as prime minister and minister of defense. Assad then formed a 26-man cabinet, consisting of about one-half Assad Baathists and the balance scattered among Socialists, Nasserists, Independents, and Communists. This cabinet met for the first time on November 23, 1970. In a press interview Assad claimed that the change in government had been neither a coup nor the result of political conflict along lines of military-civilian division, but a natural development in the party's revolutionary movement, often referred to as the "Correction Movement."

Soon after taking power, Assad moved quickly to create an organizational infrastructure for the government. In February 1971, the 173-member People's Council was organized, with the Baath Party taking 87 seats; the remaining seats were divided among the "popular organizations" and other minor parties. In March 1971 the Baath Party held its regional congress and elected the 21-member Regional Command headed by Assad. That same month, by a national referendum, Assad was elected president for a 7- year term and in April Major Abdul Rahman Khulayfawi was designated prime minister with Mahmud al Ayyubi as vice president. The transfer of power from Jadid to Assad was widely regarded as a conservative and moderating movement away from Communist radicalism.

In foreign affairs Syria's relations with the Soviet Union, strained toward the end of 1970, improved dramatically in 1971 and 1972. Syria's relations with other Arab states, particularly Egypt and Libya, became more cordial, as demonstrated by the April 1971 formation of the short-lived Federation of Arab Republics, made up of Syria, Egypt, and Libya.

In March 1972, the Progressive National Front was formed. It consisted of the Baath Party and four non-Baathist groups: the Syrian Arab Socialist Union, a Nasserite group under Jamal Atassi; the Socialist Union Movement under Jamal Sufi; the Arab Socialist Party, composed of the followers of the Baathist Akram Hawrani; and the Syrian Communist Party, under Khalid Bakdash.

In March 1973, the Permanent Constitution went into effect, further strengthening Assad's already formidable presidential authority. However, the Assad regime was not without underlying tension. This tension stemmed from sectarian differences between the majority Sunni Muslims and the minority Alawis; but it had much wider implications, not the least of which were political. The immediate focus of the opposition to the regime was the demand by Sunni Muslims that Islam be declared the state religion in the constitution. The draft constitution that was adopted by the People's Council at the end of January 1973 had no provision to that effect. Viewing the constitution as the product of an Alawi-dominated, secular, Baathist ruling elite, Sunni militants staged a series of riots in February 1973 in conservative and predominantly Sunni cities such as Hamah and Homs. A number of demonstrators were killed and wounded in clashes between the troops and demonstrators. As a result of these demonstrations, the Assad regime had the draft charter amended to include a provision that the president of Syria must be a Muslim.

Implicit in this amendment was a declaration that Alawis are Muslims -- a formula not accepted by many Sunni Muslims. The draft was approved in a popular referendum held in mid-March for formal promulgation. Assad's compromise, coupled with the government's effective security measures, calmed the situation, but sporadic demonstrations continued through April 1973. Other major developments in 1973 included the holding in March of parliamentary elections for the People's Council, the first since 1962, and the Syrian-Egyptian war against Israel in October. Syrian forces acquitted themselves better against the Israeli forces in the October 1973 War than in the 1967 one; in fact, the war was widely regarded in Syria as a "victory" and helped to boost Syrian morale substantially. Moreover, in 1974, as a result of the disengagement agreement, Syria recovered parts of the Golan Heights it initially had lost to Israel.

In foreign affairs, the Assad regime charted a pragmatic and increasingly independent course. It maintained close ties with the Soviet Union and East European states, ensuring a sustained flow of Soviet military aid, especially after the October 1973 War. At the same time, Assad moved to improve Syrian relations with Jordan and with the United States and other Western nations.

In May 1973, diplomatic relations with Britain, severed in 1967, were fully restored. Relations with the United States, also severed in 1967, were normalized in June 1974. Two months later diplomatic ties with the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) were resumed after having been severed in 1965, when the West German government exchanged ambassadors with Israel. Meanwhile, relations with Jordan grew progressively more cordial, so that in August 1975 Syria and Jordan announced the establishment of a joint supreme command to direct political and military action against Israel.

Perhaps the severest test of the Assad regime came in the latter half of the 1970s as a result of Syrian intervention in the Lebanese civil war. During 1976, Assad was firmly resolved to stabilize the volatile Lebanese situation by providing troops, first unilaterally and later as part of the Lebanese-based peacekeeping Arab Deterrent Force (ADF). The Syrian intervention, in effect on the side of the Lebanese Christian right against the Palestinians and Muslim left, tended to aggravate relations with other Arab countries, Egypt and Iraq in particular. In addition, the intervention in Lebanon was economically costly for Syria and not popular domestically, and a cease-fire was arranged in October 1976. Even so, in early 1987 Syrian troops still controlled large portions of eastern Lebanon.

Domestically, Assad's supremacy remained unassailable. He brooked no opposition and his control of the Baath Party and the military and security organizations was complete. All political activities continued to be closely monitored by the party and a multiplicity of intelligence and security forces (see Civil Police and Internal Security Apparatus , ch. 5). The regime did not rely primarily on coercion, however; the Baath Party sought, with mixed results, to evolve into a truly mass-based organization. The peasants, workers, and revolutionary intellectuals continued to receive much rhetorical attention, and the party's high command continued to explore the relative merits of socialism for the Syrian economy. The regime's responsiveness to public opinion after 1976 apparently was prompted by three factors: first, renewed concern about the persistence of sectarian tensions; second, an economic slowdown stemming from the burden of military intervention in Lebanon as well as the considerable decline and uncertainty of foreign aid from other Arab oil states; and finally, signs of corruption in the higher echelons of the government and state-run economic enterprises. In August 1976, official concern was manifested when Prime Minister Mahmud al Ayyubi was replaced by Abdul Rahman Khulayfawi, a Sunni who formerly headed the cabinet (1971-72) and who was also highly popular among army officers for his honesty and thoroughness.

A major test of the regime's popularity came in August 1977 when Syrians went to the polls to elect the People's Council for a 4-year term (1977-81). Election results gave cause for concern; the voter turnout was dismally low even by Syrian standards. It was estimated to range from 4 to 6 percent of the 4 million eligible voters, even though the polls were kept open an extra day because of the low turnout.

The election indicated the public's unhappiness with the government, an unhappiness that prompted Assad to institute what came to be known as his "anti-corruption campaign". To this end, the Committee for the Investigation of Illegal Profits was formed. Opposition to the regime did not abate however, and, on November 1, 1977, Ali ibn Abid al Ali, an Alawi professor of agriculture at the University of Aleppo and a close a friend of Assad, was assassinated.

In February 1978, Assad was reelected for a second 7-year term (1978-85). However, his reelection coincided with the beginning of a period of domestic unrest. Even Assad's inner circle showed signs of dissolution; one of the first was the dismissal of Naji Jamil, who was air force commander, chief of the National Security Bureau, and deputy defense minister. His replacement was Brigadier Muhammad Khuli, chief of air force intelligence and an Alawi. On March 30, 1978, the cabinet of Khulayfawi was dismissed and Muhammad Ali al Halabi was asked to form a new cabinet. No significant changes were made in cabinet membership.

Although internal discord is a fact of life in every country in the Middle East, it is difficult to imagine that dissent in any of them could have been met more brutally than it was in Syria in the 1980s. One dissident group was the Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni fundamentalist, antigovernment movement whose popularity grew markedly in the late 1970s. Unlike Islamic fundamentalist movements in certain other Middle Eastern countries, the Muslim Brotherhood opposed the Assad regime not so much for its secularism as for its sectarian favoritism. To protest Alawi domination, the Muslim Brotherhood and other like- minded groups undertook a series of violent attacks against the Baath (Arab Socialist Resurrection) Party government. After Assad's attempts at negotiation failed, Muslim Brotherhood attacks increased in frequency, and the government responded in kind. Using his armed forces, in late 1981 Assad finally isolated Muslim Brotherhood adherents in their strongholds of Aleppo and Hamah. In February 1982, with no regard for civilian safety, the full force of the Syrian army was brought to bear on the rebels in Hamah. Entire sections of the city, including the architecturally magnificent ancient quarter, were reduced to rubble by tank and artillery fire, as upward of 25,000 citizens were killed. This lesson in abject obedience was not lost on the populace, for by the late 1980s the Muslim Brotherhood and its antigovernment allies were almost moribund.

Other violent stresses on internal stability occurred later in 1982. In June, Israel invaded Lebanon with the stated aim of driving away Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) guerrillas from Israel's northern border. After a few days of fighting and constant Israeli advances, it became obvious that Israel's goal was not merely the creation of a security zone, but rather the complete destruction of the PLO or at least its forced expulsion from Lebanon. In achieving this objective, armed confrontation with Syrian forces was inevitable. Although some of the Syrian units gave a good accounting against the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), in general the IDF overwhelmed the Syrians. This domination was nowhere more evident than in air battles over the Biqa Valley in which the Israeli Air Force destroyed nineteen air defense sites and downed more than eighty Syrian aircraft, while losing only two aircraft. Despite these setbacks, as the only Arab leader to stand up to the Israeli assault, Assad gained the respect of other Middle Eastern states. The defeats were not enough to induce Syria to withdraw its forces from Lebanon, and eventually it worked out a modus vivendi with the IDF.

But for Syria there was no relief from internal pressures. Having weathered a "miniwar" in Lebanon, in 1983 another crisis arose when in November Assad suffered a severe heart attack that hospitalized him for several months. In February 1984, in a premature effort to succeed his brother, Rifaat al Assad moved his Defense Companies (now called Unit 569) into positions around the capital. Fighting broke out but soon subsided; however, in May it erupted once more in Latakia. As Hafiz al Assad recovered and reasserted his authority, he neutralized political opportunists (including his brother) while making changes in the Baath Party and army hierarchies. To restore faith in his regime, Assad began promoting a personality cult, the net effect of which was to identify government with Hafiz al Assad rather than to encourage government through political and social institutions. Thus, in 1987 many concerns remained about succession and about whether or not Syria could peacefully survive the loss of Assad as the adhesive that held together the diverse elements of society.

An added concern was the perilous state of the economy. Years of drought in the early 1980s had effectively stymied agricultural growth. By the time production began to rebound in the mid-1980s, commodity prices for Syria's agricultural goods were dropping. Furthermore, the fledgling oil industry was retarded by the worldwide slump in petroleum prices and by Syria's own decision to cease pipeline transportation of Iraqi oil, thus surrendering lucrative transit fees. Moreover, Syria's stance in the Iran-Iraq War and its intransigence on other regional matters so angered wealthier Arab nations that they reduced financial support to the Assad regime.

And perhaps most salient, the need to provision tens of thousands of troops stationed in Lebanon and to maintain strong defenses against Israel caused a crushing defense burden. Although figures on defense outlays varied widely, in the late 1980s they apparently accounted for anywhere from one-third to just over one-half of all government spending. Regardless of which figure is accepted, clearly military spending was inhibiting development by diverting funds from desperately needed social programs.

In addition to domestic discord, Syria has been subjected to many external strains. Not the least of these has been Syria's long-standing engagement in Lebanon. Although some analysts saw this involvement as part of a desire to recreate Greater Syria, others viewed it as a pragmatic manifestation of Assad's ambitions toward regional hegemony. Regardless of motive, Syria's presence in Lebanon presented dangers and opportunities. The principal problem was that the worsening Lebanese situation jeopardized the safety of Syrian troops and drained Syria's fragile economy. Nevertheless, at various times since 1976, Syrian intervention has had the positive effect of quelling some of the violence that has swept Lebanon and raised faint hopes of peace. Such positive intervention occurred most recently in February 1987, when Assad sent his forces into West Beirut to restore order to the Muslim half of the city.

Some scholars call Syria a nation of contradictions with good reason. Certainly there were inconsistencies in Syria's regional and international politics. In spite of the pan-Arab ideology that is at the heart of the ruling Baath Party principles, Syria was one of only two Arab states (Libya being the other) supporting non-Arab Iran against Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War. In addition, Syria's steadfast refusal to negotiate with Israel ever since the June 1967 War and its support for radical Palestinian factions have set it apart from most of the Arab world.

In foreign relations, Syria proved it could be a supportive friend or obstinate foe--in fact, sometimes both within a short period of time. For example, every few years Syria seemed to begin a rapprochement with Jordan and Iraq, its neighbors to the south and east, but these thaws in otherwise cool relations have been short. Likewise, relations with various Lebanese and Palestinian factions have blown hot and cold.

Certainly the Soviet Union found Assad a less than pliable client. Throughout the Soviet-Syrian relationship, Assad took much more in military assistance than the Soviets have received in terms of influence in Syria or the rest of the region. For the most part, Soviet efforts to dominate Syrian political and even military activities had limited success.

Assad was thought by many to be an enigma, thus his nickname, "the sphinx." Having survived the tribulations of seventeen years of rule, he deserved his reputation as a wily and able politician. Diplomatic and practical when circumstances called for these qualities, Assad could also be manipulative and merciless, especially with regime opponents. Syrian dissidents in exile or regional political enemies were not been immune from Assad's intelligence and security networks. Insofar as Assad assented to terrorist training in Syrian-controlled Lebanon and even on Syrian soil, he most likely had at his disposal a pool of individuals willing to carry out certain violent missions. Clearly, media attention given to Syria's complicity in terrorist incidents in Western Europe in the mid-1980s underscored such activity.

Syria's 1990 participation in the U.S.-led multinational coalition aligned against Saddam Hussein marked a dramatic watershed in Syria's relations both with other Arab states and with the West. Syria participated in the multilateral Middle East Peace Conference in Madrid in October 1991, and during the 1990s engaged in direct, face-to-face negotiations with Israel. These negotiations failed, and there have been no further Syrian-Israeli talks since President Hafiz Al-Asad's meeting with then President Bill Clinton in Geneva in March 2000.

In many ways, Assad very nearly realized his ambitions for leadership in regional affairs. Syria was a key to the Palestinian problem and to any resolution of the Arab-Israeli dispute; it was also at the vortex of the Lebanese situation. Furthermore, it was making its presence felt in the Iran-Iraq War. Its economy, although by no means burgeoning, was at least resilient in the face of difficult circumstances. And even though its international image was tarnished because of its association with terrorism, that, too, was improving as a result of Syria's crackdown on Shia extremists in Lebanon. Most troublesome, perhaps, was the unresolved question of who would succeed the somewhat frail president. It was uncertain if any successor could overcome the conflicts that were sure to surface after Assad or could maintain the nation's pace of development.

Hafiz Al-Asad died on June 10, 2000, after 30 years in power. Immediately following Al-Asad's death, the Parliament amended the constitution, reducing the mandatory minimum age of the President from 40 to 34 years old, which allowed his son, Bashar Al-Asad legally to be eligible for nomination by the ruling Ba'ath party. On July 10, 2000, Bashar Al-Asad was elected President by referendum in which he ran unopposed, garnering 97.29% of the vote, according to Syrian government statistics.

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Page last modified: 21-03-2012 19:12:27 ZULU