June 10, 2000
Hafez al-Assad, Who Turned Syria Into a Power in the Middle East, Dies at 69
By NEIL MacFARQUHAR
President Hafez al-Assad
|SYRIA'S ROLE IN THE MIDEAST|
In Sunday's Times
Assad, Key Figure in Mideast, Is Dead
Hope for Stability in Mideast
A New Hurdle
See in the Heir Possibility of Progress
The Syrian Leader
Syria's Game: A Profile of Hafez al-Assad(Jan. 26, 1992)
Syrian President Hafez al-Assad (16 photos)
Clinton Says Next Move for Peace Is Assad's (Mar. 29, 2000)
Clinton's Effort Fails to Get Syria to Return to Peace Talks (Mar. 27, 2000)
Clinton Offers Israel and Syria 'Working Paper' to Study Golan Heights Control (Jan. 8, 2000)
Israel and Syria to Reopen Talks, Clinton Reports (Dec. 9, 1999)
Dust Settles: Israel-Syria Peace Effort Is Set Back (Feb. 10, 2000)
Barak Works to Keep 2 Tracks Going (Jan. 19, 2000)
From the Archives
Upon termination of the 27-year British administration in Palestine, the state of Israel was proclaimed on May 14, 1948.
The New York Times front page story from Saturday, May 15, 1948.
Declaration of Independence of the Jewish state.
The Two Worlds of Palestine, May 18, 1948
Cease-Fire in Syria Accepted, Ending 'Six-Day War', June 11, 1967
Israel vs. Arabs, 1948-1973, October 7, 1973
Issue in Depth
The Mideast Peace Process
How will the change in Syrian leadership influence the Mideast peace process?
Related Web Sites
Middle East Peace Briefings, from the State Department
Israel Profile, from the State Department
Syria Profile, from the State Department
afez al-Assad, the air force officer who
ruled Syria for nearly three decades, transforming a Middle East backwater into an
introverted regional power that endured as
the center of unbending Arab hostility toward Israel, died yesterday in Damascus.
He was 69.
Mr. Assad, a survivor of several assassination attempts and at least one heart attack, died of a heart attack, according to
medical officials quoted by Agence France-Presse.
Among the Arab autocrats who became
stock players in the perpetual drama of
negotiating Middle East peace, none was
more courted, nor more aloof, than the
Syrian leader. No lasting peace could hold
without him, but none could be negotiated
with him either. A treaty remained elusive
largely due to his stubborn role in demanding back every inch of Syrian territory.
At home, Mr. Assad's longevity in office
rested on a rigid intolerance of dissent, most
starkly illustrated by the slaying of thousands of residents of Hama in February
1982 to end a swelling Islamic insurgency.
His was a suspicious police state, barring
modern instruments like the fax or the
Internet that might somehow become tools
to help undermine his government.
Mr. Assad rarely traveled, even within
Syria, and as he aged his public appearances were limited to religious ceremonies
on major holidays. But his withdrawn life
was also devoid of the lavish trappings
common to other Arab rulers. His home and
office, where he often worked 18-hour days,
consisted of two modest villas that faced
each other in a residential neighborhood in
The stream of American presidents, secretaries of state and other officials who
crossed his doorstep over the years, hoping
to keep the latest peace effort from foundering there, emerged with a grudging respect
for Mr. Assad. He was at once courteous and
calculating, professorial and persistent, unleashing flashes of self-deprecating humor
during marathon negotiating sessions. The
length of the sessions were as legendary as
they were nerve-wracking.
When Henry A. Kissinger arrived in 1973,
becoming the first American Secretary of
State to visit Syria in 20 years, their initial
meeting lasted 6 hours and 30 minutes. The
waiting press, uninitiated in the ways of the
Syrian leader, wondered aloud if the American had been kidnapped.
"His tactic was to open with a statement
of the most extreme position to test what the
traffic would bear," Mr. Kissinger wrote in
"Years of Upheaval," the volume of his
memoirs published in 1982. "He might then
allow himself to be driven back to the attainable, fighting a dogged rearguard action
that made clear that concessions could be
exacted only at a heavy price and that
discouraged excessive expectations of
them. (His negotiating style was in this
respect not so different from the Israelis',
much as both of them would hate the comparison.)"
Mr. Assad was most renowned for lecturing foreigners, even American presidents,
about the unfair colonial fragmentation of
the Middle East. In case anyone missed the
point, his reception hall was dominated by a
large painting depicting the Arab armies
under Saladin defeating the Crusaders during the battle of Hittin in 1187, a not-so-subtle reminder that he considered present
"Even in his bitterness toward Israel, he
retained a certain wry humor about their
conflicting views, and he seemed to derive
great patience from his obvious sense of
history," President Jimmy Carter wrote in
"The Blood of Abraham," a 1985 study of the
Syria was a young nation adrift before
Mr. Assad's rule. The government had been
a revolving door swung repeatedly by coups
after independence from France in 1946,
resulting in little development and a population weary of chaos.
The bloodless power grab he staged in
November 1970 brought stability and the
first modern construction of roads, schools
and hospitals. Mr. Assad followed the Soviet
model of a single-party police state, constructing a network of 15 competing intelligence agencies that mostly spied on his own
It was in regional politics, however, that
Mr. Assad most sought to create a legacy,
remaking Syria into a power among the
Arabs rather than a political football. He
was inspired by the Arab nationalism
preached by President Gamal Abdul Nassar
of Egypt, and like many of his generation, he
sought to inherit Nasser's role as the voice
of Arab unity.
But Mr. Assad, more than most, experienced the bitter chasm between the vaunted
oratory of unity and the constant scheming
and backstabbing that marked actual relations between the Arab states in watershed
events like the wars against Israel. He often
told negotiators that he would face assassination if he negotiated a separate peace on
terms unfavorable to Syria.
"Nobody expects us to raise banners of
happiness and pleasure with such a clandestine agreement held behind our backs," he
said in an American television interview in
October 1993, right after Israel and the
Palestine Liberation Organization, lead by
Yasir Arafat, announced a peace agreement
worked out in secret under Norwegian auspices. "The Arabs are one people. If I were
to sign an agreement similar to that signed
by Arafat, I would have faced great problems. You all know that there are Arab
leaders who paid with their lives as the
price for such separate behavior."
Mr. Assad's roots in an isolated, impoverished religious minority made him an unlikely candidate to become leader of Syria.
But for a man who spent his lifetime railing
against the legacy of Western colonization,
its waning years brought unprecedented
change to sleepy villages like his.
The Brilliant Son
Of a Mountain Family
Hafez al-Assad was the ninth of 11 children, born on Oct. 6, 1930, to minor notables
in the village of Qurdaha, in the Ansariya
Mountains, which rise sharply from the
Mediterranean coast. (The adopted family
name, sometimes transliterated Asad,
means lion.) The mountain redoubts were a
secure home for his ethnic group, the
Alawite sect, a tiny branch of the Shiite
school of Islam and a sect often branded as
heretical by the Sunni Muslim majority that
The mountain tribes had been all but
ignored during the 400 years that the Ottoman Empire controlled Syria, left to their
subsistence farming in villages consisting of
small stone hovels. Patrick Seale, in his 1988
biography, "Asad of Syria: The Struggle
for the Middle East," said that at the time of
Mr. Assad's birth, Qurdaha consisted of
about 100 houses at the end of a dirt track. It
had neither mosque, nor shop, nor cafe. His
father and two wives lived in a two-room,
flat-roofed stone house.
The Arabs had expected independence in
exchange for their rebellion against Ottoman rule during World War I, but in a secret
1916 pact known as the Sykes-Picot agreement, the British and French divided the
Levant. Their action is still vividly remembered in Syria, and a long commentary on
the perfidies of the Sykes-Picot accord was
a perennial favorite of Mr. Assad's lectures
The French, seeing the Alawite clans as
potential allies in the old divide-and-rule
method of colonial government, introduced
schools to their villages. Mr. Assad's father
was determined that his younger children
would excel, securing places for them in
school and challenging them to learn long
poems in classical Arabic.
In 1944 Mr. Assad became the first member of his family to be sent down to Latakia,
on the coast, to start his secondary education. He was soon caught up in the debates
among Communists, Arab nationalists and
Islamic fundamentalists, which intensified
as Syria gained independence in 1946.
Mr. Assad joined the new Arab Baath
Socialist Party, which preached that a secular, socialist state encompassing all the
Arabs would revive their past glory and
undermine Western dominance. When he
was elected to head his high school's student
affairs committee, he used the position to
try to foment nationwide student protests
against other parties and the government.
Mr. Assad told Mr. Seale, his biographer,
that he addressed his student meetings in
verse, reciting one such speech from memory: "There is Damascus drinking the blood
of its sons! Oh, Guardians of Glory, where
are the righteous rulers? The dogs have
risen to the fount of life!"
By the time he finished high school in
1951, at the age of 20, his interest in politics
was cemented even as he embarked on an
air force career. Fees for military school
were abolished with independence, so he
enrolled in the new Air Force College in
Aleppo. The Alawites, like the underprivileged throughout the Middle East, used the
military to gain an education and then to
supplant the elite that scorned them.
His years at Aleppo, from 1952 to 1955,
when he graduated as a lieutenant, coincided with Nassar's rise in Egypt. In 1958
Syria's government rushed to join Egypt in
the United Arab Republic, imagining that
the idea would prove so seductive that all
Arab governments would either join or be
swept aside. The union collapsed in 1961.
Mr. Assad missed most of the first year of
the union, having been sent to the Soviet
Union to learn how to fly the MIG-15's and
MIG-17's being delivered to Syria. Soon after he returned his squadron was transferred to Egypt. He and a fellow group of
officers, dismayed by the degree to which
Syrians had been marginalized, formed a
secret committee to plot to take control in
The years after the union brought turmoil.
The highly politicized officer corps jockeyed
for control of the country, with each faction
taking power thinning the ranks of its rivals
through execution or exile. By the time the
Arab-Israeli war erupted in June 1967, Syrian military officers were ill-prepared to do
Mr. Assad was minister of defense during
that war, having gained that position in
February 1966 when the group of officers he
helped found in Cairo seized power in a
violent putsch. He was 35, serving in his first
Syrian government, the most extreme the
country had yet known. It was repressive at
home, seeking to topple the old Sunni Muslim elite, and radical abroad, funneling aid
to Palestinian guerrillas to attack Israel.
The 1967 war, over in a week, was as
much a military as a mental blow to the
Arabs. All their exaggerated oratory about
the bankruptcy of the Zionist cause proved
fruitless, and the Arabs suffered the embarrassment of losing the eastern sector of
Jerusalem, the Sinai peninsula and the Golan Heights in Syria.
Mr. Assad came to power in the wake of
another debacle, in September 1970, when
Palestinian guerrillas in Jordan sought to
topple King Hussein. Syria sent tanks over
the border to support the guerrillas, then
retreated under Jordanian air attacks, and
Hussein kept his throne. Mr. Assad used the
disarray to stage a bloodless coup called
"the corrective movement."
Mr. Assad ruled through the Baath Party,
using its secular ideology as the cover for
bringing the Alawite minority into key positions. Eventually the commanders of the
special forces, intelligence, the armored
corps and key divisions were all Alawites, a
remarkable achievement for a group that
used to produce the servant class.
His first priority as president was trying
to erase the stain of the 1967 defeat. In that
he had a ready ally in President Anwar
Sadat of Egypt. The two profited from the
superpower competition between the United
States and the Soviet Union, with Moscow
pouring billions of dollars of weaponry into
both their arsenals and stationing thousands
of advisers in both countries.
They struck on Oct. 6, 1973, with the
Egyptian forces crossing the canal and the
Syrians advancing into the Golan Heights.
The Israelis, while monitoring the troop
buildup along their borders in the days
preceding the attack, were caught unaware,
seeing the massive mobilization as more
bluster than threat.
For days it seemed the survival of Israel
was at stake, but it gradually gained the
advantage. The Egyptians had basically
captured the eastern shore of the Suez Canal
and dug in, their two top generals at loggerheads over how much of the army could
advance into the Sinai. President Assad
believed bitterly that Sadat had betrayed
him. He thought Sadat had crossed the canal
and then deliberately stopped, seeking a
limited victory that would both restore the
image of the Egyptian army and more
important, attract American patronage. By
the time a shaky cease-fire took hold at the
end of October, it was clear the Arabs had
again been defeated.
The United States attempted to build a
comprehensive peace settlement, Secretary
Kissinger shuttling between Arab capitals
and Israel. Mr. Kissinger was the first of
many American officials to have their hopes
dashed by the Syrian leader, discovering at
the end of lengthy negotiations about a
peace conference that Syria had no intention
of taking part.
Still, Mr. Assad felt the Americans got the
upper hand because the talks paved the way
for Egypt to forge a separate peace. The
cease-fire negotiated then on the Golan did
stick, however, and it became Israel's quietest border despite the upheaval that followed.
Playing Both Sides In Lebanon's Civil War
The conflagration of 1973 was barely extinguished when the next crisis erupted, in
Lebanon. Its civil war pitted the Lebanese
Christians, whose power was enshrined in
the Constitution despite their shrinking population, against the Palestine Liberation Organization and more economically deprived
communities like the Shiites and the Druze.
As the army and government fractured
along sectarian lines, the Christian defeat
by the more numerous Muslim factions
seemed a foregone conclusion.
Although Mr. Assad acknowledged that
Syria and Lebanon were sovereign nations,
Syrians had long viewed Lebanon as a natural part of their country that had been
unfairly severed by European colonial meddling. Mr. Assad intervened with his army
to preserve the status quo.
Critics said his defense of the Christian
minority reflected his own insecurity that
majority rule in Lebanon might inspire attempts to unseat his Alawite minority. The
intervention in Lebanon, though sanctioned
by the Arab League, also gave Mr. Assad a
chance to try to reassert control over the
P.L.O. He had long been at odds with Mr.
Arafat, even jailing him briefly in Damascus in 1966 for trying to dilute Syrian influence over the Palestinian movement.
But the Lebanese chaos gave an opening
to a deadlier conflict, providing Syria and
Israel the space to fight another war. The
Syrians stood by at first during the 1982
Israeli invasion of Lebanon, accepting Israel's assurances that it planned only to push
Palestinian guerrillas away from its border.
The Israelis really had their sights on
Beirut and the Palestinian command in Lebanon, knowing Mr. Assad would probably
not be able to avoid fighting because his
army was already heavily engaged in guaranteeing calm. The Syrian Air Force performed poorly, losing 79 MIG's, plus tanks
and missile batteries.
But Mr. Assad retained his influence over
his neighbor. In September 1982, Syria was
apparently the hand behind the assassination of the Lebanese leader Bashir Gemayel, which effectively aborted the attempt to
negotiate a separate peace between Israel
Mr. Assad nonetheless put renewed emphasis on his doctrine of "strategic parity"
with Israel. He believed that the Arabs
would always be hindered unless they could
use military aid from the Soviet Union and
its Communist satellites to build a credible
force to face the high-tech weaponry that
flowed to Israel from the United States. The
Soviet Union poured an estimated $2 billion
into the Syrian arsenal after the war, including about 160 fighter aircraft and 800 T-72
An Attempted Coup and Violent Suppression
As the proxy war in Lebanon had been
simmering, a more threatening rebellion
was brewing at home.
The first hint of the impending attempt to
overthrow Baath Party rule came in June
1979, when the Muslim Brotherhood massacred 50 Alawite cadets in the dining room of
the military academy in Aleppo.
Then in June 1980 extremists lobbed at
least two grenades at the Syrian leader.
President Assad kicked one grenade away
while a bodyguard flung himself on the
second, losing his life. In revenge, the military unit controlled by Mr. Assad's headstrong younger brother, Rifaat, descended
on a desert prison near Palmyra and
gunned down at least 250 religious dissidents in their cells.
The Muslim extremists next rose up in
1982 in Hama. They killed Baath Party
officials and broadcast appeals from the
mosques for a nationwide insurrection.
In pursuing the rebels, the Syrian military
leveled half the city, killing at least 10,000
residents. The carnage brought widespread
condemnation in the West, but it was the
kind of act that insured Mr. Assad's utter
control. When the choice came down to
spilling blood or preserving his hold on
power, there was really no question.
"He wouldn't be apologetic," recalled an
American diplomat. "Assad would justify
it entirely by saying it was the necessary
price to end years and years of Muslim
His alliance with Iran after the 1979 Islamic revolution there brought Ayatollah
Ruhollah Khomeini to power was based on
similar calculus. Although Iran's attempts
to export its revolution quickly made it
anathema in the Middle East, Mr. Assad
cared little that the Damascus-Teheran accord provoked his fellow Arab leaders.
For one thing, the Iranians were at war
with Iraq, long Syria's competitor for supremacy in the larger Arab world. For
another, Iran was willing to arm and train
the increasingly radical Shiite militias in
southern Lebanon who engaged Israel's occupying army in guerrilla warfare.
Syria could use the guerrillas to pressure
Israel while at the same time denying responsibility. Instead Mr. Assad could blame
the violence, or acts like the kidnapping of
Western hostages, on the anarchy of Lebanon that Syria's 30,000-strong troops were
ostensibly trying to suppress.
Syria was also linked to brutal attacks
carried out by notorious terrorist groups
like the Abu Nidal organization, whose targets included Israelis and Jews, Syrian dissidents, Jordanian diplomats and pro-Arafat Palestinians.
Mr. Assad's ability to distance himself
from the worst violence collapsed in 1986,
when a man attempting to blow up an El Al
airliner leaving London was given refuge in
the Syrian embassy before turning himself
in. Britain broke relations and other Western nations temporarily withdrew their ambassadors.
Syria, which had been identified by Washington as a sponsor of terrorism since 1979,
became firmly entrenched on that roster.
Though Mr. Assad's government was not
linked to directly supporting terrorism after
about 1986, it continued to give safe haven to
the political leadership of the most radical
With the collapse of the Soviet Union after
1989, Mr. Assad realized that he could no
longer harvest military or economic aid in
the Kremlin, and he began looking for the
means to forge closer ties with the West.
For that, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in
1990 proved a godsend, with Syria joining
the gulf war coalition pieced together by the
United States. Only a few thousand Syrian
troops deployed in Saudi Arabia facing Iraq,
but the presence of soldiers from such a
staunch Arab nationalist country carried
heavy symbolic weight. The gulf Arab
states responded with billions of dollars in
The momentum from the war coalition
carried into another American effort to
build an Arab-Israeli peace treaty, and Syria for the first time set aside its refusal to sit
face-to-face with the Israeli negotiators. Mr.
Assad personally conducted the talks about
The difficulty in negotiating with Syria
was underscored under the Clinton Administration, when Secretary of State Warren
Christopher began shuttling around the
Middle East trying to build on the agreement that the Israelis and Palestinians
worked out themselves in Oslo. Mr. Assad
was appalled that Mr. Arafat had become
yet another Arab leader making a separate
piece with the Jewish state.
However with broad if nebulous assurances from the Israeli government of Yitzhak Rabin that a full withdrawal from the
Golan Heights could be negotiated, Mr. Assad too indicated that Syria was willing to talk peace. Mr. Christopher made more
than 20 trips to Damascus, and President
Clinton met with the Syrian leader twice in
1994, once in Geneva and once in Damascus,
becoming the first American President to
visit since Richard M. Nixon.
Attempts to revive the peace effort with
Syria late last year collapsed this spring
after Mr. Clinton had another failed meeting
with Mr. Assad in Geneva.
Despite the absence of clashes on the
Golan Heights after the 1974 disengagement
accord, the peace talks between Syria and
Israel ultimately foundered on their mutual
suspicions. The Israelis had no plans to
withdraw to the 1967 lines, which would put
Syria in control of a chunk of the shoreline of
Lake Tiberias, their main water source.
For his part, Mr. Assad apparently felt he
could not make peace without regaining
every inch of lost territory and he resisted
Israeli attempts to tie peace to a complete
normalization of relations with free trade
and open borders. Mr. Assad feared that
Israel, having fought the Arabs to a stalemate, wanted to dominate them economically.
Inside Syria in the 1990's, Mr. Assad was
consolidating his position and preparing for
his eldest son, Basil, an army officer and an
equestrian champion, to succeed him.
In a December 1991 plebiscite on a fourth,
seven-year term as president, Mr. Assad got
99.9 percent of the vote. As one Syrian writer
noted wryly to a foreign reporter, "Even if
Allah had run, he wouldn't have done as
But Mr. Assad's dynastic plans were
threatened when Basil died in an automobile
accident in 1994. Then, Mr. Assad picked his
next son in line, Bashar, who had been
training in London to be an eye surgeon, as
his heir apparent. Bashar was made a lieutenant colonel, given a top military post and
referred to publicly as "the hope" of Syria.
To emphasize his own line for succession,
Mr. Assad in February 1998 stripped his
brother Rifaat of the largely ceremonial
title of vice president.
In late 1983, when Mr. Assad was hospitalized with a heart attack, Rifaat had tried to
use his control of the military to assume
power. As the president recuperated, Rifaat
proved reluctant to back down and brought
the country to the brink of civil war. Mr.
Assad checked his brother, who spent the
years from 1984 to 1992 in exile.
Mr. Assad is survived by four of his five
Although he set up the dynastic guidelines
so his son would succeed him, it is unclear
whether the second generation has the clout
needed to control the competing security
and intelligence agencies. Mr. Assad was
the lone Syrian who had sufficient influence
to make peace with Israel and to make it
stick, but he never found the formula for
getting the Golan back.
Secretary of State James A. Baker 3d, in
his 1995 memoir "The Politics of Diplomacy" quoted Mr. Assad as saying: "The land
is important. It connotes dignity and honor.
A man is not chosen to go to paradise unless
he can do so in a dignified way."