Syria and Assad, Part I
Hafez Al-Assad, the ''Lion of Damascus,'' died two weeks ago at
the age of 69. Before we take a look at his life and the role he
played in the formation of the modern / decrepit nation he lorded
over, let''s examine some of the comments made upon his death.
First off, the announcer on Syrian state radio:
"The legacy of his accomplishments and ideas is a planet that
will shine not just on (the current) generation, but also on coming
generations." Well, maybe we should look at a different opinion.
"Hafez Al-Assad was not a diplomat, he was not a peacemaker,
he was not a great leader. He was a murderer. In his three
decades in power, the Syrian dictator terrorized his own nation,
the people of Lebanon, and countless others."
--Senator Jesse Helms
"(Assad''s) skill and shrewdness and brutality - and the fatigue of
his country (having endured about 14 coups in the two decades
prior to his accession), its eagerness to trade what liberties it had
for order - gave (the) ruler his chance."
--Arab affairs expert, Fouad Ajami
And then there was President Bill Clinton who openly spoke of
the respect he had for Assad.
"He made clear Syria''s continued commitment to the path of
peace." Geezuz. Get a grip.
Actually, to be fair, Assad was one complex dude. One thing is
for sure, he was NOT a great leader and he WAS a murderer.
And, was he really that important? My vast library here at
StocksandNews really doesn''t have a heck of a lot to draw on.
Assad was born on October 6, 1930, in the small farming village
of Qardahaher (I have also seen ''Qurdaha''). Hafez was the 9th of
11 children. His father lived with two wives which means that,
since the village was built on a bunch of dirt, the father was the
Historically, Syria had helped the British defeat the Turks during
World War I but, after the war, Syria was to become a French
mandated territory. And Hafez was taught what every child of
his era was, that being to hate the French.
Assad was a brilliant student and the one truly amazing part of
his story is that a dirt poor kid could grow up to become a power-
broker in the Middle East for 30 years...and not get shot.
Growing up, Hafez was also swept up in debates among
Communists, Arab nationalists and Islamic fundamentalists. He
chose to join the Baath Socialist Party, one which preached that a
secular, socialist state encompassing all the Arabs would revive
their past glory and undermine Western dominance.
Assad was able to enroll in the Air Force College, along with
many of his Alawite brethren, who used the military to gain an
It is this last factor that warrants some space. The Alawites
comprise only about 12% of Syria''s population while the Sunni
Muslims make up 74%. How do minority sects come into power
in the Middle East with such frequency?
According to "The Oxford History of Islam," "(The) important
legacy of colonialism is the representation of particular
communities in the police and military forces. The colonial
powers often recruited among the minorities for the local army
and police forces. Not only were the minorities more closely
allied with the colonial order but, they were more likely to be
willing to engage and to suppress members of the dominant
community - with which they did not identify and against which
they may have borne a grudge. Minorities were also less likely
to respond to the religious call for rebellion and jihad."
Assad was #1 in his class and became a fighter pilot, eventually
going to the Soviet Union for training on MIG aircraft.
In the mid-1950s, the Middle East was roiled in one crisis after
another, the biggest being in Egypt, where in 1952, King Farouk
was driven into exile, to be replaced two years later by Gamal
Abdel Nasser, the founder of classic "Arab nationalism." This
sentiment surged through the whole Moslem world, from
Morocco to Indonesia.
In 1956, Nasser precipitated a world crisis by seizing the Suez
Canal in clear violation of international treaties. October 1956
was one wild and wooly month, for as Britain and France
launched their own offensive against Egypt, the Soviets were
barreling through Budapest and India and the Soviets were
threatening to come to Egypt''s aid. But the U.S. came down
against France and Britain and quickly the crisis was over.
[I''ll cover this in more detail down the road.]
Nasser was able to present himself as the very symbol of Arab
nationalism in its struggle against Western imperialism. And in
1958 he formed the United Arab Republic with Syria and North
Yemen (now there''s a real winner, eh? North Yemen.) The
union, however, was to collapse in 1961 (and Nasser never did
achieve true greatness for either himself or his nation).
Meanwhile, back to Assad, in 1960 he joined a military
committee that eventually brought the Baath Party to power in a
coup in 1963. By 1964 Hafez held the rank of general and was
named Air Force commander. In 1966, following another coup
(the officers were an active bunch), he was named defense
In 1967, Nasser made some threatening moves against Israel.
Israel felt that they had no other choice but to launch a pre-
emptive strike against both Egypt and Syria and within six days
Israel occupied the Gaza Strip, the Sinai peninsula, the West
Bank and, most importantly for Syria, the Golan Heights.
Prior to the ''67 war, the highly politicized Syrian officer corps
had been thinned by fractious fighting. They had been ill-
prepared for battle.
But Assad survived, even though he was in charge of the battered
army. In September 1970, Palestinian guerrillas in Jordan sought
to topple King Hussein. In classic Middle East politics, Syria
sent tanks to aid the Palestinians, only to retreat when Jordan
launched an effective air campaign. King Hussein survived and
Assad used the disarray in his own country to launch a bloodless
coup in November, better known as "the corrective movement."
We''ll pick up the story here next week.
Additional Sources: Richard Pearson / Washington Post; Neil
MacFarquhar / New York Times; "A History of the Arab
Peoples" Albert Hourani; The Weekly Standard.