Asad, Hafiz al- (1930–2000)

views updated

Asad, Hafiz al-

A member of the Syrian Ba'th Party since secondary school, Hafiz al-Asad (Hafez al-Assad) was a major factional leader within it until seizing power in a coup in 1970. He was the president of Syria from 1971 until his death in 2000.


Asad was born in the small village of Qurdaha in the mountains of northwestern Syria, home to the Islamic minority known as the Alawis (or Alawites). Sent to school on the coast in Latakia (al-Ladhiqiya), he was one of a handful of village boys to receive a formal education as the French opened schools in more remote areas of Syria. Active in school politics, Asad joined the Ba'th Party in 1947 while a student in Latakia. During his school years, he was elected head of his school's student affairs committee and president of the nationwide Union of Syrian Students, notable achievements for himself, his community, and his political party. Graduating from secondary school with a baccalaureate in 1951, he entered the Syrian Military Academy at Hums and later the Air Force Academy at Aleppo, graduating as a pilot officer in 1955.

Enjoying politics, Asad plunged with enthusiasm into the intrigues of the highly politicized and faction-ridden Syrian officer corps, traveling to Egypt in 1955 and to the Soviet Union in 1958 for military training. Returning to Egypt in 1959, he joined four fellow military officers in founding a secret organization in 1960 called the Military Committee. Admirers of the Ba'th theorist Zaki al-Arsuzi, the five men opposed two other prominent Ba'thists, Michel Aflaq and Salah al-Din al-Bitar, whom they held responsible for the demise of the party after Syria entered into its ill-fated union, the United Arab Republic (UAR), with Egypt in 1958. Distrusting political parties and eager to control Syrian elites, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser (Nassir) had made dissolution of the Ba'th Party a precondition for accepting union with Syria.

Because they were Ba'thists who aspired to positions of prominence in Syrian public life, Asad and his colleagues in the Military Committee were very careful not to reveal the existence of their organization to Egyptian intelligence. Nevertheless, Asad was jailed briefly in Egypt following the breakup in September 1961 of the UAR. Returning to Syria, he was granted indefinite leave from the air force and demoted to a low-paid clerk position in the Ministry of Economics. In March 1963, Asad played a leading role in the coup d'état that brought fellow Ba'thist officers to power; and following the coup, he was promoted to major general and made commander of the air force. In 1965, he was named to the regional and national Ba'th High Command.

In the seven years following the 1963 coup, Asad busied himself mastering the political techniques necessary to survive and prosper in the factional struggles plaguing Syria. Siding with the radical party faction of Salah Jadid and Muhammad Umran, Asad made lasting friendships and permanent enemies. Umran kept an eye on the government, and Jadid ran the army. Asad's role was to extend the Military Committee network throughout the armed forces, ensuring loyalists occupied all sensitive commands.

In the wake of a bloody intraparty shootout, Asad in February 1966 was made minister of defense. Two years later, only twelve years after graduating as a pilot officer, he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant general. Throughout this period, Asad turned repeatedly to Zaki al-Arsuzi for ideological guidance and support. Providing political insight and direction, Arsuzi contributed editorials to the party and army press until his death in 1968. In February 1969, Asad gained control of both the government and the Ba'th Party command, retaining temporarily some of his adversaries in positions of power. In November 1970, he seized full control in a new "correctional movement," purging his opponents and detaining their leaders, including President Nur al-Din al-Atasi.

Asad's rise to power opened a new chapter in the domestic and foreign policies of Syria. Moving to establish a firm footing for his rule, he built stable state institutions and wooed disenchanted social classes with measures of political and economic liberalization. Socialism, retained as a tenet in the rhetoric of the ruling party, became étatism or state capitalism. Asad also relaxed restrictions on the private sector. Rapid economic growth, mostly generated through public expenditure, was the main objective of both economic and development policies. The Syrian economy responded positively to this stimulus, expanding at an annual rate exceeding nine percent throughout the 1970s.

Socially, the Asad regime stressed the need for reconciliation and national unity. To strengthen the impression of a new beginning, he introduced a more liberal climate for writers and novelists and courted former Ba'thists who had fallen out of favor with the previous regime. He also worked to establish stable political structures. A People's Council or parliament was created in 1971, and the Progressive National Front, an institutionalized coalition of the Ba'th Party and a number of smaller parties, was set up in 1972. In 1973, a new constitution was promulgated. Active in creating supportive political bodies, Asad allowed no opposition to his rule. Recognizing Islamist movements as a particular threat to the regime, he ruthlessly suppressed the Muslim Brotherhood, violently eliminating its resistance during the Hama uprising of February 1982.

At the same time, Asad worked assiduously to neutralize factional struggles within the army and the Ba'th Party. The army, a multilayered intelligence network, formal state structures, and revitalized party congresses became the institutional pillars of his regime. The newly-created People's Council in March 1971 appointed Asad president, following his nomination by the Ba'th command; thereafter, carefully controlled plebiscites regularly endorsed his reelection for seven-year terms. The political elite accepted state consolidation, together with the concentration of power in Asad's hands, as measures necessary to confront the threat the country faced following its defeat in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. External resources were the key to Asad's state-building, with the Soviet Union providing the arms needed to rebuild the military and Arab oil money funding an expansion of the bureaucracy and the co-opting of the bourgeoisie.


Name: Hafiz al-Asad (Hafez al-Assad)

Birth: 1930, Qurdaha, near Latakia, Syria

Death: 2000, Damascus Syria

Family: Wife, Aniseh (Anisa) Makhluf (m. 1958); four sons, Basil (d. 1994), Bashar al-Asad, Mahir (Maher), and Majd; one daughter, Bushra

Nationality: Syrian

Education: Primary school, Qurdaha; secondary school, Latakia, 1951; Syrian Military Academy, Hums; Syrian Air Force Academy, Aleppo, 1955; postgraduate military training, Egypt and the Soviet Union


  • 1947: Joined Ba'th Party
  • 1953: Enters Military Academy at Hums; transfers to Air Force Academy at Aleppo
  • 1955: Graduates from Air Force Academy as pilot officer
  • 1964: Promoted to major general, named commander of air force
  • 1965: Named to regional and national Ba'th Party High Command
  • 1966: Appointed minister of defense
  • 1967: Promoted to lieutenant general
  • 1970: Seizes control of Syrian government in coup d'état known as the "Correctional Movement"
  • 1971–2000: President of Syria

In foreign policy, Asad openly questioned the radical policies of his predecessors, setting Syria on a more realist course that recognized Israel's military superiority. In the process, Syrian foreign policy passed through three distinct phases during the Asad years. In the first phase, 1970 to 1974, he moved to improve diplomatic relations with Egypt, which had been strained since the 1961 breakup of the UAR. He also joined in November 1970 the stillborn federation of Egypt, Libya, and the Sudan, and set about returning to a friendly basis Syrian relations with Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and Tunisia. Due to these initiatives and others, the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, at least in part, was an efficiently coordinated Syrian-Egyptian-Saudi affair. While not a military success, it was a political victory for Asad. Although Syria failed to regain the Golan Heights, his regime derived a high degree of legitimacy and considerable political leverage from a credi-ble challenge to the Israeli status quo as well as from the Arab oil embargo initiated in response to the war.

As he took steps to repair regional relations, Asad moved to convince the Soviet Union that Syria remained a reliable and valuable partner. Soviet arms deliveries in the early 1970s proved vital to Syria's relative success in the 1973 War. Egypt's separate peace with Israel in 1978 and Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982 stimulated additional arms shipments in later years. Consequently, Soviet military power expanded steadily during Asad's rule in an effort to give Syria sufficient parity with Israel to constitute a credible deterrent. The Soviet role as patron-protector also served as a deterrent to Israeli freedom of action against Syria. As for the United States, mutual hostility and mistrust kept the two countries diplomatically apart until the 1990s. Asad felt the United States biased the regional balance of power in Israel's favor both by ensuring its military superiority and by dividing the Arabs, notably by detaching Egyptian president Anwar Sadat's Egypt from the anti-Israel coalition.

The second stage, which lasted from 1974 to the end of the 1980s, saw three significant modifications to the early foreign policy of the Asad regime. The first was a major revision to its former alliance strategy with Egypt. Following the Egyptian peace agreement with Israel, Asad hoped to discredit Sadat, eliminating the possibility of a Camp David-type agreement between Israel and other Arab states. He also worked to bring neighboring Lebanon and Jordan, together with the Palestinians, into the Syrian orbit, struggling in 1983–1984 to kill the May 1983 Israel-Lebanon accord brokered by the United States. Soviet support for Syria was extremely important in this period as it strengthened Asad's resolve to challenge Israeli power and U.S. diplomacy in Lebanon following the 1982 Israeli invasion.

Another change in Syrian foreign policy in this second stage involved abortive attempts to improve diplomatic relations with neighboring Iraq. A number of difficult issues, including geopolitical rivalry and the Ba'th Party schism, had long separated Asad and the Iraqi president, saddam hussein. Despite these differences, Asad journeyed to Baghdad in 1978, following Egypt's entente with Israel, in an unsuccessful search for common diplomatic ground. He again visited Iraq in June 1979 in a failed bid to promote federation between the two countries. Suspicious of the federation scheme, Hussein failed to greet Asad at the airport and later accused Syria of hatching a plot to overthrow him. When the Iran-Iraq war broke out in 1980, Asad condemned Iraq and backed Iran. Denouncing the Iraqi invasion of Iran as the wrong war at the wrong time with the wrong enemy, Asad rightly predicted it would detract Arab attention from the Israeli menace. Over time, Syria and Iran became increasingly close partners, much to the displeasure of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, which viewed the Iranian revolution as a threat to their regimes as well as the territorial integrity of their states.

The third change in this second stage involved Syrian relations with Israel. In a major about-face, Syria in March 1972 accepted United Nations (UN) Security Council Resolution 242, a basic framework for regional peace adopted in November 1967. Previously, Asad had rejected Resolution 242 on the grounds that the Arabs must redress the military and political balance with Israel before they could force Israel to solve the Palestine question and withdraw from Arab territories. A more tangible step was the May 1974 disengagement agreement between Syria and Israel, negotiated under the auspices of the United States. A notable aspect of this agreement was the joint declaration that the disengagement of forces was only one step toward a just and durable peace based on UN Resolutions 242 and 338. In addition, Asad agreed to block guerrilla raids across the disengagement line.

The third stage in the foreign policy of the Asad regime, dating from the end of the 1980s to 2000, included entente with Egypt, participation in the U.S.-led alliance against Iraq, and subsequent involvement in the U.S.-sponsored Middle East peace process, beginning with the Madrid conference in October 1991. These events transpired at a difficult time for the Asad regime in which the negative impact of the decay of pan-Arabism was compounded by deteriorating economic conditions at home. Triggered by a sudden decline in oil prices and compounded by decreasing levels of foreign assistance, the economic problems of the Asad regime from 1985 to 1990 were rooted in a history of excessive military spending, stifling economic regulations, and political corruption.

In 1988 and 1989, Syria abandoned its policy of seeking "strategic parity" with Israel and entered into an alliance with the Egyptian government of President husni mubarak, a pact involving de facto acceptance of the Camp David Accords. These moves led to Syria's participation, for the first time, in face-to-face negotiations with Israel. In the process, Syria dropped its insistence on an international peace conference under UN sponsorship, creating a climate for bilateral negotiations with Israel.

The end of the Cold War marked a period of necessary transition for Asad. Faced with a hostile international environment, he wisely, if begrudgingly, adapted to the new power balance. The implosion of the Soviet Union fully exposed Syria to Western animosity for its perennial opposition to the Middle East peace process. In response, Asad rightly concluded the struggle with Israel had become largely diplomatic and would require détente with the United States, which alone had leverage over Israel. The Gulf War coalition provided Asad with an opportunity to trade adhesion to the coalition for limited U.S. recognition of Syrian interests. In the process, Asad hoped to influence the new world order rather than becoming its victim.

Syrian entry into the Madrid peace process in 1991 marked, not an abandonment of long-term goals, but their pursuit by other means. The containment of Israel remained center stage in Syrian strategic thinking. Through his participation in the talks, Asad hoped to maximize Syrian territorial recovery while minimizing concessions to Israel. Syria displayed newfound flexibility in the talks; nevertheless, negotiations eventually stalled over Israeli insistence on a surveillance station on Mount Hermon, which Asad considered an affront to Syrian sovereignty, and the 1996 Likud election victory. Talks with Israel resumed after the 1999 election of Ehud Barak but later broke down over control of Golan water resources and Israeli insistence on modifying the pre-1967 border around Lake Tiberias.

As Syrian foreign policy with Israel transitioned from a state of belligerency to one of coexistence, Asad initiated a new round of economic reforms at home. The decade of the 1990s witnessed a slow dismantling of the public sector and the socialist measures associated with it. Private investment overtook public investment with the agricultural sector becoming almost exclusively the domain of the private sector. At the same time, strong resistance to additional reforms, including vested interests in the bureaucracy, Ba'th Party, and military, together with widespread patronage, waste, and corruption, remained serious obstacles to rational economic policies. The limited economic reforms also generated mounting pressures for increased political openness, but political liberalization, especially democratization, remained anathema to the Asad regime.


Asad's father, Ali Sulayman, was a peasant of Alawi origin. He was known for his strength, bravery, and chivalry, mediating quarrels and giving protection to the weak until his death in 1963. Asad inherited many important core values from his father. Rejecting the Damascene Ba'th theorists Aflaq and al-Bitar, Asad embraced the ideas of Zaki al-Arsuzi.

Asad's most important contribution was to bring stability to Syria, an inherently unstable patchwork of ethnic and religious communities. Located in a turbulent region of the world, Syria underwent a series of regime changes, including a number of military coups, in the twenty-five years between independence and Asad's Correctional Movement in 1970. Events in Lebanon, torn apart by civil strife after 1975, stood as a warning to Syrians as to what might happen without Asad. At the same time, it was generally understood that his brand of stability, accompanied as it was by an absence of democratic accountability and a lack of respect for human rights, was designed not so much for the common good as it was to maintain the regime in power. Asad demanded full control and total respect, seldom seeking consensus and often resorting to savage repression.


Zaki al-Arsuzi (1899–1968) was a Syrian political activist and writer from Antioch (now the Turkish city of Antakya). A graduate of the Sorbonne, he returned to Antioch in 1932 to teach secondary school but was soon forced to leave by French authorities who objected to his nationalist ideas. He led the anti-Turkish movement in his home province in 1936–1938 and claimed to have been the first to use the word "ba'th" (renaissance) in the name of a political faction. Settling in Damascus, Arsuzi in 1939 divided his supporters into a political group, the Arab Nationalist Party, and a cultural group, the Arab Ba'th. An influential theoretician of Arab nationalism, his coterie never developed into a political movement. Eventually disillusioned with politics, Arsuzi moved first to Latakia and then to Tartous. Asad was a lifelong proponent of the Arsuzi stream of the Ba'th Party from his earliest days as a student politician in Latakia. In the wake of the Sixth National Congress of the Ba'th Party in 1963, Hafiz al-Asad arranged for Arsuzi to assist with Ba'thist ideological education in the army and later ensured that he was granted a state pension.


Asad, more than any Arab statesman of his time, represented the aspirations of the Arab people to be masters of their own destiny. His efforts in this regard were mostly frustrated; nevertheless, he was an articulate spokesperson for Arab rights and security. Rightly described by many as a man of 1967, he spent much of the next three decades working to overturn the verdict of the 1967 War, which he saw as defeat for all Arabs. A central element of his early regional policy was to block piecemeal agreements with Israel in the belief they confirmed Israeli supremacy. He believed the Arabs should insist on a comprehensive settlement of all issues or live with no peace at all. Widely respected in the Arab world for his insight and tenacity, his policies came to be seen by many as ineffective and obstructionist, if not anachronistic. Unable to orchestrate a comprehensive peace settlement and opposed to individual agreements like the Camp David Accords, his policies were viewed in the West, especially in the United States, as obstinate and self-serving, if not malevolent. In the last decade of his rule, he took a more pragmatic approach to Israel and the role of the United States in the region, but the policy adjustments made in those final years did little to soften his reputation in or out of the Middle East.


Asad built an authoritarian regime as opposed to a totalitarian one. There was no all-encompassing ideology enforced by the ruling party or the state. Elements of Arab nationalism, Arab unity, and Ba'thism found their way into official announcements and public statements, but they never stood in the way of the realpolitik of the regime. To consolidate power, Asad restructured the state; within a few years, he was at the top of an interlocking structure of state power. Commander-in-chief of the armed forces, he was also secretary general of the regional and national command of the Ba'th Party and head of the executive branch of government. With power, not ideology, most important to Asad, pragmatism became the hallmark of his domestic policy. In foreign policy, Asad proved a master player in regional and international politics, often able to extract maximum returns from difficult situations.


Batatu, Hanna. Syria's Peasantry, the Descendants of Its Lesser Rural Notables, and Their Politics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Devlin, John F. The Ba'th Party: A History from Its Origins to 1966. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1976.

Drysdale, Alasdair, and Raymond A. Hinnebusch. Syria and the Middle East Peace Process. New York: Council on Foreign Relations Press, 1991.

George, Alan. Syria: Neither Bread nor Freedom. London: Zed Books, 2003.

Hinnebusch, Raymond A. Authoritarian Power and State Formation in Ba'thist Syria: Army, Party and Peasant. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1990.

―――――――. Syria: Revolution from Above. London: Routledge, 2002.

―――――――. "The Foreign Policy of Syria." In The Foreign Policies of Middle East States, edited by Anoushiravan Ehteshami and Raymond A. Hinnebusch. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2002.

Kienle, Eberhard, ed. Contemporary Syria: Liberalization between Cold War and Cold Peace. London: British Academic Press, 1994.

Perthes, Volker. The Political Economy of Syria under Asad. London: I. B. Tauris, 1995.

Sadowski, Yahya. "The Evolution of Political Identity in Syria." In Identity and Foreign Policy in the Middle East, edited by Michael Barnett and Shibley Telhami. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002.

Seale, Patrick. Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

Van Dam, Nikolaos. The Struggle for Power in Syria: Politics and Society under Asad and the Ba'th Party. London: I. B. Tauris, 1996.

Wedeen, Lisa. Ambiguities of Domination: Politics, Rhetoric, and Symbols in Contemporary Syria. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

                                      Ronald Bruce St John

About this article

Asad, Hafiz al- (1930–2000)

Updated About content Print Article