Assad, Hafez

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Hafez Assad

Born on October 6, 1930 (Qurdaha, Syria)
Died on June 10, 2000 (Damascus, Syria)

President of Syria
Military leader

Syrian president Hafez Assad was one of the longest-serving leaders in modern Middle Eastern history. After staging a bloodless coup (overthrow of government) in 1970 he turned Syria from a country that had been stricken with political upheaval to an independent and stable nation. He silenced critics of his policies by ruling effectively and forcefully and suppressing the opposition in his country. Although much of his time in office was spent struggling with issues surrounding the Israeli occupation of the former Palestinian territories, he became an important player in the Middle East, developing his country's infrastructure and presiding over the emergence of a Syrian middle class. While he was often viewed as ruthless, Assad is also seen as a quiet man who lived simply in his personal life, rarely appearing in public or on the radio.

"The Israelis should realize that their current policies towards the Arabs cannot bring security for them nor peace to the region."

Humble beginnings

Hafez Assad was born Abu Sulayman Wahish on October 6, 1930, in the small village of Qurdaha, situated in a mountainous region to the southeast of Syria. His family was typical of rural Syrian communities—large and very poor but close-knit. Hafez was the oldest of his five brothers and two sisters. His father, Ali, was a hard-working farmer who had strong political ideas; he had even demonstrated against French-occupied Syria before the country gained its independence in 1946. Assad was not born a Sunni Muslim, which is a branch of the Islamic religion practiced by 85 percent of the world's Muslims. His family was Alawite, an Islamic sect that believed that Ali, the son in-law of the Islamic prophet Muhammad (c. 570–632), was the human form of the god Allah. Due to this belief, most other Islamic sects treated the Alawites as extremists and outside of the Islamic religion. In 1930, the Alawites were a small and very poor community living mainly in Syria's mountainous regions in order to escape persecution. Alawites represented about 15 percent of the Syrian population.

Growing up as a poor country boy had a major effect on Assad. His sisters were forced to leave their family in order to seek work with rich families in the country's capital, Damascus. These jobs were often badly paid and involved long hours. Assad was determined from a young age that his family would have a different life. His family's status as poor Alawites at the bottom of Syrian society also had an impact on Assad's social philosophy. He developed a hatred for wealthy landowners, and even when he became leader of Syria he continued to be suspicious of those who did not share his humble origins.

Assad attended the local primary school in his village, but secondary education did not exist in the remote mountainous regions of Syria. His family realized that Assad was a very intelligent boy, and when Assad turned fourteen his family decided to move closer to the coast so he could attend a good school. At this time the family changed its name from Wahish, which meant "wild beast," to Assad, Arabic for "lion." This made it easier for the family to function and be accepted in the Muslim community. Abu Sulayman took the first name Hafez, as well. Hafez Assad means "lion's guard" in Arabic.

After finishing his secondary education, Assad aspired to become a doctor, but his parents did not have enough money to send him to medical school. In 1951 Assad enrolled in the Homs Military Academy, in the hope that a military career would bring in a decent wage that he could share with his family. He proved to be a quick-minded soldier and an excellent shot. He graduated as an air force pilot with the rank of lieutenant in 1953, and was one of the first Alawites to achieve this status in the armed forces. In the military, Assad distinguished himself as a dedicated, talented pilot, and by 1958 he was selected to travel to the Soviet Union for further flight training.

Rise to power through the Baath Party

When Assad was a young teenager he joined the Baath Party, a radical political movement founded in the 1940s with the goal of uniting the Arab world and creating one powerful Arab state. Many Alawites joined the Baath Party because it stood for the inclusion of all minority groups. Assad joined political activities to help Syria win its independence from France in 1946. As he matured, Assad became ever more politically active, and developed strong opinions about the future of Syria.

Assad benefited from unusual opportunities in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In 1958 Syria joined Egypt in a political union called the United Arab Republic. Leaders of the union purged Syria of Communists as well as many of the social and military elite. (Communists believed in a system of government in which the state plans and controls the economy and a single party holds power.) These purges left top positions in the country open. Assad worked diligently, and quickly rose from his post as captain to fill positions of increasing responsibility. Along with four other officers, he formed the Ba'athist Military Committee, with the intent of seizing power in Syria. The United Arab Republic dissolved in 1961, and a new government took control. Assad, however, was denied a military post by this new government in 1961 because of his political affiliations. By 1963 Assad set his military career back in motion when he took part in a coup. By the end of 1964 Assad had risen to the rank of air force commander.

The 1960s were a time of political turmoil in Syria. The failure of the political union with Egypt enabled various military factions to take hold and do battle with each other. In 1966 Assad took part in yet another military coup (the thirteenth in seventeen years in Syria). Within the new government Assad remained leader of the air force, and took the position of defense minister.

From military defeat to country leadership

Assad's job was not easy. By 1967 Arab armies were determined to crush Israel by engaging in a full-scale war. However, despite their small numbers the Israeli soldiers were victorious, capturing the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights within just six days. Known as the Six-Day War, the conflict was a devastating and humiliating blow to the Arab armies. Syria lost many of its air force planes and one-seventh of its land to the Israelis. People had to lay the blame for the defeat somewhere, and Assad, who had been minister of defense, took the brunt of the criticism. Nevertheless, he used his innate political skill to deflect the responsibility for Syria's failures onto the Baath Party as a whole, accusing of it of being disorganized and ill prepared for war. His political savvy saved his top military position and set him on a course that would result in his ascendancy to the position of Syrian leader.

After the Six-Day War, Assad pushed to rebuild the damaged air force. His close relationship with the military worried other members of his Baath Party, because it gave him enormous power, and friction ultimately developed between Assad and party leader Salah Jadid (1926–). In 1970 the Syrian congress voted to remove Assad from his government posts, but Assad quickly rallied his supporters and staged a coup of his own, taking control of the Baath Party and government offices. By 1971 Assad was elected to the Syrian presidency, where he ruled as a dictator.

Assad created a socialist state that changed the country forever and fundamentally changed the Baath Party's ideology. He moved away from the party's foreign policy that had so isolated the country from its Arab and Turkish neighbors. He expanded the private sector (the part of a nation's economy which is not controlled by the government) in the hopes of more efficient development. He relaxed rules on domestic and international trade. The first to benefit from his rise to power were his fellow Alawites. Even though they only represented 12 percent of the population, Assad poured money into regenerating their poor, rural areas. He built schools and hospitals and created jobs.

Assad knew that in order to stay in power, the unbending support of the military, the Baath Party, and the Alawite people was crucial. He placed his family in senior positions, including brothers, cousins, and uncles. He promoted Alawites to leading positions, paid his military generously, and developed a system of security checks to make sure that his fellow Baath Party members remained loyal to him.

But there were those intent on his destruction. Various groups formed and plotted to overthrow Assad. To protect himself, Assad organized a rigorous security system, which saved him from several assassination attempts over the years. Nevertheless, his enemies, who admitted he was a politically shrewd man with a fearsome intellect, circled around him. They were unhappy with the minority Alawite rule, as they believed the government to be corrupt and incapable of fixing the economy, which had stagnated under large military expenditures. When civil unrest spilled onto the streets between 1972 and 1982, Assad used his police to brutally break up the riots. He was faced with a growing Sunni Muslim challenge to his rule. To show that he meant to remain in power, Assad sent troops into the northern Syrian towns of Aleppo and Hama, which had a Sunni Muslim majority, and ordered the massacre of nearly ten thousand Syrians. He tore the city of Hama to the ground. His decisive but bloody actions caught the attention of his fellow Arab leaders, who recognized him as an important regional leader, commanding both respect and fear.

As a leader among Arabs, Assad was a zealous supporter of Arab nationalism, war with Israel, and Palestinian sovereignty. He rarely made a speech without referring to the necessity of a military solution to end the Arab-Israeli conflict. He called for the Arab world to beef up its armies to fight the Israelis, and collaborated with Egypt in the Yom Kippur War (known in Arab countries as the Arab-Israeli War) of 1973 against Israel. (In October 1973 Egyptian and Syrian troops launched a series of surprise attacks on Israel and made small military gains.)

Lebanon as a battleground with the West

In the late 1970s Israeli and Egyptian leaders met at Camp David, a U.S. presidential retreat in the mountains of Maryland, to negotiate an official peace between the two countries. Assad was fiercely against direct negotiations with Israel, and was one of the most vocal opponents of the Camp David Accords.

When Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin (1913–1992; see entry) was elected to power in 1977 with the declared intent of creating a "greater Israel," Assad became worried, and with good reason. Syria had military personnel positioned within Lebanon since the mid-1970s. In 1982 Israel invaded Syria's neighbor, Lebanon, and laid siege to its capital, Beirut. Lebanon was strategically important to Syria. Much of Syria's trade passed through the Lebanese capitol of Beirut. If Lebanon were to fall under Israeli control, Syria's power in the region would be greatly reduced. Assad needed a Lebanese government that he could trust and to a certain extent manipulate and control. He gathered his Arab allies together and put up a fight. Eventually Israel and its allies—U.S. troops—had to withdraw, and Assad emerged triumphant by 1983.

Assad helped Syria emerge as a powerful regional force. But the conflict in Lebanon and the strength of Israel made it clear to Assad that he could not completely ignore the United States. Although he had little respect for the United States and did not wish to do business with the Americans, he knew that alienating the superpower could be very dangerous since the United States had many resources it could turn against Syria both economically and on the battlefield. He was suspicious of America's intentions in the Middle East and especially its military and economic support for Israel.

Throughout Assad's leadership, Syria kept the United States at arm's length, dealing with it only when absolutely necessary. Between 1990 and 1991, Assad assisted the United States-led coalition during the Gulf War against Iraq. (The first

Another Assad as President

When Hafez Assad died on June 6, 2000, it was clear that whoever was to follow as the next president of Syria would inherit a country that still needed economic rebuilding as well as better relations with Western countries such as Britain, France, Canada, and the United States. Syria also needed a strong leader who would hold the support of the people as well as the military. The person that many Syrians were hoping could take on this role was the son of Hafez Assad, Bashar Assad.

Bashar Assad had never intended to become a politician. Instead, he had wanted to become an eye doctor. After getting a degree in Syria, he left to study in London where he received specialized training. It was only after the death of his older brother, Basil, that Bashar returned to Syria. Originally it was Basil who was being trained in Syrian politics in the hopes that he would one day follow his father as the next president of Syria, but with Basil's death, it fell to Bashar to take up this task.

During the early 1990s Bashar joined the Syrian military. This was most likely a move to gain respect from the Syrian people, showing that he was willing to fight for the country he might one day lead. In the late 1990s, Bashar took on more responsibility in the government itself, leading task forces against corruption within domestic situations and being an avid spokesperson for technology within Syria.

Shortly after Hafez Assad's death, Bashar became the president of Syria. In the first few months of his presidency Bashar appeared to make many changes in Syrian political policy. He released hundreds of political prisoners as a gesture of good will to the international community. He also allowed the first non-government newspaper in thirty years to be printed and opened Internet cafes to allow the stream of free information to go in and out of Syria. As another gesture to the international community, he began to allow groups with democratic ideals to hold public meetings. He also made sweeping economic reforms, making plans to allow private banks to set up within Syrian borders and to open up more trade with Eastern and Western European countries.

However, many of the changes that Bashar made early on did not seem to last. The independence of the press has been restricted somewhat by the government and many of the groups that support more democratic ideas have found it hard to get licenses for public speaking. While the Internet cafes remain open, the Web sites that the computers are allowed to access are limited. And the international community is still not pleased by the fact that close to 800 political prisoners remain in Syrian jails. It is still too early to gauge whether Bashar Assad will truly reform Syria politically and economically, but even with the setbacks that have occurred, many Syrians remain hopeful that Bashar will continue to effect change within Syria.

Gulf War was a war fought between an alliance of countries led by the United States to free Kuwait from Iraqi invaders.) Doing so enabled Syria's economy to benefit from nearly 2 billion dollars in foreign aid.

Assad's personal life and final years

Despite the fact that Assad was an accomplished soldier, he hardly ever wore his military uniform. Indeed, he hardly ever appeared in the public. He was a family man at heart, who spent much of his time with his wife and children. He lived very humbly and was not interested in money and riches. He managed to stay in power for a long time because he created a secure state with a loyal military, and his skill and intelligence allowed him to remain two steps ahead of those who worked for him. But he had suffered from cancer and kidney problems for a long period, and his heart finally gave out on June 10, 2000.

Assad's three decades as president of Syria made him the longest-serving leader in the country's history. The CNN Web site reported that Syrian newscasts declared upon Assad's death that "The legacy of his accomplishments and ideas is a planet that will shine not just on this generation, but also on coming generations." Shortly after his death, the Syrian congress nominated Assad's thirty-four-year-old son Bashar to be the country's next president.

For More Information


Gordon, Mathew. Hafez Al-Assad. New York: Chelsea House, 1990.

Seale, Patrick. Assad of Syria: Struggle. Berkeley: University of California, 1992.

Web Sites

"Syrian President Hafez Assad Dies before Regaining Golan Heights." (accessed on January 26, 2005).

"Syria's Bashar al-Assad." BBC News. (accessed on May 2, 2005).