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Asad, Hafez Al-

ASAD, HAFEZ AL-

ASAD, HAFEZ AL- (1930–2000), president of Syria. Asad was born in Qardaha, an Alawi village in northeast Syria, to a poor peasant family. Although born to the Alawi sect (a heterodox offspring of Shiʿa Islam, regarded as "heretic" by many Sunni Muslims), Asad was also educated as a Syrian-Arab nationalist in the predominantly Arab-Sunni town of Latakia. At the age of 17 he joined the newly formed Baʿth party and reportedly volunteered in 1948 to fight against the newborn State of Israel. Like many Alawi (and Druze) youngsters, Asad enlisted in the Syrian military in 1952, and in 1955 graduated with honors from the Air Force Academy in Aleppo. He was appointed a wing commander in the Syrian air force in 1957 after his party, the Baʿth, had mustered significant influence in the Syrian military and politics. Asad took an active part in the March 1963 revolution; and at the end of 1964 he was appointed commander of the air force with the rank of general. His rapid rise was not only a result of his Baʿthist affiliation but also of his unique qualities of leadership: ruthlessness, organization, manipulation, secrecy, patience, and coolness.

In February 1966, as number two to his fellow Alawi officer, Salah Jadid, Asad co-led the "neo-Baʿth" coup (the 13th coup in Syria) and was appointed also as minister of defense, a position which he used to strengthen his military power base. Despite the crushing defeat of the military in the 1967 war against Israel, Asad managed to shift the blame to the civilian Baʿthist leaders. Backed by the army command, he seized power in Damascus on November 16, 1970, deposing and jailing Jadid and his followers and thus opening a new era in Syrian history, politics, and society. On March 12, 1971, Asad was elected as Syria's president, by 99.2% of the vote in a national referendum, where he was the only candidate. He was subsequently reelected every seven years with 96% to 99% of the vote and served as president until his death on June 10, 2000.

Asad was the first Syrian ruler in modern Syrian history to dominate his country and people for 30 years. Establishing a personal-authoritarian regime, he was able to bring about significant achievements but also suffered major setbacks to Syria, in the domestic, regional, and international arenas.

First, he achieved unprecedented political stability in the country, which had been previously characterized by nearly nonstop military coups and countercoups. Yet this stability was realized not only through socio-political mobilization and cooptation, but also with an iron fist, mass arrests, and murder, torture, and other violations of human rights. The most notorious event was the Hama massacre of February 1982; at least 20,000 people were killed by the army, quelling a major rebellion by the "Muslim Brothers."

Asad's rule was also marked by significant socio-economic mobility of the lower, rural classes, notably the Alawi minority, and development of the educational and health systems as well as the economic infrastructure, but also by failure to solve the big problems of corruption, mismanagement, unemployment in the public sector, and tense intercommunal relations.

Asad succeeded in creating a powerful army and strong independent state, also exercising regional influence, particularly over Lebanon, which in 1989 become a de facto Syrian protectorate. Earlier, in 1980, Asad established a strategic alliance with the revolutionary Iranian Islamic regime. Asad backed Iran in the devastating war with Baʿthist Iraq (1980–88) and, from 1982, coordinated with Teheran support of Hizbullah's military struggle against Israel.

Asad was defeated in his wars with Israel in 1967, 1973, and 1982 (in Lebanon) and failed to reach a strategic balance with the Jewish state. During the 1990s, with American inducements, he was engaged in a peace process with Israel. Though an agreement was not reached, Asad allowed Syrian Jews – approximately 5,000 – to emigrate after holding them as hostages but also protecting them.

Asad decreased Soviet influence in Syria, attempting to maneuver between the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. He backed the U.S. in its war against Saddam Hussein's Iraq in early 1991 after losing the military and diplomatic support of the U.S.S.R. under Gorbachev's leadership. He developed working relations with U.S. presidents Nixon, Carter, Bush, and Clinton, but failed to substantially improve Syrian-American relations. The relationship was aggravated on the ascendancy of Asad's son bashar (1965– ) in June 2000. This was because of Syria's continued backing of Islamic terrorist groups – such as Hizbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad, the de facto occupation of Lebanon, the development of chemical weapons, and particularly his opposition to the American attack and occupation of Iraq in March 2003. Domestically Bashar introduced some reforms in Syria's economic infrastructure, but not in the rigid political system.

bibliography:

M. Ma'oz, Asad – the Sphinx of Damascus, a Political Biography (1988); P. Seale, Asad – the Struggle for the Middle East (1988); N. Van-Dam, The Struggle for Power in Syria (1979); E. Zissar, Asad's Legacy: Syria in Transition (2001).

[Moshe Ma'oz (2nd ed.)]

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