THE SPHINX

Since the day he was born, Hafez ibn ‘Ali ibn Sulayman al-Assad was in the unprivileged groups of Syria’s minorities. Most of the power rested in the hands of the French and then with the Sunni Urban elite. Sunni religious scholars referred to Alawis as heretics and they were persecuted for centuries. This was the situation most Alawis, offshoots of the Shia Islam, found themselves in at the time of Hafez Al-Assad’s birth, officially declared to be October 6, 1930; some historical analysts believe he was born earlier. He was brought up in the Allawi Mountains overlooking the city of Lattakia, which was located on Syria’s Mediterranean coastline.
Back then, education was rare and precious for an Allawi from a poor background whose family worked the fields. In fact, Al-Assad only managed to get accepted in a Lattakia school because he had the skills so rarely found. He was an intelligent boy who lacked the needs to carry on into higher education. It was with all these factors in mind that Al-Assad sought refuge in the ideological realms of the Arab Socialist Baath Party.
The pan-Arab secular character mixed with socialist principles and freedom appealed to Al-Assad. For starters, since he was a member of the Allawi community, he knew the consequences of a theocratic state. Thus, it was his wish that Syria be governed under secularist principles.
Freedom and pan-Arabism worked well in Al-Assad’s mind. At the time of his youth, Syria was under the French mandate, which had carved up the lands of Greater Syria with Britain into the present-day nations of Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Occupied Palestine, and Israel. Al-Assad was in favor of uniting these former lands together and furthermore, uniting them with all the Arab nations to form a string union that could counter any threats in the region, such as colonial or Zionist powers. Simultaneously, it would preserve the liberty of the Arab nations.
(souriaty.blogspot.com)
Hafez ibn ‘Ali ibn Sulayman al-Assad or more commonly Hafez al-Assad was the President of Syria for three decades. President Hafez al-Assad, master of Syria since 1979, was a towering figure of Arab politics, respected and feared in his own country and throughout the Middle East. His death, at 69, marks the end of an era.
His achievements were threefold: he gave Syria years of much-needed stability; he turned his relatively small country into a major regional player whose views could not be ignored; and, with patient consistency, he fought to prevent Israel from imposing its will on the Arab world.
In the end he came to terms with the fact of Israel’s existence, and was persuaded to open negotiations for a permanent peace settlement. But his dream of containing the Jewish state within its pre-1967 borders, and of checking the spread of its regional influence by an Arab-Israeli balance of power, was not realized.
Assad’s long rule was all the more remarkable in that he was not born a Sunni Muslim, the orthodox mainstream of Islam in Syria. His family was Alawites, a small, heterodox community. Politics was his life-long interest. As a schoolboy, he joined the pan-Arab socialist Baath party, and rose to be a student leader. He joined the air force and became a conspirator, plotting with a small group of officers to overthrow the government, a task accomplished in 1963.
In the next seven years, Assad clawed his way up the ladder until he emerged as sole leader in 1970. His revolution turned Syria’s social and political structures upside down. The Alawites, although no more than 12% of the population, came to occupy plum positions in every sector of life.
Externally, the main landmarks of Assad’s life had to do with the struggle against Israel. As a young and inexperienced defense minister in the 1967 war, he presided over the loss of the Golan Heights. In 1970 he sent tanks into Jordan to help the Palestinians against King Hussein, but had to beat a humiliating retreat when Israel threatened to intervene. In 1973 he secretly planned the October war with Egypt’s Anwar al-Sadat, but Israel turned the tables on them both, and by defeating Egypt took it out of the Arab military equation.
When the hardliner Menachem Begin came to power in Israel in 1977, Assad faced a militant Likud determined to create a “greater Israel”. In 1982 Israel invaded Lebanon. Rallying his allies, Assad fought back. Israel’s adventure turned into a debacle. From Syria’s point of view, it was Assad’s finest hour.
Assad had long argued that peace with Israel was not worth having unless it was comprehensive, involving an Israeli retreat on all fronts. He opposed separate deals, which he felt divided the Arab camp. It was with great hesitation that he fell in with the formula of separate tracks, which was to Israel’s advantage. The September 1993 Israeli accord with Yasser Arafat’s PLO, which put an end to the intifada in the occupied territories without giving the Palestinians any substantial gains, was another setback. A year later, to Assad’s dismay, Jordan concluded a peace treaty with Israel.
These agreements brought the Palestinians and Jordan into Israel’s sphere of influence – a development Assad had struggled for years to prevent. But Assad was anxious to keep open his lines to Washington. To his great disappointment, the Clinton administration was to prove one of the most pro-Israeli in US history. As a result, Syria’s peace negotiations with Israel made slow progress. He offered Israel “full peace for full withdrawal”, making clear that a normalization of relations could take place only once Israel had committed itself to a full withdrawal from the Golan and southern Lebanon.
(Patrick Seale, Hafez al-Assad, politician, The Guardian, Thursday 15 June 2000)
Assad grew to maturity in a time of ferment in the Middle East, caused by the creation of the state of Israel and the struggle against colonialism. In Syria, during the 20 years after the end of the French mandate in 1946, there was on average a coup once every two years. Accordingly, after military training in the Soviet Union and Egypt (where his instructor at the Bilbeis airbase was Hosni Mubarak), Assad returned to Syria to co-found, in 1960, the secret Military Committee, whose aim was to seize power.
(telegraph.co.uk)
Prior to the coup that brought Hafez al-Assad to power, Syrian politics was marked by rampant instability, sectarian turmoil, and frequent coups d’etat. After Syria gained independence from French rule in 1946, the urban Sunni dominated the government. The military was designated as the place for minorities and the uneducated. The Sunnis reserved the top military positions for themselves, and then jostled among one another for supremacy. This became the locus of real power. Between 1949 and 1963, these senior officers engaged in countless military coups–there were three alone in 1949.
(blogs.cfr.org)
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 spied on his own people.
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 Abdel Nasser of Egypt, and like many of his generation, he sought to inherit Nasser’s role as the voice of Arab unity.
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.
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.
(Hafez al-Assad, Who Turned Syria Into a Power in the Middle East, Dies at 69, By NEIL MacFARQUHAR, Published: June 11, 2000 at nytimes.com)
In 1979, the Syrian public was taken by surprise when a chain of assassinations took place, starting in the artillery school in Aleppo, every where. No one could identify who was responsible for them. After almost a year, when a member from the group was injured and taken into custody by the intelligence system identified as a member of the Muslim Brotherhood party. The group had a significant impact at on the security system and the public . They killed many civilians, focusing on baathist whom educated and have close ties with the government. the Syrian government placed big efforts to collect information about the party and allowed some brave security members to join the party to expose its plans and next moves. Unfortunately, the security system was, in some incident, so brutal in a way so many innocent civilians killed in the middle of battles between the army and the party members.
(reference.com)
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 Ambassador Christopher Ross, who served as American envoy to Damascus for most of the 1990’s. ”Assad would justify it entirely by saying it was the necessary price to end years and years of Muslim Brotherhood terrorism.”
(Hafez al-Assad, Who Turned Syria Into a Power in the Middle East, Dies at 69, By NEIL MacFARQUHAR, Published: June 11, 2000 at nytimes.com)
The longevity of the Assad regime in Syria resulted from Assad’s ability to keep control of many diverse groups in Syria and his handling of regional issues, especially Lebanon and his confrontation with Israel. Syria’s wars with Israel in 1967, 1973, and 1980 had a negative impact on the country, but Assad brought his armed forces back each time with more weapons, more men, and more sophisticated weaponry. The costs for Syria of Assad’s continuous arms buildup were enormous because of the increasing share of Syria’s resources needed to fuel the armed forces. President Assad was Syria’s longest surviving head of state and a regional leader everyone had to reckon with, although he continued to confront and overcome serious domestic and regional challenges.
(encyclopedia.com)
Like his adopted namesake, the lion, Assad is a patient operator. He probes his opponents’ weaknesses, waits for the right moment, chooses the most advantageous field of battle, and strikes. In this way, Assad has defeated one enemy after another—the Muslim Brethren, Lebanese militias, and American troops in Beirut, Israelis in south Lebanon, and Iraqi armed forces. Observers are in agreement as to his impressive skills. Thus, Annie Laurent and Antoine Basbous see his main characteristics as “patience and a taste for secrecy.” Dov Tamari concludes that “the Syrian regime has demonstrated patience and restraint on the one hand, persistence and stubbornness on the other.”
(Hafez al-Assad vs. Saddam Hussein, by Daniel Pipes, 1991 at danielpipes.org)
Assad was president until his death in 2000 from a heart attack while speaking on the telephone with Lebanese President Émile Lahoud. Assad had originally groomed his son, Basil al-Assad as his successor, but Basil al-Assad died in a car accident in 1994. Assad then called back a second son, Bashar, and put him in intensive military and political training. Despite some concerns of unrest within the government, the succession ultimately went smoothly, and President Bashar Al-Assad holds office today.
(reference.com)
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