William O. Beeman

Distributed June 12, 2000
Copyright ©2000 William O. Beeman
Op-Ed Editor: Janet Kerlin
About 670 Words

Hafez Assad – a pragmatic dictator

The West has maintained many myths about Hafez Assad, whose son is poised to take over the presidency of Syria after his recent death. Although in the west, Assad was generally seen as a hard-line enemy of Israel, he actually walked a very fine line, balancing support for Palestinians with restraint in attacking Israel. He was also seen as a repressive dictator, but his struggle to modernize the state was met by resistance from religious conservatives.

By William O. Beeman

President Hafez Assad of Syria will be remembered in the West primarily for his role as a hardball player in the Arab-Israeli conflict. This is a mischaracterization. His life’s work was devoted to trying to hold his country together and forge it into a nation.

After French colonial rule and World War II, Syria was created from an uneasy confederation of Sunni Muslims, Druze, Alawite Muslims (a branch of Shia Islam), Christians and Kurds. The experiment soured immediately. Religious differences were volatile, so the emerging organizational rubric became the socialist Baath party.

Syria’s internal dissension was complicated by its struggles to find a comfortable position in international politics. A far-fetched alliance with Egypt in the United Arab Republic fell apart almost as soon as it was created. Israel was a continual threat, capturing the Golan Heights in a humiliating defeat in the 1967 war. The Soviet Union proved a fickle and cynical ally. By 1970, the Baath party was split into irreconcilable factions.

The majority Sunni population had easily repressed the minority Alawites, Druze and Christians, according them second-class status. Each community dealt with this problem in its own way. Many Christians migrated to Maronite-dominated Lebanon or to the United States. The Druze fumed in silence and led occasional armed resistance efforts. The Alawites, pressed into military service, slowly rose through the military ranks, eventually dominating the officer corps.

Into this scene emerged General Hafez Assad, an Alawite army officer. He had been defense minister during the 1967 debacle. Seizing power in a coup in 1970 he was able to forcibly consolidate the Baath factions, purging the most radical leaders. His strategies worked, providing a 30-year uninterrupted rule – nearly a third of Syria’s history.

The West has maintained many myths about Assad. Although in the West, Assad was generally seen as a hard-line enemy of Israel, he actually walked a very fine line balancing support for Palestinians with restraint in attacking Israel. He abolished guerilla organizations attacking Israel from Syrian soil. He wanted to atone for the events of 1967 by making sure to maintain a tough stance against Israel, but also assure that Israel would never have a cause for attacking Syria again.

He was also seen as a repressive dictator. It is true that his policies became absolutist, authoritarian, and later ruthless, but the hardening of his approach may have been born of frustration. He established a People’s Assembly almost immediately after taking office, and introduced liberalizing moves throughout his three decades in office. However, his continual struggle to modernize and liberalize the state was met by resistance from religious conservatives.

This “internal war” was not well understood outside of Syria. The Sunni Muslim majority was deeply suspicious of Assad. As a secularist leader, and a member of a mysterious and somewhat heretical religious minority, his position was precarious. He did not help matters by maintaining a coterie of trusted Alawites in the presidential palace, and seeking political alliance from the “godless” Soviet Union. His popularity began to decline in the 1980s and his ruling tactics became harsher. He suffered a number of assassination attempts. When the Muslim Brotherhood mounted a rebellion in the historic city of Hama in 1982, Assad repressed it, resulting in 20,000 deaths and the destruction of the city.

Assad’s Shiite roots were widely cited as the reason for his alliance with Iran after the Iranian revolution of 1978-79. He opposed Iraq in both Gulf conflicts of the 1980s, siding with Iran and the United States. This cooperation with Washington coupled with the collapse of his Soviet supporters marked a new era in Assad’s foreign policy in which the United States played a friendlier role.

Many are crossing their fingers that his eldest surviving son, Bashar, a quiet ophthalmologist, will rise to the task of the presidency. His youth, international training, and modern outlook may help Syria transcend the tumult of the internal struggles that dominated his father’s career. Then Syria may begin to take its rightful place in the international community.

William O. Beeman is an anthropologist at Brown University specializing in the Middle East.
In 1984-1985 he was part of a United Nations evaluation mission for Palestinian refugees living
in Syria, the West Bank, Jordan and Gaza.