While still in the military, picture from the 1960’s
Only few years before his death.
(1930-2000) President of Syria 1971-2000.
All through his rule, he was the most valued ally of the Soviet Union in the Middle East, but he also became slightly more pro-Western in his last years in power. But even if he has been in contact with the main leaders of the West several times, he remained an outcast in their eyes.
The main reasons for this were several: His stalemate position towards Israel, in which he claimed that every inch of occupied Syrian land from 1967 should be returned to Syria (a position that was in accordance with international law and UN resolutions). Second, Syria’s presence in Lebanon (which outlived the Israeli control over the southern parts of the country). Third, repeated allegations that Syria is strongly involved in international terrorism fostered his image as a problematic political figure. Fourth, because of repeated reports of political oppression inside Syria, especially on the Islamists.
Assad worked to make Syria into a leading nation in the Arab world. In this effort he never became very successful, and he is more remembered for a negative relationship with the leader of Iraq, Saddam Hussayn and the king of Jordan, King Hussein, as well as for his support of radical and often violent Muslim groups based in Lebanon and Syria.
While accusations against Assad have been manifold, few have accused him of lack of shrewdness, political cleverness, intelligence and charisma. He has been one of the best informed, and hardest working politicians in the Middle East. He was famous for his long sessions and working days — 18 hours a day — as well as self-deprecating humour. Henry Kissinger (who, visiting in 1973, was the first American foreign minister in Syria in 20 years) noted:
His tactic was to open with a statement of the most extreme position to test what the traffic would bear. He might then allow himself to be driven back to the attainable, fighting a dogged rear-guard action that made clear that concessions could be exacted only at a heavy price and that discouraged excessive expectations of them.
Assad was well-known for a modest life style, without much excess. He lived in a normal villa in a residential neighbourhood in Damascus.
But around him, there were several people who got rich thanks to nepotism in the Syrian society.
Assad belonged to the Alawites, a relgious group that is now labelled part of Islam, as a Shi’i sect. Through the centuries they had not had national political power. Among the main group of Syrians, the Sunnis, many will say that the Alawites are heretics.
This means that Assad lacked roots in the Syrian population, and his survival as a political leader has rested on control and suppression of contending groups. Assad early made sure that many of the important positions in the Syrian society were filled with fellow Alawites. It is also believed that this is one of the main reasons for Assad’s continued politics of state control over the economy: A liberalization would have meant that other groups in the society (Sunnis and Christians) would have gained economic force, and through this, also political force.
Assad built a political system, in which the army was both a symbol of Syria’s power, as well as a technique of controlling the country. Upon more than one occasion, the army was used against Syria’s own population in order to protect political stability.
Assad also oversaw the construction of an effective police state, in which there where no less than 15 competing intelligence agencies.
Internally, Assad’s politics have not resulted in much economic progress. The country has had a system of strong political control with almost all aspects of the economy, and many businessmen have found it hard to establish companies and run them.
Syria is in several fields the least developed country in the region. Only recently has the country opened up for computer technology, and telecommunications. Until the end of his rule, there were minimal possibilities for private initiative in the economic life of the country. The society is dominated by agriculture, which employs 25% of the work force, but this is only made possible through heavy state subsidies.
The Syria in which he died, faced economic stagnation, high growth in population (3,3% a year) and high unemployment rates (20% or more). It is also a country with several scenarios for coming conflicts and even civil war, even if the transition of power to his son Bashar, turned out to be tranquil.
1930 Ocotber 6: Born in the small village of Qardaha, as the 9th of what would be 11 children, in a family of respected Alawites.
1946: Assad joins the Ba’th Party as a student activist.
1951: Assad starts at the Homs Military Academy.
1955: Assad graduates from the Homs Military Academy as an air force pilot.
1958: Assad receives flying training in the Soviet Union.
1960: Assad is one of 4 founders of the Military Committee.
1963 March 8: After the Ba’th Party takes power in Syria, with the Military Committee as a driving force, Assad becomes commander of the air force.
1966: Assad becomes minister of defence, after participating in a coup against the civilian leaders of Syria.
1967 June: Under the leadership of Assad, Syria loses the Golan Heights to Israel, as a result of the Six-Day War.
End of 1960’s: Assad’s rivalry with effective leader of Syria, Salah al-Jadid, becomes more and more central to Syrian politics. Assad focuses on improved military force, while Jadid focuses on a socialist reformation of the Syrian society.
1969 February: Assad becomes the real ruler of Syria, but he keeps Nureddin Attasi as president of Syria.
1970 November 12: Assad has his opponents arrested, and takes full control over Syria. Once again, he does not enter any official leading position, leaving Ahmad Khatib as president.
1971 February: Assad stages the referendum in which he receives an official 99,2% in support of his becoming the country’s new president.
1973 January: A new constitution for Syria is presented, declaring that the country is a “democratic, popular, socialist state”.
— October: Closer relationship between Syria and Egypt, results in a military attack on Israel, which at first brings victory to Syria and Egypt, but ends with the defeat of both states.
1974: Assad performs the Umra in Mecca.
1976: Assad intervenes in the ongoing civil war of Lebanon. He takes the Christian side, after the Muslims rejected a peace proposal from him in January this same year.
1980 June: Assasination attempt on Assad’s life.
1982: Assad cracks down on Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama.
1983 November: Assad suffers from a heart attack. His rivals, among them his brother Rifaat, try to seize control of Syria.
1984 February: Tensions between Rifaat’s forces and elite forces from the army that are loyal to Hafez.
— March 30: On the verge of an armed conflict between the two military groups, a meeting is held with Rifaat, Hafez and their aged mother. The outcome of this meeting, and other meetings, is that Rifaat is sent abroad as a Syrian representative, while Hafez can return to office without the challenge of Rifaat’s troops. Hafez uses the following time to weaken his brother’s position and strengthen his own.
End of the 1980’s: With decline of the Soviet Union, Assad starts to orient himself more in the direction of the West.
1991 October: Assad participates in the Middle East peace conference, in which there are direct talks with Israel’s representatives. Assad insists on an uncompromising “land-for-peace” line, involving Israel’s withdrawal from the Golan Heights before any details could be decided upon.
December: In the fourth plebiscite on his continuation as president, Assad received 99,9% of the votes.
1999 February: Assad participates in the funeral of King Hussein of Jordan, to the surprise of world media.
— February 11: Assad is reelected in a referendum for a new constitutional term.
— September: Hundreds of supporters of Hafez’ brother, Rifaat, are arrested in Damascus and Latakia. This is interpreted as a way of helping his son, Bashar, to get rid of all possible opponents when Hafez dies.
2000 June 10: After repeated reports on his ill health, Assad dies from a heart attack. A few days after his death, his son, Bashar, takes office and is elected Syria’s new president. This fulfills Hafez’ plans.