In this article, we shall examine the political history of Hafez Al-Assad, the leader of Syria in 1970, until his death in 2000. We shall discuss his rise to power, the geopolitics of the Middle East at the time, as well as his domestic and foreign policies while in office. Al-Assad, “Born into a poor family of ʿAlawites, a minority Islamic sect, Assad joined the Syrian wing of the Baʿth Party in 1946 as a student activist. In 1952 he entered the Ḥimṣ Military Academy, graduating three years later as an air force pilot” (Britannica, 2014). In order to understand the history of Syria, it is critical to know the political tenure of Hafiz Al-Assad.
In the late 1960s, the Middle East was shaped by a number of recent events. Stepping back a bit further, in 1952, Gamal Abdel Nasser came to power through a military coup in Egypt. Nasser embarked upon a series of socialist reforms, as well as advancing his idea about Arab nationalism and Arab unity in the region. However, in 1967, Nasser, along with Syria and Jordan, lost the “Six-Day” war against Israel, which devastated many in those respective states. And as a result, many were not only upset that application of Arab nationalism as political ideology was not successful, but also, many were taking out the loss on their respective states.
In the case of Syria, there was a coup in 1963 that Hafez Al-Assad and other were a part of. As members of the Ba’th, they reintroduced the party back into the state leadership. And in 1966, Hafez Al-Assad carried out an internal coup in the state against leader Amin al-Hafiz. Thus, in 1966, Hafez Al-Assad was now the Defense Minister of Syria. However, it was also the Ba’th Party (and Hafez Al-Assad as Defense Minister) that were in charge during Syria’s defeat in the Six-Day War against Israel. Citizens and opposition forces were upset, and tried to take it out on the ruling party. There was also internal struggles within the government itself. Hafez Al-Assad saw the issues not because of his inefficiencies as defense minister, but rather, that his colleagues in power were the ones who made military mistakes. Thus, in 1970, Al-Assad carried out another coup within the state by arresting leader Salih Jadid and other supporters; Hafez Al-Assad then shored up power, and became the top leader (the Presdient of Syria) in 1971 (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013).
Domestic Politics of Hafez Al-Assad
Hafez Al-Assad instituted a number of changes following his control of power in 1971. For example, in 1973, he set out to establish a new constitution which called for elected governance in the forms of what was called the “People’s Council”. However, this is not to say that there was a liberal democracy forming. It was in fact quite clear that Hafez Al-Assad aimed to consolidate power as the head of Syria. For example, the constitution gave the President great powers, at the expense of the other branches of the government. And as scholars explain, “Al-Asad was calculating as well as pragmatic, and primary among his calculations was a determination to retain the power he had worked so hard to acquire. Al-Asad used the military and the Ba’th Party as the vehicles for his ascent to the presidency, and once in power he established them as the foundations of his regime. He himself took the office of the secretary general of the Ba’th, thus combining the two roles of head of state and head of the party (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013: 417).
He tried to shore up his political support by finding loyal allies to ensure that he will be protected, and will not have to risk an internal political coup. For Al-Assad, he did this by finding family members, along with trusted friends and colleagues, and put them in top political posts. And since Al-Assad was from the Alawite religious community, among those in power were also other members of the Alawite. In fact, “Alawite officers were promoted to the most prominent commands in the military and security agencies, giving them a stake in the preservation of the regime. In addition, members of Al-Asad’s family were placed in charge of an array of special forces outside the regular military structure. The most notable of these was an elite praetorian guard, known as the Defense Companies, commanded by the president’s younger brother Rif’at” (Cleveland & Bunton, 2014: 417-418).
Al-Assad’s Economic and Social Reforms
During Al-Assad’s time in power, he attempted to diversify the economy away from agriculture and cotton, and to one focused on service, industrial sectors of the economy, as well as to oil (Cleveland & Bunton, 2014). And while much of the economy was in the control of the state (given nationalization movements in years past by the Ba’th Party), Al-Assad did open this up a bit. However, there were issues that led to strong declines in the economy after the initial increases in the 1970s. For example, Al-Assad’s aggressive foreign policies upset some of the other Arab OPEC leaders, which in turn “forced [Al-Assad] to introduce austerity measures” after the economy fell (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013: 419). Furthermore, there were also domestic challengers. For example, “The supply of trained managers and technicians was inadequate to staff the rapidly expanding state-run enterprises. In addition, top managerial posts were often awarded on the basis of loyalty to the Ba’th Party rather than on merit, a practice that led to inefficiency. And finally, the regime’s economic development became enmeshed in a web of corruption. Although al-Assad lived modestly, some of the high-ranking officials who rode into power on his coattails did not” (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013: 419). There were numerous reports of kickbacks, as well as other illegal economic dealings that benefited some such as his brother Rif’at, but that hurt the overall Syrian economy (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013).
With regards to the economic lives of Syrians, scholars say that Hafez Al-Assad did attempt to work to improve living standards amongst the populations. For example, they helped farmers with credit and loans, and provided additional education and medical support in the country. In terms of education, his goal the first decade in office was to end illiteracy, which, in the early 1970s, was at roughly 60 percent. However, the number actually decline the first ten years, much of which can be pinned on high population growth; it was difficult for the state to meet educational demand (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013).
Al-Assad did also seem to work to advance some gender rights. For example, “It made a public commitment to female equality by legislating equal rights and privileges for women. Women served as parliamentary representatives and began to enter the professions and the judiciary, and al-Asad’s minuter of culture in 1976 was a woman” (Clevelend & Bunton, 2013: 420). However, one cannot say that he completely altered the landscape with regards to gender rights, discrimination against women was still quite present in the society at the time (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013).
Hafez Al-Assad’s Foreign Policies
Like many other leaders in the region at the time, Hafez Al-Assad was upset by the state of Israel, and what he saw as their continued encroachment on Palestinian land. Thus, he made it a goal of his to speak out against Israeli actions, and to act on the state. In fact, his international relations with other Arab leaders in the region centered heavily on their similar approaches towards Israel. And because of this attention on Israel, Al-Assad believed that it was necessary to build up a strong military. In fact, “…he launched a huge buildup of the Syrian armed forces that saw them grow from 50,000 in 1967 to 225,000 in 1973 to over 400,000 in the early 1980s” (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013: 421). However, this expansion of the military did not come without costs; at times (such as in the early 1980s) Al-Assad and Syria was devoting “over 20 percent of its gross national production (GNP) to military expenditures. The arms purchases strained the country’s economy and consumed funds that might otherwise have been invested in domestic projects” (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013: 421).
However, Al-Assad was not only interested in Israel, but also influencing the politics of neighboring states. Seeing Israel’s power, he was hoping to set up his international relations with regional allies in a way that would give him top influence over the region; he wanted to have a significant influence over countries such as Jordan, as well as Lebanon. As we discuss in the history of Lebanon, Al-Assad and Syria were very active to establish a foothold in the country itself, something that existed until the 2000s, years after his death.
The Death of Hafez Al-Assad
Hafez Al-Assad died on June 10th, 2000. There were a number of different obituaries written about Al-Assad in international newspapers. Al-Assad was remembered for many things. For example, Patrick Seale, in the Guardian, wrote that “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.”
He also ended his column by saying that “Assad displayed two principal traits. The first was an exceptional degree of political foresight; the second was a foxy fighting instinct when driven to the wall, as he was by the Muslim Brothers at Hama in 1982 or by the Israelis in Lebanon a year later. On both occasions, he proved he could fight as dirty as anyone.”
The BBC’s obituary, written on June 10th, was titled “Syria’s shrewd master,” and seemed to also point out the fear that Al-Assad posed in the state, saying that “He showed his ruthlessness in the town of Hama, a former stronghold of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood which, in 1982, was inciting mass uprisings against him. In response, Mr Assad sent his army in and at least 10,000 people were massacred.” They went on to say that “Repression in Syria continued throughout Mr Assad’s reign and many opponents fled. A personality cult grew up around the president, who was rarely seen in public, even before the health scares of recent years” (BBC, 2000).
BBC (2000). Syria’ Shrewd Master. June 10, 2000. Available Online: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/359051.stm
Britannica (2014). Hafiz al-Assad. 4/8/2014. Available Online: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/39087/Hafiz-al-Assad
Cleveland, W.L. & Bunton, M. (2013). A History of the Modern Middle East. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.
Seale, P. (2000). Hafez al-Assad. The Guardian. June 14, 2000. Available Online: http://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2000/jun/15/guardianweekly.guardianweekly1c