Syria and Assad, Part II
"(Hafez Assad) was the late 20th-century master of both small-and
As we pick up our story, Assad has seized power in a bloodless
coup in November 1970. Having suffered defeat in the Six-Days
War with Israel in 1967, Assad''s Syria, as well as Egypt, were in
dire straights. For his part, Assad was obsessed by the loss of the
Golan Heights in the war.
Meanwhile, Egyptian President Sadat needed the Sinai peninsula
back as his country was receiving no revenue from the Suez
Canal. Sadat immediately began planning for a new war.
The Soviets had gotten back into Egypt''s good graces and did
not want to see the Middle East erupt again. Their primary
concern was to continue on the road of dTtente with the U.S. As
Moscow caught wind of Egypt''s plans, they warned Washington.
But Washington was distracted by Watergate. Nixon and
Kissinger couldn''t believe that Egypt and Syria would go to war
again. And for its part, Israel felt that with the beating they had
inflicted in 1967, even if they were attacked, their superior forces
would rule, quickly.
So as the calendar turned over to the fall of 1973, Syria and
Egypt were massing their forces. Then on October 6, Yom
Kippur, 700 Syrian tanks rolled onto the Golan Plateau and
southern Golan was taken by nightfall. Within 24 hours, Egypt
had been able to place 100,000 men and 1,000 tanks of their own
across the Suez Canal with a minor loss of life.
Israel was not ready. And events overtook the leadership with
lightning speed. 1967 hero, Moshe Dayan, told President Golda
Meir that the nation was in dire trouble.
The early victories boosted Sadat and Assad at home. But now
Moscow and Washington quickly became involved. First,
Moscow launched a massive airlift to Egypt while a few days
later, an embattled President Nixon authorized an equally vast
one for Israel. The Israeli''s began to fight back.
By October 22, the U.N. approved a ceasefire but the fighting
continued. Israeli troops had surrounded the Egyptians and Syria
was beaten back as well. By October 27, Israel controlled more
territory than before the war. Finally, the ceasefire held.
Israel had lost more than $7 billion in equipment, property and
lost output - equivalent to one year''s GDP. More than ever, they
became dependent on U.S. aid.
Enter Henry Kissinger, who in a stretch of about six months made
26 trips to Damascus (and an almost equal number to Cairo). You
have to remember that in mid-October, the Arab nations had
banded together with OPEC launching the oil embargo that
crippled the West.
Kissinger held some 130 hours of face-to-face talks with Hafez
Assad. His first talk with the Syrian leader lasted over 6 hours.
The press thought that Kissinger may have been kidnapped. It
was the start of "bladder diplomacy." During any meeting with
Assad you couldn''t break protocol and go to the bathroom. And
Assad lectured and lectured his visitors on the unfair legacy of
colonialism. Eventually, in May 1974, Israeli and Syrian forces
disengaged from the Golan and prisoners were exchanged. But,
of course, Israel maintained control over the strategic territory
and it remains the chief impediment to peace today.
Two years later, there was another crisis. Syria had always
claimed that the nation of Lebanon, created in the 1920s, was
rightfully theirs, as part of a Greater Syria. Assad constantly said,
"Our history is one, our future is one and our destiny is one." In
June 1976, Assad intervened in Lebanon''s brutal civil war, one
which pitted various Muslim and Christian factions against one
another, with the PLO right in the middle of it all.
The Christian leadership in Lebanon had actually invited him in.
He chose to stay and 30,000 Syrian troops occupy the country to
this day, even after Israel''s recent withdrawal from the southern
territories. And Assad''s Lebanon soon became the hotbed for
Make no mistake, Assad was behind many vicious acts over the
years. Whether he was supporting bases in Damascus or Beirut,
Assad''s fingerprints were all over.
The most notorious Damascus-based terrorist, Abu Nidal, was
responsible for the deaths of a PLO leader in Portugal and
Jordanian diplomats in Athens and Madrid in 1983. Anyone who
was seen having a soft spot for the West was to be eliminated.
And later that year, Nidal was linked to the suicide bombing of
the Marine barracks in Lebanon which killed 241 Americans.
Assad also had his own problems at home to deal with.
Remember, he was an Alawite. Sunni Muslims comprised 74% of
the population while the Alawites were only 12%. Many of the
Sunni''s were fundamentalists and none worse than the Muslim
Brotherhood. Assad became the target of constant assassination
Back in 1979, the Botherhood had massacred 50 Alawite cadets
at a military academy. Then in 1980, extremists lobbed two
grenades at Assad. He literally kicked one away while a
bodyguard flung himself on the other, losing his life. In revenge,
Assad''s youger brother, Rifaat, took his forces to a prison and
gunned down 250 religious dissenters.
1982, however, witnessed Assad''s most brutal act. The
Brotherhood rose up in Hama, Syria''s third-largest city. Baath
Party officials were killed and the insurrectionists called for
nationwide rebellion. I have read many different accounts of what
happened next, but suffice it to say, Assad moved in with full
force and the result was a leveling of Hama with 20-30,000 dead.
After this act, there was no doubt who was in charge anymore.
In 1986 King Hussein of Jordan went to Damascus, pleading for
Assad to abandon his international terrorist ways. The next year,
Assad closed Abu Nidal''s Damascus offices. But lest we get too
carried away, there is little doubt that Assad was involved in
many acts since that day, only the scale may have been
Then in 1990, Assad received a gift in the form of Saddam
Hussein''s invasion of Kuwait. Assad and Saddam were hardened
enemies. Assad jumped at the chance to become a partner in the
Gulf War coalition, contributing an armored division to the
multinational force arrayed against Saddam. This single act
prompted the U.S. to turn a blind eye to Assad''s continuing
consolidation of power over Lebanon. His stock rose throughout
the West. More bladder diplomacy took place. The Saudi''s gave
$2 billion in aid. And Assad ate it all up.
But since those heady days, what really happened to make Syria
and the Middle East a better place? Certainly, despite all of the
encomiums upon his death, Assad contributed zero to the peace
process. Perhaps if he can be given credit for one thing, it is that
since the days of the Hama reign of terror, the rights of religious
minorities in Syria have been largely protected. But when you
live in a totally regulated society, what does it matter?
Charles Krauthammer commented on the "affection" that the
Syrian people held for their dictator.
"This love of Big Brother is testimony to the efficacy of
totalitarianism...and the truism that advertising works. Especially
when you control all of it. And especially if you get to shoot
anyone who shops another brand."
Now the focus turns to Assad''s son, 34-year-old Bashar. The
stage is set for a July 10 referendum on him assuming the reigns
of power. He will get 99.9% of the vote. As they say in Syria,
"Even if Allah runs, He wouldn''t do as well."
Lurking in the wings, somewhere in Paris, is Hafez Assad''s
brother, Rifaat, the aforementioned butcher. Rifaat had been
exiled long ago but now threatens to return to stake his claim on
the presidency. Arab affairs expert Fouad Ajami comments.
"That the main issue of succession would revolve around a choice
between a 34-year-old ophthalmologist younger son with no
political experience and a disgraced, exiled brother of Hafez
Assad with much blood on his hands gives away the deceased
ruler''s legacy. He had left no meaningful institutions, save for the
Army and its division commanders, and the secret police, and the
men of the regime who had clustered around the master of the
And as for the recent grief of the people, Ajami adds.
"As it weeps for a ruler it had learned to live with and come to
know, it wails for itself - for the wreckage the ruler left behind,
for the travails of a political life that had known so much
disappointment and heartbreak."
At Assad''s funeral, the Russians, once Syria''s best ally, did not
send a government representative, nor did the Chinese, Syria''s
main arms supplier. Bill Clinton sent our Secretary of State.
Sources: In addition to those listed 6/22 -
"Diplomacy" Henry Kissinger
"One World Divisible" David Reynolds