June 12, 2000
By Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum and author of three books on Syria
Hafez Assad, the strongman of Syria, died Saturday morning. News reports did
not specify the cause of death – they rarely do for a man who has built a cult of
personality around himself – but it’s no mystery.
The 69-year old had suffered from a host of disabilities after his heart
attack of November 1983: a stroke, kidney failure, lymphoma, and “intermittent
Much else about the Syrian president is also unclear. His official date of birth
was Oct. 6, 1930, but research suggests that he was born several years earlier.
His family’s official name was Assad (Arabic for “the lion”) but that had
been changed from Wahsh (“wild beast” or “monster”).
Although his parents were well-off by local standards, Assad spread a
story of early poverty. Shimon Peres, paraphrasing Winston Churchill, once
aptly called Assad “an enigma wrapped in a riddle.”
The most mysterious thing of all, however, was Assad’s religion. As the ruler of
Syria, a majority-Muslim country, he found it expedient to present himself as
Muslim, although he really adhered to the small and secretive Alawi faith.
Alawism goes back to the 9th century, when its founder, born a Muslim,
declared himself the “gateway” to the divine truth and abandoned Islam. Since
then, Alawism’s relationship to Islam has roughly resembled that of Christianity
to Judaism; it is, in short, a totally separate religion.
Trouble is, because Islam puts great emphasis on its being the final
revelation of God, Muslims cannot tolerate the idea of a religion emerging out of
Islam. That explains why, when Alawis took power in Syria in 1966, they
presented themselves as standard Muslims. For example, they compelled
leaders of the Syrian Islamic establishment to endorse Alawis as a kind of
Muslim. This and other steps, however, did little good. Syrians continued to see
Alawis as non-Muslims, even as “an apostate, irreligious sect.” This hostile
attitude haunted Assad through his 30-year rule and will no doubt bedevil his
The first of his family to attend school, Assad, upon graduation in 1951,
enrolled in a military academy and distinguished himself as a combat pilot. He
had been active in politics as early as 1945 and when still a student was jailed
by the French colonial authorities for political activities. He joined the Baath
Party, an extremist organization, soon after its creation in 1947, and by 1959
had began a decade-long process of consolidating his position within the Syrian
armed forces. He played an important role in the Baath Party’s coup of March
1963 and was rewarded for his efforts by a meteoric rise through the ranks,
going from captain in early 1963 to field marshal in 1968.
The 1963 coup gave Assad his first taste of administration and authority, and
from the start he proved competent at both. His timely support for a coup in
February 1966 proved decisive in the events that brought the Alawis to power;
his reward was to be appointed defense minister. By 1968 he was the most
powerful figure in the country, but he bided his time before taking complete
control. The right moment came in November 1970, when he simultaneously
ousted his last rival and culminated the Alawi rise to power in Syria.
Assad’s 30 years in power were marked by the contrast between his initial
successes (stabilizing Syria’s politics, reviving its economy, performing credibly
in war against Israel, taking control of Lebanon) and his later failures (economic
decline, inability to appoint a successor, failure to end the conflict with Israel,
humiliation by Turkey). More broadly, what may have seemed to be smart
policies in the early years, such as aligning with the Soviet Union and adopting
its form of command economy, a generation later looked like a huge mistake.
Worst of all, Assad never managed to overcome Muslim revulsion toward his
Alawi identity. Tensions brewed for years until finally erupting in 1982 in the
form of a fundamentalist Muslim revolt in Hama, Syria’s third largest city.
Assad responded with such ruthlessness, massacring some 20,000 Syrians,
that the problem never resurfaced.
It was also not solved. As Alawis attempt to continue ruling Syria after
Assad’s death, they will almost certainly face renewed expressions of Muslim
enmity. Most likely, this will present the foremost political challenge for Assad’s
But it will hardly be the only one. Assad leaves behind him a country in roughly
as terrible shape as when he took it over in 1970.
Yes, Syria benefited from the stability he brought, but it was a desolate,
repressive stability that masked, and did not solve, the deep tensions in Syrian
society. As in the former Yugoslavia, these could explode after the long-time
Yes, Syria has benefited from the oil produced on Assad’s watch, but
now the economy suffers from too much dependence on that single commodity.
Yes, effectively annexing Lebanon was a great achievement, but the
deep resentment of that country’s population will be a force Syrians will have
to reckon with shortly.
Assad’s rule, like that of every totalitarian despot, must in the final
analysis be judged not just a failure but a tragic failure that needlessly
caused millions to suffer.