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Hafez Assad, the 'lion' of Syria, plays kingpin to Mideast peace

By Robin WrightSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / July 5, 1983


Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once called him ''the most interesting man in the Middle East.'' Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, an archfoe, conceded he is ''not a fool.'' Other key personalities who have met him use words like shrewd, tough, proud, and daring.

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But to all involved in the Middle East these days, Syrian President Hafez Assad is, most important, the kingpin of peace efforts, cleverly having manipulated all the trump cards into his hand.

The wily leader is a formidable character for United States Secretary of State George Shultz, who visits Damascus today. Assad alone has led to the logjam in US efforts to settle both the current Lebanese crisis and the 35-year Arab-Israeli conflict. He has often accomplished this by refusing to deal with US envoys, a simple but bold tactic typical of his 12-year rule.

Such moves should not have come as a surprise to Washington, in light of his record and political style. The jet fighter pilot turned politician purged his way to power with equal determination and daring, first through the armed forces , then in the Cabinet as minister of defense.

It was a bloodless coup that won him the presidency of the nation and the ruling Baath Party. And it has been a series of bold purges, some very violent, that have kept him there, not a small accomplishment in light of the period that preceded his leadership. In between independence from the French mandate in 1943 and his rise to power, there had been 21 coups d'etat, giving Syria a reputation for being one of the most unstable nations in an already volatile region.

It is all the more remarkable considering his humble roots. One of nine children, Assad grew up in the peasant town of Qardaha in northwest Syria.

He received only a village education before entering the armed forces after high school, one of the few options for the poor.

But perhaps the most significant influence on his life was being a member of a minority. The Assad family are members of the Alawite religious sect, usually described as heretics of the Shiite branch of Islam. Of Syria's 9 million population, only 11 percent are Alawites. They have traditionally been victims of oppression by the dominant Sunni Muslims, and are outnumbered even by Christians.

It is the bitter memory of persecution that has so affected Assad's outlook and policies, both domestic and international. Diplomats often talk of the feeling of underlying fear, almost paranoia, and insecurity behind many of his actions.

One envoy with long experience in Damascus said the Syrian leader often attempted to outwit others in large part because he suspected that they would otherwise attempt to outwit him.

This tendency emerged shortly after he took over. Despite pledges to end corruption and repression, liberalize the economy, and encourage political freedoms, Assad quickly and increasingly used agression - sometimes extravagantly - to enforce his policies.

The party of the people soon set itself above the people. The subsequent opposition led Assad to install Alawites and relatives into key jobs, not as much out of nepotism as out of genuine security fears.

Five brothers are all active in the Baath Party, while other cousins and nephews have key civilian and military posts. Brother Rifaat Assad, as head of the special forces, is now the second most powerful man in Syria.

It is also now difficult to succeed in politics without membership in the Baath Party, which is numerically strong but popularly weak, as reflected in a joke making the circuit in Damascus:

''Assad, Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak were riding in a jeep when suddenly they came across a lion sleeping in the road.

''Unable to drive around the lion or wake him up, each leader in turn went and lifted the lion's ear and whispered a few words. But it was only when Mr. Assad spoke that the lion jumped up and ran off.''

Asked by his companions what he had said, Assad replied: 'I offered him membership in the Baath Party.' ''