Syria's Assad: Controversial Portrait of a Dictator

STEP into the clamorous marketplace of ideas that is Mideast politics. Faintly above the fray comes a voice offering a seldom-heard viewpoint: Syria's. ``The Arabs are weak. Israel is strong. For a settlement, the Arabs have to be strong enough to help guarantee it. They cannot depend on the peace which is guaranteed by Israeli power alone. ... Israel's security can't be built on the insecurity of the Arabs.''

So writes British journalist and author Patrick Seale in ``Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East'' (with Maureen McConville, Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, $25).

It is the most extensive portrait to date of the widely feared Syrian President Hafez Assad, whose tanks and artillery have leveled much of Lebanon's capital.

To research his habitually remote subject (Assad travels the 300 yards between home and office in an armor-plated Cadillac), Mr. Seale required extraordinary access. That he got it is not surprising: The book was Assad's idea.

Raised in Syria by missionary parents, Seale went to London for school, the Army, Oxford. He worked in Europe for the Reuters news agency before returning to Oxford for graduate work. There he wrote ``The Struggle for Syria,'' a book detailing inter-Arab politics in modern Syria's early years.

``It had a tremendous vogue in Syria - banned for the first few years but then subsequent regimes, and Assad's regime, allowed the book,'' he says.

That volume served as his entr'ee to Hafez Assad in 1977. Seale was working as a journalist when, at a meeting in Damascus, the Syrian ruler suggested that Seale bring Syria's story up to date. Seven years passed before Assad and Seale began ``a series of conversations'' that took place over the next three.

These were held either in Assad's home or in his office. ``And they were very long. Hours of it. Hours and hours,'' says Seale, ``usually after midnight. I'd be squirming on my seat with exhaustion. He sits bolt upright, like this, for four or five hours. ... You have to be prepared to talk for three-quarters of an hour without him interrupting. And then he'll talk.''

Seale interviewed scores of other figures and referenced hundreds of Arab, Israeli, and Western writings for his book, which he calls a ``revisionist history'' of the Arab-Israeli conflict since 1967.

In the book, Assad comes across as a tragic figure at best, an ``honest nationalist'' who aspires to peaceful coexistence through military and political parity between Israel and the Arabs. His book, superbly sourced, makes a persuasive case for Assad's views.

``His strategic vision is, I think, correct,'' says Seale. ``But the way he goes about it is hopeless, too, see? His methods are too heavy-handed ... and they turn in his hand and undermine his own moral position,'' Seale says. The author doesn't shrink from exposing Assad's brutality, but he does apologize for it through constructions of events that appear to leave Assad no choice but to crush his enemies.

``My problem,'' Seale says, ``is that in the West I'm thought of as very pro-Assad; over there I'm thought of as perhaps too critical of Assad.'' Seale had just returned from Damascus, where he got no more than a cold handshake from the president.

``He appreciates, I think, that I've tried to explain his policies. But there are many things about the book he doesn't like. ... Of course, he's a dictator. He wants 100 percent [in his favor]. I've given him about 60 percent,'' Seale concludes.

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