Home / Articles / HAFEZ AL-ASSAD: THE MAN WHO WAITED TOO LONG
The debate over whether Hafez al-Assad of Syria would ever make peace with Israel has now been settled: not in his lifetime. Assad’s death at the age of 69 on June 10, 2000, removes from the scene a stubborn enemy of the Jewish state and also a persistent foe of American policy for nearly three decades. Curiously enough, he died following yet one more attempt to construct a new line to the United States although, as always, on Assad’s own peculiar terms. He leaves his son Bashar a machine for holding power but no obvious way out of dead-ends at home and abroad.
ASCENT TO POWER
Hafez al-Assad emerged from the hothouse of Syrian politics following independence from France in 1946. Born Hafez al-Wahash to an Alawite village family in the coastal hills near Latakia in 1930, he might have lived a life of low status, as a member of a despised rural community considered religious heretics by the dominant Sunnis. But the old order was rapidly changing and Assad’s own rise to power came to symbolize that shift.
Trained as a fighter pilot and sporting a new name, al-Assad (the lion vs. Wahash, “beast”), the young cadet entered the conspiracy- and coup-ridden politics of the new state. He survived the tumultuous United Arab Republic experiment with Nasser’s Egypt (1958-62) to become a key figure in the 1966 coup that brought the Alawites to supreme power. Assad then methodically eliminated his rivals. Neither the loss of the Golan Heights to Israel in June 1967 (he was Defense Minister) nor Syria’s failed intervention into the Jordanian war with the PLO in September 1970 prevented his ascent. Two months later he became master of Damascus.
Assad preached the ideology of the Baath (Renewal) Party, advocating a secular Arab unity across the Middle East under the direction of a small vanguard, itself controlled by a supreme leader. He used Baathi ideas to justify the Alawite domination over the Sunni majority and to advance the claim to “Greater Syria,” an area encompassing Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, and parts of Turkey. Assad soon reorganized the state along totalitarian lines and he would employ terror at home and abroad. He joined Nasser’s Egypt and Baathist Iraq in seeking Soviet aid but he would never become Moscow’s supplicant. Any hand that fed him could expect to be bitten.
TRIUMPH AND BETRAYAL
Assad was a man of few illusions. Syria could never fulfill his objectives without allies, stronger powers who might need him less than he needed them. Assad joined Anwar Sadat in the surprise attack on Israel on October 6, 1973, only to discover on the edge of military disaster that Sadat’s purpose was not his purpose. The Egyptian leader used the war to switch patrons, seeking a new alliance with Washington through the inimitable Kissinger shuttle. Assad also got his own shuttle from the Secretary of State, but declined to build upon the disengagement agreements either a solid bridge to Washington or a diplomatic route to Israel. He never forgave Sadat, preferring to stay with Moscow while constructing a united Arab front that would also constrain Egypt.
In 1977 this approach seemed to bear fruit even in Washington when newly elected President Jimmy Carter adopted the so-called comprehensive approach, a grand bargain with the major Arab states that would end the Arab-Israeli conflict. Assad liked this idea because it allowed him to control the diplomacy and to play his favorite argument that Syria was the key piece in the puzzle.
Egypt, however, would not be constrained by Assad’s conceit. Sadat and Begin broke loose from both U.S. and Syrian policy in 1978 to achieve peace, and despite Sadat’s assassination in 1981, Egypt remained free of Assad’s brand of Arab unity thereafter. But the Syrian leader would remain adamantly opposed to Sadat’s “capitulations” and, to the despair of later U.S. and Israeli diplomats, sometimes seemed to be fighting Sadat’s ghost, as if to prove that he could make a “better” deal, regaining the losses of 1967 without Sadat’s warm gestures, visits, or talk of reconciliation with Israel.
THE CRISIS OF 1981-84
Following the Camp David Accords, Syria, Iraq, and the PLO created the so-called Rejectionist Front, opposing negotiations with Israel under U.S. auspices. In 1980, Assad also signed a treaty with the Soviet Union, when Moscow seemed at the height of its power, to provide him strategic depth.
Assad never gave up the notion of somehow controlling his weaker Arab neighbors. His influence on the King of Jordan waxed and waned, but he had more success in Lebanon. There, he fanned the flames of sectarian rivalry, while posing as the fireman, saving the Christians from the Shiites, Druze, and Arafat’s Palestinians and then reversing alliances to prevent a Christian victory.
Israel and the U.S. had reluctantly agreed to Syria’s direct military intervention in Lebanon in 1975, hoping that Assad would also constrain Arafat’s PLO from conducting raids against Israel’s northern border. He did not. Israeli Prime Minister Begin and his ambitious Defense Minister, Ariel Sharon, then sought to remake the political map of Lebanon, but Syria would not allow Israel to do so without a fight. The result was the Lebanon War of June 1982.
We have an indelible picture of Assad from that conflict. On June 9, 1982, U.S. special emissary Philip Habib was ushered into Assad’s office not long after Israel had destroyed both his air defense systems in Lebanon and forty-odd Syrian jets without a loss. In the face of this disaster, Assad was cool and collected. These were the fortunes of war, and the Syrian army had not been defeated. Tomorrow would be another day.
Assad soon proved adept at exploiting the mistakes of others. He secured a new arms supply from a badly embarrassed Moscow when the U.S. put Marines into Beirut as part of a multinational force. Assad took more direct action against his Lebanese enemies, conspiring in the assassination of Bashir Gemayel, the Christian President-elect, on September 15, 1982. Later, the U.S. embassy was blown up; then the U.S. marine barracks at the Beirut airport suffered the same fate, at the cost of 241 lives. No one doubted the Syrian hand.
Assad estimated correctly that Washington would not make war with Syria on Lebanon’s behalf. He also opposed an Israeli-Lebanon agreement negotiated under U.S. auspices and when Secretary of State George Shultz came to Damascus to argue otherwise, he was rewarded by Assad’s standard diatribe about injustices dating back to the creation. (Those were trying times for U.S. diplomats, who were often subjected to Begin’s notorious “short” course in Jewish history and then a day later, Assad’s even longer lecture on Syria’s primordial greatness.) The Syrian leader seemed to think he could bully Shultz; they would never transact any business.
By 1984, the Americans were out, the Israeli-Lebanese agreement negated, the Israelis confined to a security zone in the south where Assad could aid a guerrilla war against them, and Syria was supreme in Lebanon, a position confirmed in 1987 by the Taif Accord.
These astounding victories were bracketed by two reminders of Assad’s ruthlessness. Angered by violent resistance to his rule, Assad decided to make Hama, stronghold of Sunni resistance, an example; in 1982, his brother Rifaat razed it, killing thousands. This horrific act reinforced Assad’s message: you could be an accomplice or a rebel, and if you were a rebel, he would kill you if he could find you. In return for good behavior, Assad offered “stability” in contrast to the savage civil war that weakened Lebanon.
In late 1983, Assad suffered a severe heart-attack. Rifaat, commander of his own special forces, apparently attempted a coup, but Assad recovered in time to exile Rifaat. All of this emphasized the one-man nature of his rule, and the traditional family and clan structure hiding behind the vapor of Baath rhetoric.
Syria’s strength would soon be undermined by an event beyond Assad’s control — the decline and fall of his critical Soviet ally. Gorbachev turned down his request for arms to achieve strategic parity with Israel. Moscow was fading and this called for some regional insurance. Syria therefore supported a rapprochement with Egypt allowing Cairo to resume active membership in the Arab League.
Assad also had to grapple with the failure of his socialist-style economics. Syria worked, if it worked at all, through a thriving black market, and drug trade in Lebanon. Lebanon also offered an outlet for Syrian workers, a rare case when the conquered became the employers of the conquerors. Assad’s slow turn toward the pro-American Arab states, such as Egypt, and his economic need — both born of Soviet weakness — formed the necessary backdrop to understanding his role in the Gulf War.
Assad hated Saddam and Saddam’s Iraq. It was the only other Baathi regime, far more powerful than Syria, and just as ambitious. During the Iran-Iraq War, Assad’s pan-Arab ideology did not inhibit an alliance with the Ayatollah Khomeini. The two shared a common interest in hurting Saddam and wounding Israel through the Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.
Saddam’s seizure of Kuwait in August 1990 suddenly offered Assad the way to dismount the dying Soviet horse and, if possible, to mount the American one. By joining the American-led coalition in making war on his Iraqi enemy, the Syrian leader found a way to Washington and to the coffers of the Persian Gulf. Once again, he portrayed himself as the key to wider Arab acceptance of American ideas on an Arab-Israeli agreement. Assad could claim rightly that he made the Madrid Peace Conference of September 1991 possible.
FIRST OR SECOND?
Thus, ten years after Sadat’s murder, Assad also arrived under the canopy of a U.S.-sponsored direct Arab-Israeli negotiation. But Assad had no intentions of dealing with Israel alone, preferring an updated version of the Kissinger shuttle. His method was slow and painful. Get something for nothing if you can and if not, give as little as possible; use the Americans as intermediaries and get them to do the heavy lifting; break off from negotiations in order to resume them later on; never negotiate even from the appearance of weakness; and therefore, never be second. Finally, carefully controlled blood-spilling on the Lebanese border gives Israel an incentive to settle.
Both the U.S. and Israel wanted badly to do a deal with Syria. Syria not only offered the final blessing on the peace process, it was also Israel’s most dangerous immediate neighbor by virtue of its missiles, tanks, and tough infantry. But there was always a difficulty with Assad: if you treated him as the “key,” he felt justified in raising his price; and if you put him in second place, he fomented violence while refusing to negotiate seriously at all.
Still, the Syrian leader had reasons of his own to act. The Americans could “crown” him as a leader of the Arabs by making him the crucial peacemaker. He could put U.S. pressure on his enemies, especially Arafat, to achieve a veto over the entire diplomacy. He needed the money, and he needed the prestige.
Assad got the prestige, thanks to the willingness of American presidents and secretaries of state to indulge him with futile meetings. Several Israeli prime ministers put great stock in his views. Over the years, Western interlocutors found him highly intelligent and disciplined, possessing what Kissinger called “a wicked sense of humor,” careful to implicate his ministers in his decisions and capable of keeping deals in his own interest — a trait not always found in Middle East leaders. Assad retained a strong curiosity about the United States. He cultivated an unusual range of contacts, from the Rev. Jesse Jackson to Senator Arlen Specter, and his ambassador in Washington paid plenty of attention to American Jewish groups. These strengths kept diplomatic hopes alive. But beyond declaring his “strategic decision for peace” and for “a peace of the brave,” he would take no further risks, certainly none that Sadat had taken. Moreover, Syria wanted not only what Sadat got — the international border demarcated during the imperial era — but also the June 4, 1967 line, which in the Golan case, would put Syria back on Israel’s most important fresh water resource, the Sea of Galilee.
Syrian flexibility on Golan security arrangements sometimes encouraged great expectations. When the Israelis talked about a three-year withdrawal akin to Sinai, Assad would say, “It took them only six days to get in, why do they need years to get out,” but he agreed to the phasing concept. We do not know whether the sudden quickening of the Israeli-Syrian track in early 1993 persuaded Arafat of the need to beat Assad to the post, but we do know that as the Oslo agreement loomed, Israeli Prime Minister Rabin gambled on a breakthrough with Damascus. The so-called Rabin “deposit,” conveyed through U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, asked what Syria would give in the way of peace if Israel agreed to leave the Golan.
Assad’s answer did not impress Rabin, who then reached the Oslo Agreement with Arafat. But the Syrian leader did pocket the deposit, treating Rabin’s question as a promise graven in stone, the starting point on any subsequent negotiation.
Arafat’s betrayal, followed by King Hussein’s peace treaty in 1994, effectively dismantled Assad’s pretensions to be “first” or to control an “eastern front.” He was left not with an Arab coalition, but with the purely Syrian cause, a geography not an ideology. Not first, not second, but third!
WAITING IT OUT
Assad’s notorious contempt for Arafat and the Palestinian cause, which in his view should have relied on Syria, may explain his confidence in 1994-95 that he need only wait for the Israeli-PLO agreement to implode, leaving him even stronger than before. There were plenty of crises including Rabin’s murder, followed by Prime Minister Peres’ urgent push for agreement on the Syrian track. And indeed the parties, negotiating under U.S. auspices at Wye Plantation in early 1996, did grapple at last with the security issues. But Peres judged that he could not risk a long inconclusive process with Assad. Worse, when Palestinian terrorism hurt Peres politically, Assad approved. Israel angrily broke off the talks.
A most remarkable chapter then ensued. Despite Syrian rhetoric reviling Peres’ successor, Benjamin Netanyahu, Assad allowed a secret channel to develop in 1998 through Ronald Lauder, a wealthy American Jewish businessman and former diplomat. Perhaps he thought that the Israeli leader, embroiled with Arafat and in trouble with Washington, was ready to make concessions. The details of the Lauder negotiations remain controversial, but the fact that they were held at all, in a channel secret from the U.S., suggested change afoot in Damascus.
Syria also suffered a serious setback when Turkey, whose growing alliance with Israel rattled him, threatened him with war in 1998 unless he expelled the PKK terrorists operating under his protection. Faced by a choice of fronts, he chose to mollify the Turks. Once again, an isolated Syria was vulnerable.
Another turn had begun. Assad had married well and among his five children he had chosen his eldest son, Basil, as heir. But in 1994 Basil died in an automobile crash. The remaining son, Bashar, a physician, was only 28, entirely inexperienced, and not ambitious to rule. This would take time, effort, and broken heads to arrange. The money had also run out. Damascus could not count on a failure of the Palestinian track. Clinton’s term was approaching its end. And Assad’s health, never robust after 1984, had begun to fail. When King Hussein of Jordan died, the Syrian leader made a rare visit outside Damascus. He was visibly worn and weak.
Rabin’s disciple, Ehud Barak, became premier of Israel in May 1999 with a promise to accelerate both the Palestinian and Syrian tracks and to withdraw from Lebanon, preferably as part of an agreement with Syria. Barak’s approach buoyed Assad. In December, to the obvious gratification of Barak and Clinton, both of whom had praised his leadership for months, Assad sent his foreign minister to Shepherdstown.
The Syrian position at these talks, revealed when Israel leaked a summary authored by the Americans, showed new flexibility on some of the security and so-called normalization issues. But Barak had not written down the Rabin deposit. As Damascus saw it, Barak, like Peres, had “used” Assad’s readiness to negotiate without paying the price. So Assad called off the talks and stimulated some violence in Lebanon. Barak responded slowly and then, his broad coalition shaken by budget and religious issues, “discovered” that his predecessors had all been willing to leave the Golan under the right conditions.
Barak’s willingness to suffer political damage over withdrawal indicated the Israeli leader’s serious intent. But it may have encouraged the ailing Assad to convince himself that a sign of accommodation was a sign of weakness, and weakness meant no need to compromise.
On March 27, 2000, President Clinton put Barak’s final offer to Assad at Geneva. This included an exchange of territory near the Sea of Galilee that would give Assad not the June 4th line, but enough of it for Syria to portray it as such. By one account, Assad interrupted Clinton’s exposition of the Israeli position on Golan security issues by reiterating his non-negotiable demand for the Sea where, so he said, he had once bathed, admired the girls, and barbecued. Clinton was nonplussed, whereupon Assad criticized his foreign minister for misleading the American leader about Syria’s flexibility on the issue. The meeting was over.
Was this simply another Assad stage-show intended to panic Clinton and extract more from Barak, or just another way to put off an agreement he never wanted?
Some have argued that Assad feared peace with Israel because it would reduce him to an Alawite prince, no longer a would-be Arab leader, while opening Syria to outside influence. Yet, eight years after Madrid, Syria could not gain much from the mere diplomatic process; it remained on the U.S. terrorism list and was bereft of international aid and investment. The alternative was for Assad to beat Arafat to a peace treaty, damaging the Palestinian leverage while giving the U.S. and Israel a stake in the survival of the Alawite regime and his son, Bashar.
Perhaps Assad’s action at Geneva was not strategic at all, but a dying man’s unwillingness to break with the negotiating habits of a lifetime, to prove he had done better than Sadat and Hussein, that he would get at least as much as they got from Israel or more, while giving less.
In any event, it did not work. Clinton had had enough. Barak withdrew from Lebanon without an agreement and threatened that Syrian complicity in cross-border attacks would lead to war. Damascus recoiled, hinting to Washington not to give up. Meanwhile, Assad hurried forward with preparations to anoint Bashar as his successor.
On June 10, Saturday morning, Assad was engaged in a favorite activity, managing the affairs of his neighbor through a telephone conversation with Emile Lahoud, President of Lebanon. According to Lahoud, Assad said, “our destiny is to build a better future for our countries,” and then suddenly stopped. The President of Syria was dead, after nearly thirty years of rule.
Not given to fancy food, dress, women, or palaces, Assad’s lifelong interest was power. He left his son an elaborate structure of parliament, party groupings, a constitution, and 99% voting victories, a facade for the Alawi generals and the army — all instruments of the maximum leader. But unlike his rival, King Hussein of Jordan, he did not leave his successor international allies with a stake in the regime’s survival.
Will it still work? “Dr. Bashar,” as he is called, promises change, but at what pace? His father had always been ready to regroup in the face of superior force and ever ready to switch partners if the dance lost its purpose. But he was slow, primarily because he did not really want to get there, hoping always to revert to his original objectives. He was slow in 1974, and Sadat got to Washington first. He was slow again in 1978, and Sadat got to Jerusalem first. He was slow yet again in 1993, and Arafat got to Oslo first. Finally, he was slow in 2000, and death got there first.
By macabre coincidence, two dates governed his life. His official birthdate was October 6, the highwater mark when in 1973, he and Anwar Sadat bloodied Israel. It was also the day of Sadat’s murder in 1981, fit punishment in Assad’s view for betraying the Arab cause. And then there was June 10, when in 1967, Israel conquered the Golan. It also turned out to be the date of his death thirty-three years later.
In his last phase, Assad had tweaked the Americans, exposing their awkward courtship, and humbled the Israelis, falsifying their hopes. Not giving, he also made it harder for Arafat to give. On his own ledger, no doubt, Assad had done better than Sadat, sacrificing neither his pride nor his life. But had he done the best for Syria?