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Assad, Hafez al-, and Bashār al-Assad

By:
Nader Entessar
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Assad, Hafez al-, and Bashār al-Assad

Hafez al-Assad (b. 1930) was born Hafez Wahhāsh in Qardaha, an ʿAlawī village in northern Syria. He became one of the most enduring rulers in the modern Arab world, ruling Syria for almost thirty years with an iron fist and astute political gamesmanship. As a nationalist, Assad was steadfast in defending Syria's national interests and territorial integrity while being pragmatic in recognizing the need for compromise in international relations. Hafez al-Assad had a meteoric rise to the pinnacle of power in Syria. As a member of the ʿAlawī minority, a Shīʿī sect comprising some ten percent of Syria's population, Syria was keenly aware of developing networks that went beyond narrow sectarian political alliances. He joined the Baʿth Party in 1946 as a teenager and took part in the same year as a student leader in nationalist activities against the French occupation of his country. Assad entered Syria's military college at Ḥomṣ and struck up a lifelong friendship with a small group of fellow officers, including Muṣṭafā Ṭlāss, a Sunnī Muslim, who later became the country's defense minister and a close confidant of President Assad. Assad became a fighter pilot who rose in the ranks to become the commander of Syria's air force, its defense minister, and its president and secretary general of the Baʿth Party after he staged a successful coup in November 1970. He remained the country's unchallenged president until 2000 when he died of heart failure.

During Assad's tenure as president Syria faced a number of domestic and international challenges. Syria participated in the October 1973 war with Israel, but it failed to regain control of the Golan Heights, which Israel has occupied since 1967. Assad's intervention in mid-1976 in the Lebanese civil war in response to a request from the Lebanese government, eventually turned into a quasi-occupation that drained needed financial and political capital from Damascus. This intervention, which was launched initially to bolster the Christian camp, redounded to the weakening of Assad's position among the Islamist groups in his country. This, coupled with increasing economic hardship and the pervasive presence of the intelligence operatives in the country's sociopolitical life, alienated the religiously conservative Sunnī middle-class merchants who had close ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, Syria's most active Islamist group.

President Assad's secularism and the fact that many conservative Sunnīs viewed ʿAlawīs as heretics further radicalized the Muslim Brotherhood, which began a series of bombings against government targets throughout the country and made an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate President Assad in June 1980. In retaliation, Rifaʿat al-Assad, the president's brother, ordered the security forces under his control to launch a major attack on Tadmor Prison where hundreds of incarcerated Islamists were massacred. This led to a full-fledged insurrection in the northern city of Hamāh in February 1982 in which Syrian forces killed upwards of 30,000 people and destroyed most of the city. Assad's Syria was also the only Arab country that forged an informal alliance with Iran to counter Saddam Hussein's Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war of 1980–1988.

President Assad was succeeded by his son, Bashār (b. 1965), a political novice who has generally followed his father's policies while seeking to carve a new niche for himself. Under Bashār, some prominent members of the “old guard,” including the country's once powerful vice-president (ʿAbdul Halīm Khaddām) and defense minister (Muṣṭafā Ṭlāss) were forced to resign. Under Western pressure, Bashār pulled the Syrian troops out of Lebanon, but he has managed to withstand American pressure on his government to change its foreign policy in the region. See also ʿALAWīYAH; LEBANON; SECULARISM; and SYRIA.

Bibliography

  • George, Alan. Syria: Neither Bread nor Freedom. London, 2003.
  • Seale, Patrick. Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East. Berkeley, Calif, and London, 1989.
  • Scheller, Bente. The Wisdom of Syria's Waiting Game: Foreign Policy Under the Assads. London: C. Hurst and Co., 2013.
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