AL-ASSAD, Hafez

Syrian politician, born in Qardaha near Lataqia (north-west Syria) to an Alawi family in 1930. After a military career in the Air Force (a typical path for a male member of minorities, especially Alawi and Druze, and too poor to afford higher education) he took a leading part in the coup of March 1963 which brought the Baath Party to power. He is made Minister of Defence but soon enters into conflict with the leader of the junta, General Salah Jadid, and hence founds a « nationalist » faction. Assad opposes Jadid’s doctrinaire leftism (which tended to isolate Syria internationally) and prefers a pragmatic approach. He tries to distance himself from the Soviet Union and aims at closer inter-Arab cooperation.

After ousting Jadid in a first semi-coup in February 1969, he finally takes full control of power in November 1970 and becomes Prime Minister. He assumes presidential powers in February 1971 and is confirmed as president in the March 12 elections of that year. Since then, he is re-elected in 1978, 1985, 1992 and 1999 in elections in which he is the only running candidate.

Over the last thirty years, Hafez al-Assad gave Syria remarkable stability, at the cost of –sometimes- ferocious repression. This was the case in 1982 when he bombed the city of Hama, the scene of an uprising headed by the Islamists in an attempt to overthrow the regime. He established firm institutional patterns, allowing a façade pluralism in the frame of a authoritarian and centralised power: a constitution was adopted in 1973 and elections for a People’s Council were held every four years (with a Baath-led « National Progressive Front » including the Communist Party as the only permitted party, and a few Baath-approved independent candidates). His economic policy was described by some as « pragmatic state socialism ».

With regards to Israel President Assad took a hard line, while complying with disengagement agreements. Following the second Gulf War, Syria participated in the Madrid Peace Conference (1991), aiming at holding talks with Israel in regards to the occupied Golan. The Israeli refusal to give back this part of Syrian territory is one of the main obstacles to peace and normal relations between the two countries.

Caution, patience and a strong streak of pragmatism characterized Hafez al-Assad. He was also known to be a hard bargainer. He died of a heart attack on 10 June 2000 . The day after his death, his second son Bashar was, as expected, chosen by the leadership of the Baath party to succeed him. On the same day, Bashar was also appointed commander in chief of the army by Vice-President Abd al-Halim Khaddam.