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How Assad Has Won

Two colorful propaganda posters, some times faded by the Levantine sun, seem to be everywhere in Syria; you find them pasted in the corridors of state office buildings, outside shops in the Damascus bazaar, and stuck on the rear windows of the buses that routinely transport conscripts of the Syrian Army around the country. One shows the face of President Hafez Assad. The other portrays Assad together with the late Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, revered by many in the Middle East as the greatest leader of Arab nationalism.

Of course the comparison appears strained; some Arabs consider it sacrilegious. A speech by Assad hardly brings multitudes into the streets of Arab capitals as Nasser’s once did. Few outside Syria seemed much concerned when Assad became critically ill in 1983. Large numbers of Assad’s own countrymen abhor his totalitarian rule. Yet, paradoxically, Assad, the Soviet Union’s most important friend in the Middle East, has taken over, to a larger extent, the central task that Nasser set for himself: serving as the standard-bearer of Arab hostility toward Israel and toward Western (now particularly American) intervention in the region.

The Reagan administration’s Middle East policy is in shambles, thanks largely to Assad’s ability to undermine one American aim after another. Syria poses a bigger threat now to Israel’s security because of Assad’s recent military and political gains. The primary US objective, outlined in President Reagan’s September 1, 1982, peace plan, was to coax Jordan’s King Hussein into an agreement with Israel, a follow-up to the Egyptian-Israeli Camp David accords negotiated by the Carter administration. But Reagan’s chances of arranging a settlement along these lines virtually ended on February 19 when Hussein retreated once more from what is loosely called the “peace process.” Assad’s hard-line opposition has had a great deal to do with the reluctance of moderate Arabs, including Hussein, to follow in Sadat’s footsteps. The “rejectionists,” of whom Assad is now the most prominent, scored an important victory over the “moderates,” led by Hussein, in the intra-Arab struggle to determine the Arab line in dealings with Israel.

Earlier, Assad had decisively defeated Israel and the United States in the war for influence in Lebanon which began with the Israeli Army’s 1982 invasion, “Operation Peace for Galilee.” Israel demolished the autonomous political and military structure the PLO had established under Arafat in Lebanon; but it was compelled to withdraw its occupation troops from the country without realizing any of its other strategic aims, while some thirty thousand Syrian soldiers remained entrenched there. Assad forced the Lebanese to annul the May 17, 1983, peace treaty with Israel, which had been negotiated personally by Secretary of State George Shultz. The US Marines abruptly and ignominiously abandoned their “peace-keeping” mission in Beirut.

Assad has been the ruler of independent postwar Syria for fifteen years, or four times longer than any of his predecessors. He has made his country into a formidable regional power, and has reemphasized the question whether any peace negotiation can be expected to produce a lasting settlement if the Syrians are not included. Assad is determined to regain the Golan Heights, which were in effect annexed by Israel in 1981. He has recently overseen a significant expansion and reorganization of the Syrian armed forces with this objective in mind. He contends his growing military force makes his diplomacy more persuasive, but the danger of a new Middle East war igniting because of the Golan dispute is becoming increasingly clear.

Though Assad is a man of remarkable political skill, his rise was an unlikely one. He was born in 1930, in the village of Qardahah, seven miles up from the Mediterranean Sea in the scrubby mountains of the Latakia Province, which runs for 90 miles from the Turkish border down the Syrian coast to Lebanon. “The first time I met him, I thought he looked like a proud old French peasant,” a diplomat friend in Damascus told me.

Most Syrians are Sunni Muslims, who inhabit the interior plains where the ancient cities of Damascus, Homs, Hama, and Aleppo are located. The mountainous coastal province is the communal homeland for Alawites, a traditionally underprivileged community that makes up only 13.5 percent of the country’s 10 million people. Also known as Nusayris, Alawites are an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam. Like other Shi’ites they are devoted to the cult of Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed, whose claim to the caliphate was challenged by the Omayyads; but they do not accept the widespread Shi’ite belief in the sequence of the first twelve imams, of which the last, the Mahdi, will ultimately reappear. Beyond that, their beliefs and rites are obscure and are thought to be so unorthodox that other Muslims consider them heretics.

On a visit to Syria in January, I left Damascus for a drive to some of the Alawite villages 150 miles north of the capital. In its isolation and the clannishness of the mountain people, the region made me think of parts of Appalachia. It has only been a few decades since Alawite girls were routinely sent to Hama or Homs, beyond the mountains, to work as servants for wealthy Sunni landowners. The Alawite sect is much better off these days. As a monument to their changed status, Assad built a palace for himself on the steep ridge above Qardahah, where I noticed young women wearing smart city clothes, not the peasant dresses of the Levantine countryside. My driver, who was from Damascus, made a typical Sunni wisecrack: “They used to ride donkeys here. Now they all drive Mercedes.”

After years of feeling neglected in the hills, Alawites took a major part in the 1963 coup d’état staged by the Ba’ath (“Renaissance”) Arab Socialist party, which effectively put an end to Sunni predominance in Syrian politics. Captain Hafez Assad was a leader of the party’s important military committee. Alawites were heavily represented in the Ba’ath; its ideology stressing pan-Arabism and secular socialism had the attraction of helping them overcome their low status. Alawites have also been overrepresented in the Syrian armed forces since the colonial period, when the French administration recruited minorities into the Troupes Speciales du Levant in order to control the majority Sunnis.

General Hafez Assad, after serving as Air Force commander and defense minister seized power in a coup d’état (officially, a “corrective movement”) within the Ba’ath ruling elite. That was in November 1970, coincidentally only a month after Nasser’s fatal heart attack in Cairo. Assad was formally elected president in 1971. In the twenty-four years since Syria became independent in 1946, there had been some twenty changes in leadership in Damascus.

While Assad’s fifteen-year reign has, to the relief of many, brought political stability and substantial economic development, the Syrian people have paid a high price. Assad’s Syria is one of the most ruthless police states in the Middle East, in which the oppressive control of the majority Sunnis by the minority Alawite regime has been increasingly pronounced.

On the surface, Syria is governed by the Ba’ath party, through its twenty-one-member politburo, the Regional Command, and by the government, headed by Prime Minister Abdul Raouf Qasm. But Assad has become the state itself, keeping control largely through an Alawite clique whose members command the armed forces and the numerous branches of the secret police, all referred to under the single name moukhabarat, the “intelligence.” Key posts are held often by Alawites from Qardahah, including a number of Assad’s relatives. The many ranking Sunnis in the government have no power bases of their own.

Amnesty International perennially voices concern about conditions in the country. They do not appear to have changed, a spokesman told me in London recently, since Amnesty’s special 1983 report. It stated; “Syrian security forces have practiced systematic violations of human rights, including torture and political killings, and have been operating with impunity under the country’s emergency laws.” Thousands have been thrown into jail without charge or trials, according to Amnesty, and former detainees have described twenty-three methods of torture and ill-treatment. Torture tools reportedly include a machine for sexual violation and a device for “ripping out fingernails.”

In Damascus, I saw an intriguing display of the supremacy of Assad’s security forces over the governmental apparatus. Thuggish-looking men from the moukhabarat burst into the room of my colleague from The New York Times, Elaine Sciolino, who was staying two floors above me at the Sheraton Hotel. They said she was being taken to the airport and sent out of the country. This occurred only a few hours before she was to interview the foreign minister, Farouk Shara’s, who was powerless to prevent her arrest or at least ensure that her still unexplained expulsion was carried out with some tact.

Assad was reelected, unopposed, in February 1985 to a third seven-year presidential term, receiving, according to the Interior Ministry, 99.97 percent of the vote. Only 376 people cast “no” ballots. No one takes such an election as a valid test of support; but by crushing two serious internal challenges in recent years, Assad has demonstrated a firm grip on Syria and has shown he has the political strength to extend his influence beyond the borders.

In dealing with the most recent of these challenges, Assad exiled his own brother, Colonel Rifaat Assad, for six months in 1984. Rifaat commanded the twenty-thousand-man praetorian guard, the Saraya al Difa an al Thawra, or “Defense Brigades of the Revolution.” He turned this unit, whose men were the best paid and equipped in Syria, into a private militia to advance his own ambitions. When the president suffered a heart attack in November 1983, Rifaat pushed his way into line for succession. Calling him “the chief,” Rifaat’s men put up posters bearing his picture all over Damascus.

The situation came to a head in February 1984 when Rifaat mobilized his armored units in the capital. Two indignant Alawite officers, brothers-in-law of Assad, moved to cut Rifaat down to size. Army General Chefik Fayyad sent his Third Armored Division into the city, getting support from commando units attached to General Ali Haidar’s Special Forces. Their units confronted Rifaat’s, tank against tank. By a miracle, no battles took place, even after rifle shots were heard near the president’s palace.

Assad finally put a stop to his brother’s muscle flexing. Rifaat was quickly sent to Switzerland. The rising tensions in Damascus had posed the possibility that a second Ba’athist “corrective movement” might emerge to sweep the entire Assad clan from power. Rifaat was permitted to return only after the Defense Brigades were incorporated into the Army, renamed the 569th Division, and put under another officer’s command. But Rifaat held on to his post as vice-president for security affairs—he was named as one of the three vice-presidents in an attempt to defuse the power struggle—and his seat on the Regional Command. This seems to be one of Assad’s typically Machiavellian calculations: he kept the family’s choices open. But Rifaat has been replaced as the second most powerful man in Syria by two men: General Ali Duba and General Mohammed Khouli, chiefs of the Army and Air Force intelligence and members of Assad’s Matawirah tribe. Meanwhile, Assad has made a good recovery from his heart attack.

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