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Asad and Black September

In response to:

The Survivor from the September 27, 1990 issue

To the Editors:

Shaul Bakhash’s review of Seale’s Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East [NYR, September 27] is in many ways illuminating. There is one crucial transition in Assad’s career, however, which could do with some further light. This is Asad’s attainment of a monopoly of power in Syria, in 1970, through his elimination of his sole remaining rival, Salah Jadid. Of the transition, Bakhash says only: “By 1969, he and Salah Jadid were the two remaining contenders for power. The following year, after having Jadid arrested, Asad alone ruled Syria.”

True, but the circumstances which made it possible for Asad to replace Jadid seem worthy of note, as follows:

In September 1970—the “Black September” of Arab retrospect—Salah Jadid sent more than a hundred Syrian tanks into Jordan in support of Palestinian forces then under attack by the Jordanian forces. Asad, then minister of defence, grounded the Syrian Air Force, allowing the Syrian tanks to be mauled by the Jordanian Air Force. “Badly defeated by the Jordanian forces, the Syrian tanks began to withdraw from Jordan on September 23–24 leaving a large number of vehicles destroyed or captured by Jordanian forces.” [Quandt, Jabber and Lesch, The Politics of Palestinian Nationalism, University of California Press, 1973, pp. 126–128.]

In my book The Siege, I comment on this episode as follows:

It seems worth noting that the domestic effects of Assad’s course—the destruction of the armoured force that accepted a rival faction’s order, and the preservation of the Air Force that accepted Assad’s order altered the internal balance of forces in Syria in Assad’s favour…. Two months later, Assad seized supreme power in Syria. [The Siege, Simon and Schuster, 1986, p. 481.]

As Bakhash notes, Seale, in his life of Asad, presents his subject as basically a decent and patriotic soldier, who is sometimes led, by his deep resentment of Israel’s actions, into courses which some people might perhaps find regrettable. But at that critical moment, in September 1970, the course pursued by Asad, greatly to his own personal advantage, happened to be quite helpful to Israel. The people betrayed by Asad were all Arabs: the Palestinians in Jordan, and the unfortunate Syrian tank-crews, stabbed in the back by their own minister of defence. Commenting on Asad’s role in “Black September,” Seale characteristically says that the confrontation provided “the still inexperienced Syrian soldier with a brutal introduction to regional and international politics.” Quite traumatic it must have been for the poor innocent.

Still, Seale’s depiction of “Asad, the plain blunt soldier” has Shakespearean precedent. That was the public reputation, and role of predilection, of Iago.

Conor Cruise O’Brien
Dublin, Ireland

Shaul Bakhash replies:

I did not treat the Syrian role in the “Black September” affair in any detail in my review. But Patrick Seale does; and I think he would disagree with both Conor Cruise O’Brien’s interpretation of Asad’s intentions and his interpretation of the manner in which the outcome affected Asad’s fortunes. In O’Brien’s telling, Asad allowed the tank forces under the control of his rival, Jadid, to be mauled in Jordan, thus paving the way for Asad to eliminate Jadid. But Seale argues that Asad was already “master of Syria in all but name” before the Black September crisis and that all the key military forces were in his hand. “There could have been no armed intervention in Jordan of which Asad did not approve,” Seale writes.

But Seale also believes that Asad went into Jordan only half-heartedly. He wished to protect the Palestinians. But he had no sympathy for their aim of marching on Amman and no wish to see King Hussein overthrown, as did the Palestinians. Moreover, Asad had no desire to tangle with King Hussein’s troops or to be drawn into a military engagement with Israel. When large numbers of Syrian tanks were mauled by the Jordanians, and Israel began to mobilize troops, presumably to strike at Syrian forces, Asad quietly withdrew the Syrian forces. Seale’s interpretation is thus at variance with the conventional view.

Conor Cruise O’Brien will find interesting Seale’s assessment of the outcome for Asad. He writes that “his intervention was ill-considered, half-hearted, and unsuccessful. He accomplished nothing of benefit to himself, to Syria, or to the Palestinians whom he was trying to help.”

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