The Survivor

Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East

by Patrick Seale
University of California Press, 552 pp., $14.95 (paper)

In the upheaval in Arab alliances brought about by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, none has been more striking than the decision of Syria’s leader, Hafiz al-Asad, to throw in his lot with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the conservative Arab states. If the “radical” Asad has ended up in the same camp as his old enemy, the United States, this is because he hates and fears Iraq’s Saddam Hussein even more.

In both Syria and Iraq, the Baath is the ruling party and, indeed, the only party. Both regimes at least ostensibly are committed to the Baath ideology of Arab unity and a single Arab nation. But the “brotherly” regimes in Baghdad and Damascus have been locked in a bitter rivalry virtually since the Baath seized power in Damascus in 1963 and in Baghdad in 1968. Both Asad and Saddam Hussein aspire to Nasser’s mantle and the pan-Arabism he represented. The two leaders and their regimes compete for supremacy in the Arab world. Since Saddam Hussein achieved supreme power in Iraq in 1979, schemes for union between Syria and Iraq have been repeatedly—but never seriously—discussed and repeatedly abandoned.

Asad was the only Arab leader to side with Iran during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war. That war no sooner ended in 1988 than Saddam Hussein sent money and arms to support the army of the Lebanese Christian military commander, Michel Aoun, who is challenging the Syrian military and political supremacy in Lebanon. For Asad, the successful annexation of Kuwait by Iraq, and the enhanced power, prestige, and wealth Saddam Hussein would acquire as a result, would be menacing developments.

Patrick Seale’s biography of Asad, which has recently appeared in paper-back, is indispensable for understanding Syria’s enigmatic leader. The biography proved highly controversial when it was first published over a year ago.1 This is hardly surprising. Better than any other book I know of, Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East gives a sense of the intensely secretive Asad and of the inner workings of his equally secretive regime. However, while Seale makes no secret of the corruption and brutality of Asad’s rule (indeed Seale himself has provided reviewers of the book with plenty of ammunition with which to criticize his own assessment of Asad) he has written a sympathetic biography of a man whose road to power and whose regime have been marked by repeated and often terrible bloodletting.

Asad killed thousands of his own countrymen, crushing an uprising by the Islamic Brotherhood in the city of Hama in 1982.2 He has been linked with numerous assassinations of enemies and rivals abroad,3 and the evidence is strong that terrorists based in Syria were responsible for particularly grisly massacres, including the attacks on the people at the El-Al check-in counters at the Rome and Vienna airports in December 1986. Amnesty International, Middle East Watch, and other groups have protested the extensive use of torture and other violations of human rights by Asad’s regime.4 Seale does not try to…

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