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 justify such activities: he tries to explain them in the setting of Syria and also of Arab politics, which he describes as “essentially brutal joustings between individual leaders each enjoying something like absolute power in his own country.”
Seale’s assessment of Asad’s foreign policy has proven equally controversial. He sets out to describe, “what the world looks like from the seat of power in Damascus” and, since he is highly knowledgeable about Asad’s foreign-policy thinking, he does this extremely well. Moreover, he provides a valuable account, from the Syrian side, of the crucial negotiations during the post-1973 period over issues of peace and war in the Arab-Israeli dispute. Henry Kissinger and Anwar Sadat in their memoirs provided their own versions of discussions with Asad in these years; Seale gives Asad’s different version in considerable detail. But some reviewers have found that in trying to explain Asad’s views, Seale often also seems to endorse them. Thus the former British diplomat Anthony Parsons wrote in the London Spectator, “[Seale’s] views are a fair reflection of those of his subject.”5 Seale believes Asad’s regional ambitions, his role in Lebanon, and his policies toward Israel to be largely justifiable. His criticism of Israel, and of Kissinger and his Middle East policy, is therefore harsh, and he blames them for the region’s disorders and dislocations.
Seale has closely followed and written about Syrian politics for nearly three decades. His earlier book, The Struggle for Syria, is still regarded as something of a classic. For this biography, Asad gave Seale access to many of his lieutenants and members of his family as well as the rare opportunity to talk with him personally for several hours. It turned out that the reclusive Asad, now sixty, liked to reminisce about his boyhood and early political activities. Seale succeeds in recreating the village world in which Asad was born and in helping us to sense what it must have felt like for an ambitious village boy from a despised minority sect in a Syrian backwater to come to manhood at the very moment when Syria gained its independence and the Arab world was being swept by the heady winds of Arab nationalism.
Asad was born in 1930 in the village of Qurdaha in the northwest Syria. His people, the Alawis, were a small, heterodox Shi’ite sect that had long been persecuted in the Muslim and Arab world. Even today, little is known about Alawi doctrines and beliefs. When the French established their mandate over Syria at the end of World War I, they both helped the Alawis break out of their isolation and also strengthened Alawi separatism.
The French carved up Syria into four mini-states, one of which comprised the Alawi district. They even gave the Alawis their own flag and postage stamp. They built schools in the Alawi districts and recruited young Alawis into the Troupes Spéciales du Levant, a local police force, thus, Seale writes, “using the minorities as a fire brigade to suppress disorders elsewhere in the country.” As a result of the French presence, increasing numbers of Alawis moved down from the mountains to the coast. Some Alawis gained experience in military and public affairs. Others, by collaborating with the French, gained power and wealth. But as a young man, Asad was also bitten by the bug of Arab nationalism. Seale writes:
The central paradox of his career was that as a man who was to claim to embody militant Arab nationalism he should have started life in an obscure backwater—separatist, Western-sponsored, and by definition sectarian, which held itself aloof from the Arab world in general and from the rest of Syria in particular.
Seale argues that Asad was soon able to overcome his sectarian roots, and he provides ample evidence in Asad’s many friendships with non-Alawis that persist to this day. He points out that Sunni Muslims (like Defense Minister Mustafa Talas and Foreign Minister Abd al-Halim Khaddam) occupy important ministerial and military posts, and Asad has long been committed to Arab nationalist aspirations. However unrealistic it is as a goal he still talks of the unity of all the Arab states. But perhaps Seale does not emphasize enough Asad’s tendency to turn for support to his own Alawite people. Alawites appear to play a disproportionately dominant role in Asad’s officer corps, in the key combat units, and in the security agencies. In true Middle East fashion, Asad’s close relatives are everywhere in prominent and lucrative posts.6
Asad’s family was comfortably off by village standards, but hardly rich. For example, Asad had to give up a boyhood desire to study medicine because the family could not afford the trip to Beirut where he would have had to register to enter the appropriate school. Both his grandfather and father were small-scale farmers. They enjoyed a certain standing in the village, but not far beyond it. The family was clannish, “uncles, aunts, cousins, half-brothers, nephews all living within hailing distance.” Asad was one of eleven children, and the only one who was given a formal education.
Seale argues persuasively that marginality and a sense of grievance endowed the Alawis with “formidable energy.” They snatched at opportunities for employment, military service, and education offered by the French. Asad’s own family was “vigorously bettering itself” when he was young. At the same time, the Asads and the Alawi community were part of a generation of Syrians that was using the opportunities offered by an expanding economy and school system “to elbow its way into the mainstream of Syrian life.”
This argument is central to Seale’s book, and also to his explanation of the upheavals in Syria in the 1950s and 1960s and the sweeping transformation of ruling elites that these upheavals brought about. He describes Asad and men of similar village background who burst onto the Syrian political scene in the 1960s as “the country boys,” “rural raw-knuckled men,” who were newly educated and had high ambitions. Seale shows how they first made common cause with the middle-class graduates of French universities (intellectuals like Michel Aflaq, who founded the Baath party) to triumph over the urban notables, the bourgeoisie, and the old ruling class. Then with equal disdain, they routed their one-time intellectual allies from the Baath party and from power to establish their mastery over Syria.
Like many other sons of poor village families of his generation, Asad decided on a military career and enrolled in the newly established air force academy, where tuition was free. (Nasser and Sadat in Egypt and Qassem in Iraq followed similar paths to power.) As Seale perceptively writes:
This was the historic mistake of the leading families and of the mercantile and landowning class to which they belonged: scorning the army as a profession, they allowed it to be captured by their class enemies, who then went on to capture the state itself.
Asad was quickly drawn into politics. He was attracted to the preeminent Arab nationalist party, the Baath. Its message of unity of all the Arabs, irrespective of religion and ethnic identity, was attractive to a member of a minority sect. Its conspiratorial character appealed to his temperament and he began his own conspiratorial career early. Stationed in Cairo in 1959–1960, he established a secret military committee with four other Syrian Baathist officers, Muhammad Umran, Abd al-Karim al-Jundi, Salah Jadid, and Ahmad al-Mir. Two were fellow Alawites. Two others were Ismailians, another Muslim minority sect. “Their cell,” writes Seale, “was as hermetic as a Masonic lodge. But within a few years they were to rend and destroy each other on the journey to the top.”
In March 1963, these five and other Baathists in the army combined with Nasserite officers to stage a coup in Damascus and seize power. Three months later, the Baathists ousted the Nasserists in a bloody confrontation, hauling twenty-seven of them before a military court and having them immediately executed. The Baathist officers were victorious, but “it seemed that power could be held only at the price of slaughter,” Seale writes. “Almost from the start, they had to govern by force rather than consent. They were a fraction of what was itself a minority.”
During the next decade and a half, the Baathists turned the slaughter on themselves. Dozens were killed and executed, hundreds purged, arrested, or driven into exile as Baathist officers and civilians struggled over policy and power. Asad managed each time to emerge on the winning side. By 1969, he and Salah Jadid were the two remaining contenders for power. The following year, after having Jadid arrested, Asad alone ruled Syria. Of the five original members of the military committee, Mir ended up in exile. Jundi, who was thrown out of the party by Asad and Jadid in 1969, committed suicide. Jadid still languishes in jail where Asad put him twenty years ago. Umran was gunned down in Lebanon in 1972, just as he was about to return to Syria.
Seale gives a powerful description of the brutality of the struggle within the Baath party and Asad’s participation in it. It tells us a great deal about the nature of Syrian and Baath politics and the men who shape and are shaped by them. The cost, to regime and country, was fearful. Of the period following the Hama massacre, Seale writes:
Habits of arbitrary rule acquired in the struggle for survival proved addictive…. Unleashing Special Forces on whole communities, using tank fire against residential quarters, slaughtering prisoners, arming civilian supporters, shooting suspects or, what was scarcely better, hauling them in batches before field courts—this slide into brutality swept aside any semblance of the due process of law.
Yet about Asad himself Seale remains equivocal. Somehow he also wishes to see Asad as the victim of circumstance, a basically genial man gradually made hard by a hard world. Thus in Cairo in 1962, we are told, Asad “shed his carefree youth.” The Six Day War was a turning point, “jolting him into political maturity…. Asad’s good nature gave way to something more steely.” Syria’s abortive intrusion into the bloody confrontation between King Hussein of Jordan and the Palestinians in “Black September,” 1970, provided “the still inexperienced Syrian soldier with a brutal introduction to regional and international politics.” After the disillusioning decade of the 1970s, “optimism faded…. Asad’s nature became tougher, harder, more suspicious about scheming enemies at home and abroad.” And, as if Asad had little to do with it, Seale observes that “the harsher and more redoubtable Asad of the 1980s was, it could be said, the creation of Henry Kissinger and the Israelis.”
This picture is not entirely borne out by the evidence Seale himself presents. Asad and his fellow Baathist officers were killing one another long before Asad was introduced to the presumably ruthless world of international politics. But the account provides insight into the manner in which Asad no doubt views himself, as basically a gentle man forced to be cruel against his nature. Thus after each brutal encounter Seale tells us of a humane gesture made by Asad, although the gesture sometimes seems trivial when compared to the cruelty that preceded it. Asad, for example, was commander of the Dumayr air force base where a number of young Nasserist officers were imprisoned and tortured after the confrontation in 1963 between the Baathists and Nasserists. Seale tells us that Asad visited the families of the prisoners to ask if they wished anything to be sent to their sons. Of Jundi’s 1969 suicide, we are told, “it was reported on good authority that, on hearing of Jundi’s violent end, [Asad] wept.” Asad’s own agents probably killed Umran in Tripoli in March 1972. However, according to Seale, ” ‘Umran’s son, Najih, called on Asad some six months later and wept in his arms.”
In his reconstruction of the massacre at Hama Seale writes that “Asad did not revel in killing, but resorted to it only for raisons d’état or in what might laxly be called self-defense.” But as David Gilmour pointed out in The London Review of Books, the argument is itself somewhat lax since there was no justification for killing so many defenseless people. Nor does Seale persuade the reader that the assassinations and terrorist attacks abroad linked to Syria—such as the assassination of Umran or the abortive attempt to plant a bomb on board an El-Al airliner in London in 1986—were both the work of Asad’s lieutenants and carried out without his knowledge. Seale himself tells us that Asad runs Syria with an iron hand, and that ministers rarely act without his permission. It is hardly likely such major operations would not have first been cleared with Asad himself.
“In 1970,” Seale writes, “he was popular; by 1982 he was feared.” Seale’s depiction of the authoritarian Asad at work is striking. He grew even more distant, correct, and formal. He spent the best part of each day on the telephone with his officials, but the calls always originated with him; only the three or four security chiefs had a right to ring him. “Cabinet ministers might see him only twice in their term of duty, on being sworn in and on leaving office.” They could never forget that “having made them, he could also break them,” or that “he was known never to forget or forgive disloyalty or disobedience.” Fearing him, his ministers rarely took the initiative, and were reluctant to offer him unsolicited advice.
Even trivial matters had to be decided by Asad, including the punishment for two medical students who published a book without first clearing it with the university medical faculty. By the 1980s, his minions had built around him an elaborate personality cult to which he evidently did not object.
Evidence of the personality cult was the constant recital of his name by all and sundry, the immense portraits of him hung from prominent buildings and the numerous statues erected to him up and down the country.
Yet at the center of this highly organized police state, Seale suggests, was a man who was oddly disorganized and eccentric. Asad, Seale tells us, became a recluse, was rarely seen by his people, and hardly ever traveled in the country or even left Damascus. He ate at odd times and spent fourteen hours at a stretch in his heavily curtained office. Sleeping little, he “developed the disconcerting habit of summoning an aide or a friendly ambassador to his residence in the middle of the night for a chat which was likely to last until 3 a.m.” He adhered to no routine or fixed appointments:
It could mean that foreign ambassadors had to wait for months to present their credentials, important visitors were sometimes kept cooling their heels for days on end, and state papers piled up awaiting his signature….
The presidency seemed to run on antique lines, with no proper archives, no proper research or secretarial back-up, no word processors visible, no apparatus commensurate with the role and image Syria had achieved in the world. There were no facilities for typing letters in English, and it might take two or three days to find a document. A nasty incident occurred in 1984 when a greetings cable from President Reagan on the occasion of Ramadan was mislaid and reached Asad only some ten days after it was sent!
Foreign policy, however, remained Asad’s primary preoccupation. Asad saw Israel as an expansionist state bent on regional domination. But he differed from most other Arab leaders in daring to contemplate a war against Israel. Seale remarks that
This grim assessment that war was a necessity was peculiarly Syrian,…stemming from the perception that Syria and Israel, face to face and competing for primacy in the Levant, were doomed to be antagonists…. No other Arab state sensed as acutely as Syria that the contest with Israel involved nothing less than the Arabs’ national existence.
Just what Seale means by “the Arabs’ national existence” and just how the contest with Israel is involved with it, he does not make clear. But he writes that Asad was also propelled by “a deep-rooted sense of the greatness of Syria, its centrality, its leading role in Arab politics—and indeed of the dignity of its leader.” He believed that “destiny had chosen him to rescue the Arabs” from the consequence of Nasser’s errors, from the threat of outside domination.
In 1973 Asad joined Sadat in making war on Israel in order to undo the territorial consequences of the 1967 conflict. The war proved another disastrous miscalculation. In the face of military defeat, Asad engaged in a series of desperate rear-guard actions. First he tried to keep Egypt in the war, and then to snatch from the peace process launched by Kissinger a return of the territories Syria had lost and a settlement that included a Palestinian state. Finally, he tried to prevent Sadat from signing a separate peace with Israel. All these efforts ended largely in failure.
Seale argues persuasively that Asad’s post-1975 strategy is to be explained largely by the withdrawal of Egypt from the Arab military confrontation with Israel. If he could not unify the Arabs behind Syria in this confrontation, Asad wanted Syria at least to dominate the Levant. If he could not dominate the Levant, then Syria, in his view, had to be able to stand alone. He set about trying to achieve “strategic balance” with Israel, to match Israel’s military might. With Soviet assistance, he built up a formidable military arsenal.
His sense of increased vulnerability, his need to prevent Israel from out-flanking him, and his desire to contain Israel by exercising control over the region around Syria led him to conceive what Seale describes as his “Levant security doctrine.” This meant exercising a degree of hegemony over Jordan, Lebanon, and the PLO. He thus sent a considerable army into Lebanon; he sought to secure a veto over PLO military activity that might involve him in an unintended war with Israel; he acted toward Jordan as if he had the right of veto over its policies. But Seale rejects the view that Asad was bent on reviving dreams of “Greater Syria”—the aspiration to incorporate Palestine, Jordan, and Lebanon into a new entity that would supposedly correspond to historic Syria. He argues that Asad’s quest for regional predominance was defensive, not annexationist: “In sum, his ‘Greater Syria’ was a product of strategic need, not ideological conviction.” Yet even in Seale’s account, Asad’s vision is of a Levant dominated by and largely subject to Syrian will.7
Seale believes that Asad was prepared for peace with Israel following the 1973 war—a contention that has been the subject of much debate. 8 He attributes the failure of the peace process to the fecklessness of Sadat, the intransigence of Israel, and the Machiavellian scheming of Henry Kissinger. However, it is not at all clear that Asad’s own minimal demands were in any sense realistic, given the mood in Israel and the realities of the power balance after 1973. Nor is accepting a peace in which neither Israel nor the Arabs would dominate in the region—which Seale says Asad was prepared to accept—the same thing as believing, as Asad also does according to Seale, that Syria and Israel were doomed to be antagonists, that “the contest with Israel involved nothing less than the Arabs’ national existence,” and that Syria must be preeminent in the Levant. Perhaps Asad himself tends now to one view, now to the other.
In his account of post-1973 peace negotiations, Seale again depicts Asad as victim. He argues that Asad went into the 1973 war believing his ally, Sadat, was willing to stay the course. He did not realize Sadat had very limited war aims and was merely seeking an improved bargaining position in order to negotiate a separate peace. Seale thus charges Sadat with “fraud,” “bad faith,” “duplicity,” in his dealings with Asad, and he accuses Kissinger of worse. He says Asad entered the war with “relative innocence” and that he was “out-classed in deviousness” by Sadat. But this picture of Asad as an innocent taken in by more unprincipled men is not persuasive. The fact is that during the post-1973 period, Asad was negotiating from a position of weakness. He had few cards to play. It is hardly surprising that he did not have his way with Israel, the US, or even an Egypt desperate to extricate itself from immense military and economic difficulties.
During the 1950s and early 1960s, Syria was a country that more powerful Middle East states such as Egypt and Iraq quarreled over and sought to control. Today, it is a major regional power in its own right. Most observers would agree with Seale that this is largely Asad’s doing. Until recently, Asad has seen to it that a Middle East settlement is not possible without Syria. Asad helped to wreck Reagan’s Middle East peace initiative of 1982; he ensured the failure of the 1985 Amman agreement under which King Hussein, on behalf of the PLO, might have explored with the US the outlines of a Middle East settlement. Following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, he probably helped to engineer the assassination of the Lebanese president, Bashir Gemayel, and he did much to wreck the 1983 Israeli-Lebanese agreement and force the Americans and French, and then the Israelis themselves, to withdraw their troops from Lebanon. In 1986, Asad seemed to be riding high. Scott McLeod’s article in The New York Review in May that year was aptly entitled “How Assad Has Won.”
Yet, as Alan Cowell recently argued, Asad has proven far more adept at frustrating the plans of others than at advancing his own.9 Seventeen years after the October war, the Golan Heights remains in Israeli hands. Syria has not achieved strategic parity with Israel and it now hardly seems likely that it will do so. The Soviets recently told Asad they will provide him with enough arms for “defense sufficiency”; but they are not encouraging Asad to seek military parity with Israel. Milton Viorst recently wrote from Damascus that the new Soviet ambassador reportedly “has instructions to prepare Syria for peace.”10
Arab unity, or even the unity of the Levant, under Syrian tutelage has remained elusive. Asad’s attempt to establish a rival Palestinian organization to challenge his bête noire. Yasser Arafat, has failed. Arafat remains firmly in control of the principal components of the PLO and the Palestinian movement. More importantly, the intifada has shifted the center of gravity of the Palestinian resistance to the occupied territories; and Asad’s weight there is not considerable. Syria remains the major foreign force in Lebanon. But Lebanon is a morass. Asad cannot hope to dominate permanently all the major factions in that badly fragmented country, and the Syrian involvement there costs a great deal of money.
At home, after many years of relative economic prosperity made possible by subsidies to Syria from the Soviet Union and the oil-rich Arab states and by the remittance from Syrians working in the Gulf countries, Syria’s economy has taken a sharp downturn. Forty percent of the budget goes to the military. Some state factories work at 40 percent of capacity because there is no foreign exchange for raw materials and spare parts. A failing economy weakens Asad’s hand in foreign policy.11 His secret police are as tough as ever but there is more open murmuring than before against the widespread corruption and the lack of political freedom.12
These difficulties help to explain Asad’s recent attempts to break out of a largely self-generated diplomatic isolation. In a gesture intended to promote good will in Washington, he helped to secure the release of two American hostages in Lebanon, Robert Polhill and Frank Reed. To end Syria’s isolation in the Arab world, he restored diplomatic relations with Egypt. Wanting to have a part in future peace discussions, he told Jimmy Carter in March that he is ready for direct talks with Israel, under the auspices of an international conference, to discuss the demilitarization of the Golan Heights, which Israel has formally annexed but which Syria still hopes to get back. Although Asad has not strayed far from the established Syrian position on the Golan, his expressed readiness for separate talks with Israel, if sincere, could be a significant development.13 Asad harshly condemned Sadat for breaking Arab ranks and entering into bilateral negotiations with Israel.
Saddam Hussein’s grab for Kuwait is another troubling reminder that has diminished Syrian power. Asad, alone, was powerless to prevent, much less to mobilize the Arab states to roll back, this brazen attempt by his chief Arab rival for regional supremacy. For Asad, the present crisis opens up opportunities but also poses grave dangers. As a potential threat to Saddam’s western flank, Asad is once again being courted by the United States, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab conservative states. The assistant secretary of state for Near East and South Asian affairs, John Kelly, hurried to Damascus within ten days of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait with a message from President Bush. Asad’s condemnation of the Iraqi invasion elicited praise in Washington. Asad can hope that, if negotiations over a peace settlement with Israel begin, Syrian interests will not be ignored. If the conservative Arab states emerge victorious from the current conflict, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf sheikhdoms may loosen their purse strings again to reward Asad for good behavior. If Iraq in the end fails, gives up Kuwait, and retreats, Asad will have the satisfaction of seeing Saddam bloodied and humiliated. Since Syria cannot conceivably acquiesce in the Iraqi annexation of Kuwait, Asad thus earns some good will in Washington and Europe, even while he pursues Syrian national interests.
On the other hand, Saddam with some success (although it is still too early to judge how much) is playing on Arab nationalist sentiment, resentment among poorer Arabs of the rich Arab states, anti-American feeling that derives from US support for Israel, and frustration among Palestinians and their sympathizers at the lack of any movement in settling the Palestinian issue. Saddam Hussein will probably prove no more successful than Asad in capturing the elusive prize of leadership of the Arab world, but it must gall Asad to see Saddam stir up and excite crowds in Jordan, the West Bank, and some other Arab countries. Posters supporting Saddam have appeared in Asad’s own city of Hama, the stronghold of the Muslim Brotherhood. Things may grow nasty for Asad as well as other regional leaders if Arabs, in alliance with the US, start killing other Arabs.
Asad has therefore acted with his customary circumspection. At the Arab summit in Cairo, he joined the majority in condemning the Iraqi invasion of another Arab country. He has unequivocally declared the annexation of Kuwait by Iraq as illegal. He has sent troops—but only a token force—to join Egyptian forces in Saudi Arabia. But, at least so far, his officials and the Syrian press have been restrained in their criticism of Iraq. He has kept the US at arm’s length and said hardly anything about the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia. He received the Kuwaiti heir apparent in Damascus; but he has not greatly advertised his temporary alliance with Saudi Arabia. He will no doubt do what he can to force the Iraqis out of Kuwait. But in keeping with Seale’s account of him in his fascinating biography, Asad, the village boy from Qurdaha, is moving cautiously and keeping his options open.
September 27, 1990
See especially the review by Itamar Rabinovich, “The Godfather,” The New Republic (July 3, 1989), pp. 35–38. For a much more favorable assessment, see David Gilmour, “Blood Ba’th,” The London Review of Books (February 2, 1989). ↩
Estimates of the numbers killed at Hama differ widely, although even the lowest are horrific. Seale gives a figure of between 5,000 and 10,000. Scott McLeod, writing in The New York Review (“How Assad Has Won,” May 8, 1988), puts the figure at between 6,000 and 7,000. Moshe Ma’oz, in his biography Asad: The Sphinx of Damascus (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1988), puts the figure at between 10,000 and 30,000. Milton Viorst, in The New Yorker (“The Shadow of Saladin,” January 8, 1990), speaks of as many as 25,000. Alan Cowell, in The New York Times Magazine (“Trouble in Damascus,” April 1, 1990), gives a figure of 30,000. ↩
According to Human Rights in Syria, a Middle East Watch Report issued this September, such assassinations have included journalists unfriendly to Asad. Salim al-Lawzi, the editor of the Lebanese magazine Al-Hawadith, was tortured and killed, and his mutilated body abandoned in a Beirut suburb, in March 1980 after he had published articles critical of Asad and Syria’s role in Lebanon. The Lebanese journalist and publisher Riyad Taha and the Syrian journalist Ali al-Jundi were also killed in Beirut in the same year. According to Middle East Watch, all three assassinations were attributable to Syria. (See Human Rights in Syria, p. 110.) ↩
In addition to widespread mistreatment of political prisoners, secret trials, and long incarcerations of suspects without trial, Human Rights in Syria reports continued and extensive control of the press, radio, and television, censorship of books and other publications, and harassment of university professors and policing of their classroom lectures and publications. Marwan Hamawi, the former head of the Syrian national news agency SANA, for example, has been in jail since 1975, on charges of harboring pro-Iraqi sympathies. Journalists who join banned political parties are especially at risk. See Human Rights in Syria, especially pp. 102–105, 107–108, and 118–120. However, Human Rights in Syria reports that poets and writers of fiction seem to have more leeway and that “while social sciences are in deep decline, fiction, theater, and poetry are surviving reasonably well” (p. 111). While restrictions on Jews and Kurds have eased somewhat, according to the report, members of these minorities remain under close police scrutiny and continue to suffer from numerous restrictions; and treatment of Palestinian activists in organizations not directly under the government’s control is harsh. ↩
Anthony Parsons, “Sympathetic View of a Formidable Leader,” The Spectator (November 26, 1988), p. 44. ↩
See, for example, Moshe Ma’oz, Asad: The Sphinx of Damascus, chapter 4, and especially pp. 55–56, 195. Ma’oz agrees that Asad sought to integrate the different elements of Syrian society and end Syrian communalism. But he argues that Asad ultimately relies on his Alawi coreligionists and his close family. Daniel Pipes, in his recently published Greater Syria (Oxford University Press, 1990, pp. 198–211), argues with less nuance that Asad’s state is dominated by an Alawi elite pure and simple and that the non-Alawis in important posts are mere ciphers. ↩
Ma’oz, in Asad: The Sphinx of Damascus, struggles with this problem and concludes that Asad seeks predominance, not outright physical control, in the Levant. Daniel Pipes, in Greater Syria, is inclined to believe that Asad wants actual physical control of Lebanon and Jordan but concludes that the difference between “hegemony” and “physical control” is in any case a question of semantics. ↩
Moshe Ma’oz also considers the question of Asad’s real post-1973 intentions and finds the evidence inconclusive. He believes that Asad might have been willing to accept an Israeli state in exchange for the return of all occupied Arab territory and a Palestinian state; however, Asad’s ultimate goal of eliminating the state of Israel remained “either a dream or an incremental, open-ended process to which Asad himself did not specify an end,” p. 106. ↩
Alan Cowell, “Trouble in Damascus.” ↩
Milton Viorst, “The Shadow of Saladin.” On the changing Soviet-Syrian military relationship see also John P. Hannah’s recent study, At Arms Length: Soviet Syrian Relations in the Gorbachev Era (Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 1989). ↩
In a recent study, Unaffordable Ambitions: Syria’s Military Build-up and Economic Crisis (Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 1989), Patrick Clawson not only emphasizes the weaknesses of the Syrian economy, he also argues that economic difficulties make Asad vulnerable to pressure to moderate his position on an Arab-Israeli settlement. He summarized his conclusions in “Opportunities in Syria’s Economic Crisis,” The Wall Street Journal (August 10, 1989). ↩
Pressures arising from the example of democratization in East Europe probably explain a slight easing of restrictions on political activity earlier this year. But emergency laws remain in place, and Asad’s long-awaited speech on March 8 proved a disappointment when it announced no significant liberalization measures. (See Human Rights in Syria, pp. 132–133.) ↩
Foreign Report (July 26, 1990) says that it has picked up hints that Israel’s Prime Minister Shamir is ready to hand the Golan back to Syria, if it is demilitarized, in return for a peace agreement. The publication also reports (August 9, 1990) that Senator Arlen Spector, who spoke to Asad in Damascus, is telling the US administration that Asad is ready to make a deal and is ready for direct talks with Israel under US-Soviet auspices, and without the international conference which Asad has so far insisted on and which Shamir has resisted. Spector has reportedly so informed Shamir and Soviet President Gorbachev. Israel’s foreign minister, Moshe Arens, however, said in a recent interview that he detects no shift in Asad’s position (Bamahane, August 15, 1990, as cited in Foreign Broadcasting Information Service, Near East and South Asia, August 17, 1990, p. 27). ↩