Hafez al-Assad (6 October 1930 – 10 June 2000) was a Syrian statesman, politician and general who was President of Syria from 1971 to 2000, Prime Minister from 1970 to 1971, Regional Secretary of the Regional Command of the Syrian Regional Branch and Secretary General of the National Command of the Ba'ath Party from 1971 to 2000.
Hafez was born on 6 October 1930 in Qardaha to an Alawite family. His parents were Na'sa and Ali Sulayman al-Assad, Hafez was Ali's ninth son, and the fourth from his second marriage. Sulayman married twice, had eleven children and was known for his strength and shooting abilities; locals nicknamed him Wahhish (wild beast). By the 1920s he was respected locally, and like many others he initially opposed French occupation. Nevertheless, Ali Sulayman later cooperated with the French administration and was appointed to an official post. In 1936, he was one of 80 Alawite notables who signed a letter addressed to the French Prime Minister saying that "the Alawi people rejected attachment to Syria and wished to stay under French protection." For his accomplishments, he was called al-Assad (a lion) by local residents and made the nickname his surname in 1927.
After graduating from high school Assad wanted to be a medical doctor, but his father could not pay for his study at the Jesuit University of St. Joseph in Beirut. Instead, in 1950 he decided to join the Syrian Armed Forces. Assad entered the military academy in Homs, which offered free food, lodging and a stipend. He wanted to fly, and entered the flying school in Aleppo in 1950. Assad graduated in 1955, after which he was commissioned a lieutenant in the Syrian Air Force. Upon graduation from flying school he won a best-aviator trophy, and shortly afterwards was assigned to the Mezze air base near Damascus. In his early 20s he married Aniseh Makhlouf, a distant relative of a powerful family.
In 1954, the military split in a revolt against President Adib Shishakli. Hashim al-Atassi, head of the National Bloc and briefly president after Sami al-Hinnawi's coup, returned as president and Syria was again under civilian rule. After 1955, Atassi's hold on the country was increasingly shaky. As a result of the 1955 election Atassi was replaced by Shukri al-Quwatli, who was president before Syria's independence from France. The Ba'ath Party grew closer to the Communist Party not because of shared ideology, but a shared opposition to the West. At the academy Assad met Mustafa Tlass, his future minister of defense. In 1955, Assad was sent to Egypt for a further six months of training. When Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal in 1956, Syria feared retaliation from the United Kingdom, and Assad flew in an air-defense mission. He was among the Syrian pilots who flew to Cairo to show Syria's commitment to Egypt. After finishing a course in Egypt the following year, Assad returned to a small air base near Damascus. During the Suez Crisis, he also flew a reconnaissance mission over northern and eastern Syria. In 1957, as squadron commander, Assad was sent to the Soviet Union for training in flying MiG-17s. He spent ten months in the Soviet Union, during which he fathered a daughter (who died as an infant while he was abroad) with his wife.
In 1958 Syria and Egypt formed the United Arab Republic (UAR), separating themselves from Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and Turkey (who were aligned with the United Kingdom). This pact led to the rejection of Communist influence in favor of Egyptian control over Syria. All Syrian political parties (including the Ba'ath Party) were dissolved, and senior officers—especially those who supported the Communists—were dismissed from the Syrian armed forces. Assad, however, remained in the army and rose quickly through the ranks. After reaching the rank of captain he was transferred to Egypt, continuing his military education with future president of Egypt Hosni Mubarak.
Assad set about building up the Syrian military with Soviet aid and gaining the loyalty of the Syrian populace with public works funded by Arab donors and international lending institutions. Political dissenters were eliminated by arrest, torture, and execution, and when the Muslim Brotherhood mounted a rebellion in Hamāh in 1982, Assad ruthlessly suppressed it at a cost of some 20,000 lives and the near destruction of the city. In foreign affairs Assad tried to establish Syria as a leader of the Arab world. A new alliance with Egypt culminated in a surprise attack on Israel in October 1973, but Egypt’s unexpected cessation of hostilities exposed Syria to military defeat and earned Egypt’s president, Anwar el-Sadat, Assad’s enduring resentment. In 1976, with Lebanon racked by a bloody civil war, Assad dispatched several divisions to that country and secured their permanent presence there as part of a peacekeeping force sponsored by the Arab League. After Israel’s invasion and occupation of southern Lebanon in 1982–85, Assad was able to reassert control of the country, eventually compelling Lebanese Christians to accept constitutional changes granting Muslims equal representation in the government. Assad also apparently aided radical Palestinian and Muslim terrorist groups based in Lebanon and Syria.
Assad de-radicalized the Ba'ath government when he took power, by giving more space to private property and strengthening the country's foreign relations with countries which his predecessor had deemed reactionary. He sided with the Soviet Union during the Cold War in turn for support against Israel. While he had forsaken pan-Arabism—or at least the pan-Arab concept of unifying the Arab world into one Arab nation—he did seek to make Syria the defender of Arab interest against Israel.
Mr. Assad rarely traveled, even within Syria, and as he aged his public appearances were limited to religious ceremonies on major holidays. But his withdrawn life was also devoid of the lavish trappings common to other Arab rulers. His home and office, where he often worked 18-hour days, consisted of two modest villas that faced each other in a residential neighborhood in Damascus.
“Henry A. Kissinger: "He allow himself to be driven back to the attainable, fighting a dogged rearguard action that made clear that concessions could be exacted only at a heavy price and that discouraged excessive expectations of them. (His negotiating style was in this respect not so different from the Israelis', much as both of them would hate the comparison.)"”