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The More Things Change – A Look Back at Syria’s Hafez al-Assad

“You know I have my ups and downs, but I have a pact with God. The pact is that no matter what problems I have, wherever there is a challenge, I will have all my strength,” asserted a sickly Hafez al-Assad to George Shultz, who grimaced at the firmness of Assad’s grip. Despite Hafez al-Assad’s constant ailing health, the Syrian leader’s tenure in office spanned some 30 years. Political Officer Edward G. Abington, Ambassador David Ransom and wife, Deputy Chief of Mission, Marjorie Ransom, highlight Assad’s most criticized political power plays, Syria’s problems with Iraq and its reluctant reliance on the USSR, as well as provide insights about the man who reluctantly readied his son, Bashar al-Assad, to later assume power. 

Charles Stuart Kennedy interviewed them in 1999 and 2000 respectively, during Assad’s final days as president of Syria.

Read about al-Assad’s brutal 1981 attack on the city of Hama. Go here to read about the rise of Hezbollah.


Striking Similarities

ABINGTON: In early 1981, there was serious concern that the Syrian government was about to invade Jordan. Assad was a very cautious person and knew that if he were to actually make a threatening move against Jordan it would inevitably lead to an Israeli military action. It was our assessment that Assad was not going to invade Jordan but was merely try to carry on a war of nerves and threaten the Jordanians. One of the options being looked at – and being recommended by ideologues… – was that the U.S. should carry out air strikes against Syria not only to protect Jordan but indirectly to send a message to the Soviets that the United States would not tolerate Soviet surrogates, which Syria was looked upon as, threatening America’s friends in the region.…

Assad was viewed as hostile to American interests. He certainly had no defenders in Washington at the time, still doesn’t. But this lack of understanding of what was really going on and the predilection to credit Israeli assessments much more than was warranted, that was 20 years ago and we still see it today.…

Problems with the Muslim Brotherhood and Iraq

You had an internal situation in Syria that was very complicated because the Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni organization, was carrying out major attacks of terrorism and assassinations against the Alaoui [aka Alawite — a branch of Shia Islam which originated in Syria] Baathist regime of Syria. You had a break in relations between Syria and Iraq because of the rivalry between Hafez al-Assad and Saddam Hussein, two different factions of the Baath Party, each saying that they were the legitimate party, not recognizing the other. It was an incredibly complex mix of a lot of different issues and it was very difficult to figure out what was going on in Damascus because of the nature of this regime.

When I got to Damascus, there was the announcement that Syria and Iraq were going to unite. This had been spurred by the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. But within a matter of a couple of months, the whole process of discussing unification between Syria and Iraq broke down into tremendous acrimony which led eventually to a break in diplomatic relations between Syria and Iraq. It was during this period that the Muslim Brotherhood attacks against the Syrian regime started intensifying. There was intelligence and we knew that the Syrian government felt that the Muslim Brotherhood attacks were being assisted by the Iraqis in terms of providing explosives, arms, [and ] infiltrating people across the Iraqi-Syrian border. There also was some evidence that Muslim Brotherhood types in Saudi Arabia were sending money and providing guidance to people inside Syria.…

When I first got there in ’79 for the next year to year and a half there was a mounting internal crisis over this challenge to the Alaoui regime. This took the form of assassination of Alaoui political and military figures. The Muslim Brotherhood started assassinating Soviet military advisors and carrying out bombing attacks against Soviet military compounds and very brutal bombing attacks against Syrian government facilities as well.…They tried to cover up the attacks. It was very difficult to get accurate information about who had been killed and so forth.

It was during the spring or summer of 1981 that this section of Hamas, the old section of Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, really rose up against the government forces in the area. Hafez al-Assad, in consultation with the Alaoui  military leaders…decided that they had had enough of this uprising, of these assassinations. One has to keep in mind that it was very much targeted against Alaouis. There were many Alaoui officials who were assassinated because they were Alaoui. There had been these brutal car bombings.

The government decided that it was going to crush the situation once and for all. Assad’s brother, Rifaat al-Assad, deployed the Defense Forces equipped with T-72 tanks to Hamas, closed off the area, went in and just leveled this area where the Muslim Brotherhood was holed up. It was a civilian area. Basically, they shelled it and then they brought in bulldozers and just bulldozed the whole thing. No one knows how many people were killed. I know that it has become the common wisdom that 10,000 were killed. In fact, I don’t think anyone really knows. But the Syrians sealed off the area. No one could get in or out for about a week until it was over.

That really broke the back of the Muslim Brotherhood. There were assassinations, a few bombings, after that. In fact, once when I was going from where the embassy was to a meeting …in an area west of Beirut, […] a bomb blew up about 50 yards from my car.…The Syrian security people immediately came out and started stopping cars. There was a car in front of me, a white Peugeot. There were three people in it. They panicked and they just were yelled at by the security people to stop. They kept going. This must have been 10-15 yards from me. The security people just opened up with AK-47s and killed all three people in the car. And they turned around and started pointing their guns at me. I was in a little Volkswagen Rabbit and stopped, held my hands in the air, and kept shouting in Arabic that I was a diplomat. They came over and looked at me and told me to get out of there. I haven’t been frightened that much. You could see how this terrorism really had the regime on edge. …

Syria’s Relations with the U.S.

The Assad regime was a very secretive regime. We opened the embassy in Damascus after the 1974 Israel-Syria disengagement agreement which had been brokered by Henry Kissinger. The Syrian regime was very heavily dependent upon the Soviet Union for economic assistance and especially for military assistance. The Soviets were the principal supplier of military equipment to the Syrians. There was a very large Soviet presence in Syria, Soviet military advisors there. The stated goal of President Assad was to achieve military parity with Israel. The relationship between Israel and Syria continued to be very tense. The Egyptian embassy was around the corner from the American embassy. Syria had broken relations with Egypt over the Camp David summit and the Egyptian-Israeli agreement. The Egyptian Embassy had been broken into by a Syrian mob.

Demonstrations like that in Syria only took place at the instigation of the Syrian government. The Egyptian Embassy was basically ransacked and was pretty much in ruin. That was a clear sign by President Assad that he disapproved of Sadat’s policies. There was a lot of tension between the United States and the Syrian government because the U.S. government was trying to promote the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. We had very little official access to Syrian officials and to the Baath Party.

They kept us at arm’s length and when we did have discussions with them they were fairly pro forma, a very heavy dose of Syrian propaganda. It was quite difficult to figure out what was going on in Syria [and] you had an incredibly unstable situation.…There was a lot of tension between the United States and Syria during this period.…We had relatively limited contacts with political figures in the regime. The ambassador would see Assad from time to time when there were visitors, the Secretary of State or congressional delegations. But in general, the American ambassador did not have access to President Assad for meetings or for appointments to discuss issues.

The American Dream

DAVID RANSOM: [T]he Syrians are perfectly capable of pursuing a dual process if it serves their purposes. In the case of the United States, we may have wanted, on one hand, to punish and on the other hand, to attract. They found it perfectly acceptable to excoriate us in political channels, but to encourage us in cultural and educational channels.

Our relationship was also complicated by the fact that the Soviet Union was a great friend of Syria, yet one would have been hard put to find Syrians who liked Soviets — whereas every Syrian family had immigrants to the United States who sent home letters, money, and accounts of life in America that made it natural and desirable for everyone to be a friend of American society. …Everybody wanted visas to America.

The stories about getting visas were legion. One of the funniest was that one day Hafez al-Assad was driving to his office and saw this big long line in front of the American embassy. He didn’t know what that was so he asked his driver. He stopped and got out and went up to the end of the line and said, “What are you here for?” They said, “Oh, Mr. President, we’re just here because we’re trying to get a temporary visa to the United States. Of course, we want to come back.” He kept asking people and he noticed the line was melting away. He got up to the head of the line rather quickly and asked the guard “Why did all these people leave?” He said, “Well, Sir, when they saw you were getting a visa, they decided to stay.”…

“Our difficulties with the Israelis were nothing compared to the Soviet problems with Syria”

Q: Did you feel that the Soviets were pulling any strings or were they just the deep pockets into which Syria would reach and take out what it needed? 

The Soviets were seen by the government of Syria as the great strategic ally against both us and against Israel. But the two countries had many deep differences, particularly on debt issues. The Syrians had an insatiable appetite for Soviet military equipment even though they didn’t make very good use of it and they lost a lot of it. They blamed the equipment and the manufacturer rather than the way it was used. So, American equipment in the hands of Israel made us look very powerful and made the Soviets look bad.…

Our difficulties with the Israelis were nothing compared to the Soviet problems with Syria — a situation that I pointed out again and again to my Syrian friends and interlocutors. I pointed out that we got something from our relationship with Israel while Syria was getting less and less from their Soviet relationship.

Relations with Iran

The Syrians had a very bad relationship with Iraqis. The border was closed and there was nothing but enmity between the two leaders, Saddam Hussein and Hafez al-Assad. When the Iraqis went to war with Iran, the Syrians cut the pipeline of Iraqi oil coming across Syria, a blow that was very painfully to Iraq. They closed the border and refused supplies and support. The Iranians had agreed to supply Syria with free oil. So Syria had become a kind of Iranian surrogate against Iraq. That made for some very bitter relationships.…

The Syrian view of such activity inside their neighbors’ borders was that “We are weak, you are strong, and we will therefore do things that make your life miserable and eventually force you to come to us to ask for our help. Then we will extract our pound of flesh but not give you everything that you want in the way of expulsion, etc. of terrorist elements.”…The Syrian government got directly involved in terrorism while I was in Damascus. They were caught trying to blow up an El-Al airplane — a very clever plot that went awry. That led to a British decision to break relationships with Syria. While we did not break relationships, we withdrew the ambassador and cut the mission in one half as an indication of our displeasure.…

Assad’s Power Play

Assad really was Syria in terms of the way power was wielded in the country and how decisions were made, particularly on foreign policy. Assad at that time was embarked on a scheme that has now been reduced to ruin. He has had to abandon it. We told them at the time that this was going to happen, but he persisted in this grandiose notion of rejecting all effort at negotiation until a strategic balance with Israel had been created. That basically meant drawing the Soviet Union in to support Syria, building up Syrian military strength so that they would be able to meet and counter any Israeli military threat. Assad understood power very well. He didn’t pay much attention to economics and he didn’t seem to understand that his country was in the grips of a downward economic spiral where per capita income was decreasing every year while no new economic dynamics were being created.…He thought that socialism was bringing benefits to all the people and that nothing needed to be changed.

A Ruthless Man and His Sons

MARJORIE RANSOM: [Assad] was pretty tough. He was quite active in those days. Over the course of two years, we might have seen him slow down somewhat. But he was very much running things and certainly running peace negotiations. There was tremendous respect for Assad’s political acumen, but he was obstructionist to any attempt to make progress on the Arab-Israeli situation.

He would not hesitate to use radical groups based in Syria to support actions against Israel. Within the country he and his government were viewed as dictatorial, cruel, and tough. He was seen as a very tough-minded leader who would not hesitate to be ruthless in achieving his goals. The country was very hard up economically. People couldn’t get their basic foodstuffs. It was a very hard time for the citizenry. Socialism was failing. He was viewed as a very isolated person who relied on his close circle of advisors to tell him what was going on.

He was obviously a man who felt under threat. Whenever he moved anywhere in the city, there was extraordinary security. He traveled to the coast, to Latakia and to Cardaha, his birthplace, but to few other places even in Syria, let alone the rest of the world. He never went to Aleppo, the other big city in Syria. He had a public mystique, not as bad as Saddam Hussein’s, but he was a comparable figure.

People blamed him for their economic hardships, especially people who were not Alawite. Don’t forget that the Alawites were only 11-15% of the population. They, and perhaps some of the Christians and the Druze, supported the regime, but the Sunnis were and are roughly 70% of the population. His regime was one that was imposed on them. So, it was a tough dictatorship that advantaged Alawites and people from other minorities. He imposed such severe economic restrictions on the farms and the merchants that Syrians were never able to develop their country. What industry existed was government-run and highly inefficient, your classic example of a socialist-run public sector.

Q: What was the wisdom of the period on who was going to replace him? 

At that time, it wasn’t clear. They were just starting to groom Bashar after Bassel died the year before I got there. They withdrew Bashar from England. He was studying to be an ophthalmologist. They brought him back and started grooming him in different jobs. It became apparent that they were testing him to prepare him for leadership. They were doing it in a rather gradual way. They thought they had a few years to do so.

Assad’s oldest son Bassel died in an automobile crash racing in his sports car to the airport. Not a very noble end. Nevertheless, he was elev

ated to some sort of martyrdom after his death.…We watched in Syria the change in the pictures that would appear around town of Assad. There were many pictures of Bassel and then there was some gradual transition to a trilogy. You would have a picture of Assad, the dead son Bassel, and the upstart Bashar.

The word was that [Bashar] was a very nice guy and perhaps lacked the steel will, and so-called “killer eyes,” of his late brother, Bassel, and his younger brother Maher. He was considered smart, having been educated in England. He spoke English fluently, was quite Westernized, and expressed interest in opening up Syrian society to the outside world. He was instrumental in starting a computer society and tried before he became president to put Syria on the Internet, but the security services got in his way at that time. He was viewed as a very nice person, but people doubted his ability to lead Syria, considering the strength of the security services and the military.