Hafez el Assad ruled Syria determinedly for nearly 30 years

President transformed Middle East nation into regional power


Hafez el Assad, the air force officer who ruled Syria for nearly three decades until his death yesterday at 69, transformed a Middle East backwater into an introverted regional power that endured as the center of unbending Arab hostility toward Israel.

Among the Arab autocrats in the perpetual drama of negotiating Middle East peace, none was more courted, or more aloof, than the Syrian leader. No lasting peace could hold without him, but none could be negotiated with him, either. A treaty remained elusive largely because of his role in demanding back every inch of Syrian territory.

At home, Assad's longevity in office rested on a rigid intolerance of dissent, most starkly illustrated by the slaying of thousands of residents of Hama in February 1982 to end a swelling Islamic insurgency. His was a suspicious police state, barring modern instruments like the fax or the Internet that might somehow become tools to undermine his government.

Assad rarely traveled, even within Syria, and as he aged, his public appearances were limited to holidays and religious ceremonies. But his withdrawn life was also devoid of the lavish trappings common to other Arab rulers.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 facing each other in a residential neighborhood in Damascus.

The stream of American presidents, secretaries of state and other officials who crossed his doorstep over the years, hoping to keep the latest peace effort from foundering, emerged with a grudging respect for Assad. He was at once courteous and calculating, professorial and persistent, unleashing flashes of self-deprecating humor during marathon negotiating sessions. The long hours of the sessions were as legendary as they were nerve-racking.

When Henry A. Kissinger arrived in 1973, becoming the first American secretary of state to visit in 20 years, their initial meeting lasted 6 1/2 hours. The news media, uninitiated in the ways of Assad, wondered aloud if Kissinger had been kidnapped.

"His tactic was to open with a statement of the most extreme position to test what the traffic would bear," Kissinger wrote in "Years of Upheaval," the volume of his memoirs published in 1982. "He might then allow himself to be driven back to the attainable, fighting a dogged rear guard action that made clear that concessions could be exacted only at a heavy price and that discouraged excessive expectations of them."

Assad was most renowned for lecturing foreigners, even American presidents, about the unfair colonial fragmentation of the Middle East. In case anyone missed the point, his reception hall was dominated by a large painting depicting the Arab armies under Saladin defeating the Crusaders during the battle of Hittin in 1187, a not-so-subtle reminder that he considered present circumstances temporary.

Syria was a young nation adrift before Assad's rule. The government had been a revolving door swung repeatedly by coups after independence from France in 1946, resulting in little development and a population weary of chaos.

The bloodless power grab he staged in November 1970 brought stability and the first modern construction of roads, schools and hospitals. Assad followed the Soviet model of a single-party police state, constructing a network of 15 competing intelligence agencies.

It was in regional politics, however, that Assad most sought to create a legacy, remaking Syria into a power among the Arabs rather than a political football. He was inspired by the Arab nationalism preached by President Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt, and like many of his generation, he sought to inherit Nasser's role as the voice of Arab unity.

Assad's roots in an isolated, impoverished religious minority made him an unlikely candidate to become leader of Syria. He was the ninth of 11 children, born to minor notables in the village of Qurdaha, in the Ansariya Mountains, which rise from the Mediterranean coast. The mountains made for a secure home for his ethnic group, the Alawite sect, a tiny branch of the Shiite school of Islam. The mountain tribes had been all but ignored during the 400 years that the Ottoman Empire controlled Syria.

In exchange for rebelling against Ottoman rule in World War I, Arabs had expected independence. But a secret pact divided the area between the British and French.

In 1944, with the region still under the rule of France, Assad became the first member of his family to receive a secondary education, quickly becoming a leader among students.

By the time he finished high school, his interest in politics was cemented as he embarked on a military career as he enrolled in the new Air Force College in Aleppo. By the time the Arab-Israeli war erupted in June 1967, Assad had become minister of defense, after the group of officers he helped found seized power in a violent putsch. He was 35, serving in his first Syrian government.

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