Hafez Assad, the strongman of Syria, died Saturday morning[, June 10]. News reports did not specify the cause of death - they rarely do for a man who has built a cult of personality around himself - but it's no mystery. The 69-year old had suffered from a host of disabilities after his heart attack of November 1983: a stroke, kidney failure, lymphoma, and "intermittent dementia."
Much else about the Syrian president is also unclear. His official date of birth was Oct. 6, 1930, but research suggests that he was born several years earlier. His family's official name was Assad (Arabic for "the lion") but that had been changed from Wahsh ("wild beast" or "monster"). Although his parents were well-off by local standards, Assad spread a story of early poverty. Shimon Peres, paraphrasing Winston Churchill, once aptly called Assad "an enigma wrapped in a riddle."
The most mysterious thing of all, however, was Assad's religion. As the ruler of Syria, a majority-Muslim country, he found it expedient to present himself as Muslim, although he really adhered to the small and secretive Alawi faith. Alawism goes back to the 9th century, when its founder, born a Muslim, declared himself the "gateway" to the divine truth and abandoned Islam. Since then, Alawism's relationship to Islam has roughly resembled that of Christianity to Judaism; it is, in short, a totally separate religion.
Trouble is, because Islam puts great emphasis on its being the final revelation of God, Muslims cannot tolerate the idea of a religion emerging out of Islam. That explains why, when Alawis took power in Syria in 1966, they presented themselves as standard Muslims. For example, they compelled leaders of the Syrian Islamic establishment to endorse Alawis as a kind of Muslim. This and other steps, however, did little good. Syrians continued to see Alawis as non-Muslims, even as "an apostate, irreligious sect." This hostile attitude haunted Assad through his 30-year rule and will no doubt bedevil his successors too.
The first of his family to attend school, Assad, upon graduation in 1951, enrolled in a military academy and distinguished himself as a combat pilot. He had been active in politics as early as 1945 and when still a student was jailed by the French colonial authorities for political activities. He joined the Baath Party, an extremist organization, soon after its creation in 1947, and by 1959 had began a decade-long process of consolidating his position within the Syrian armed forces. He played an important role in the Baath Party's coup of March 1963 and was rewarded for his efforts by a meteoric rise through the ranks, going from captain in early 1963 to field marshal in 1968.
The 1963 coup gave Assad his first taste of administration and authority, and from the start he proved competent at both. His timely support for a coup in February 1966 proved decisive in the events that brought the Alawis to power; his reward was to be appointed defense minister. By 1968 he was the most powerful figure in the country, but he bided his time before taking complete control. The right moment came in November 1970, when he simultaneously ousted his last rival and culminated the Alawi rise to power in Syria.
Assad's 30 years in power were marked by the contrast between his initial successes (stabilizing Syria's politics, reviving its economy, performing credibly in war against Israel, taking control of Lebanon) and his later failures (economic decline, inability to appoint a successor, failure to end the conflict with Israel, humiliation by Turkey). More broadly, what may have seemed to be smart policies in the early years, such as aligning with the Soviet Union and adopting its form of command economy, a generation later looked like a huge mistake.
Worst of all, Assad never managed to overcome Muslim revulsion toward his Alawi identity. Tensions brewed for years until finally erupting in 1982 in the form of a fundamentalist Muslim revolt in Hama, Syria's third largest city. Assad responded with such ruthlessness, massacring some 20,000 Syrians, that the problem never resurfaced. It was also not solved. As Alawis attempt to continue ruling Syria after Assad's death, they will almost certainly face renewed expressions of Muslim enmity. Most likely, this will present the foremost political challenge for Assad's successors.
But it will hardly be the only one. Assad leaves behind him a country in roughly as terrible shape as when he took it over in 1970. Yes, Syria benefited from the stability he brought, but it was a desolate, repressive stability that masked, and did not solve, the deep tensions in Syrian society. As in the former Yugoslavia, these could explode after the long-time dictator's demise. Yes, Syria has benefited from the oil produced on Assad's watch, but now the economy suffers from too much dependence on that single commodity. Yes, effectively annexing Lebanon was a great achievement, but the deep resentment of that country's population will be a force Syrians will have to reckon with shortly.
Assad's rule, like that of every totalitarian despot, must in the final analysis be judged not just a failure but a tragic failure that needlessly caused millions to suffer.