Middle East History: It Happened in February; Coup d'Etat Puts Hafez Al-Assad in Position to Rule Syria

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MIDDLE EAST HISTORY: IT HAPPENED IN FEBRUARY; Coup d'État Puts Hafez al-Assad in Position to Rule Syria

It was 30 years ago, on Feb. 23, 1966, that Hafez al-Assad gained his first cabinet post, a position he used to become what he remains today -- Syria's most enduring modern leader. The event was another bloody coup, the 13th in the 20 years since Syria received its independence from France in 1946. At least 50 people were killed. Assad's reward for taking part was promotion from chief of the air force to Syria's minister of defense.(1) He was 35 at the time.(2)

It was from this period that the deep animosity that apparently continues today developed between Assad and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The two men quarreled over strategy to confront Israel and the role of Arafat's fledgling Fatah guerrillas. Arafat wanted to spark a general war with Israel before it became stronger, while Assad and the Syrian government recognized Syria's weakness and sought to substitute a guerrilla people's war for a conventional war. The argument became so heated that on May 6, 1966, Assad ordered Arafat imprisoned for six weeks.(3) The incident caused what Assad biographer Patrick Seale called "intense mutual antipathy" between Arafat and Assad.(4)

Israel's successful launching of a surprise war against both Egypt and Syria in 1967 traumatized the new defense minister. Assad vowed that Syria would never again suffer such humiliation. As Patrick Seale noted: "The importance of this moment of national ruin in Assad's career cannot be overestimated. Without a doubt, the defeat was the decisive turning point in his life, jolting him into political maturity and spurring the ambition to rule Syria free from constraints of colleagues and rivals who he felt had led the country to disaster...After the war, as the lessons of the defeat sank in, Assad's good nature gave way to something more steely, and it was from this time on that he set about in earnest building a personal power base in the armed services."(5)

By the fall of 1970, Assad was ready to make his move. On Nov. 13, Assad staged a bloodless coup.(6) Three days later, his appointment as Syria's prime minister was announced and his rule began. Assad was officially elected president on March 12, 1971, and two days later was sworn in for a seven-year term.

Assad, a member of the Alawite minority sect of Islam, representing only about 11 percent of Syria's population, was to prove Syria's most losing-lasting and effective modern leader. His rule was stern. When well-armed radical Islamists revolted in early 1982 in the conservative city of Hama, starting a month-long insurrection. Asad responded with overwhelming force. Syrian troops killed any where from 5,000 to 20,000 people in the city.(7) At least 15,000 machine guns were taken from the rebels. Assad cited the capture of sophisticated U.S. communications gear as evidence of America's complicity, a charge Washington denied.(8)

One of Assad's first acts as ruler was to reaffirm Syria's rejection of the U.N. Security Council land-for-peace Resolution 242. He believed the resolution would freeze the conflict at the cost of the Palestinians' claims arising from their expulsion in 1948 and he doubted Israel would return to Syria the Golan Heights it occupied in 1967. Only war could deliver those claims, Assad believed.(9) He, along with other Arab states and the Palestinians, has since embraced the resolution.

Seale observed: "From the moment of coming to power Assad was in the grip of an obsession. He was convinced that Israel had won the Six-Day War by ruse, catching the Arabs napping, but that it was not inherently unbeatable. He longed to wipe away the stain of defeat, which had affected him personally and profoundly, restore the confidence of his troops, recover the land, and show the world that, given a chance, the Arabs could acquit themselves honorably. The need to fight another round was his obsession. …

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