Hafez al- Assad
(1928—2000) Syrian Baath statesman, President 1971–2000
(b. 6 Oct. 1930, d. 16 Oct. 2000).
President of Syria 1971–2000
Born in Qardaha into the Alawi sect, he became an officer in the airforce. He joined the Ba'ath Party in the 1950s, and became part of a group of nationalist officers who organized the successful coup of 1963. He was appointed commander of the airforce, and in 1965 moved up to the leadership of the Ba'ath Party. In the internal struggles of the party, he became a leader of the military faction, which he supported in the 1966 coup. He was rewarded with the appointment of Minister of Defence, though he came to oppose the doctrinaire rigidity of President Jadid. He took power in a coup in 1969, and consolidated his power in another coup in 1971. In 1971 Assad established the People's Council, by which he was elected President (confirmed in a plebiscite the following month).
Together with his bitter rival, Hussein II of Jordan, and his more erratic ally, Gaddafi, Assad became one of the most skilful politicians of the Arab world. At home, he secured his regime through the application of ruthless methods against the opposition, which came mainly from Islamic fundamentalists objecting to his secularism and his Alawi origin. Espousing state socialism and nationalization, he sought assistance from the Soviet Union in his opposition to US-sponsored Israel, though he was always careful not to become too reliant on the USSR. He sought to increase pressure on Israel by supporting various Islamic groups in Lebanon. He was rigorously opposed to any conciliation with Israel which might have endangered his claim for the Golan Heights. This explains his hostility to Sadat's Camp David Accords, his opposition to Arafat's PLO for its moderation, and his rejection of the Oslo Accords.
Assad's greatest diplomatic achievement came in 1990, when he used his support for the UN in the Gulf War quietly to secure his authority in Lebanon, since when he acted as the effective arbiter and guardian of that country. The last years of his reign were characterized by low-level contacts with Israel over the Golan Heights, and an attempt to improve relations with the West. In 1999 he replaced his brother, Rifaat al-Assad, in the office of Vice-President with his son, Bashar al-Assad, who succeeded him after his death.