WASHINGTON — President Hafez Assad, like Syria itself, has always perplexed the West. Yet of all the Arab leaders, none has been more skillful and cunning in executing policies that are both predictable and consistent.
Ever since high school, when he led street demonstrations in support of Arab nationalism, Assad has been the odd man out in the Arab world, a contradictory figure who mastered the manipulation of others and built a reputation as a statesman who, though devious, honors his word. Many Middle East watchers consider him the cleverest politician in the Arab world.
What Assad wants for Syria is everything that the Saudis never wanted for Saudi Arabia. He wants his country to be the pivotal and preeminent Arab kingpin, a position normally reserved for Egypt and Iraq.
He wants to be the man without whose cooperation neither peace nor war is possible in the region. He wants to be the dark shadow over Israel, the thorn in the side of the superpowers. And with infinite patience, ruthless brutality and political savvy, Assad has put his blocks into place, one by one.
The man James A. Baker III--the first secretary of state to visit Syria in two years--will meet Friday in Damascus combines the sharp-edged toughness of a military man with the urbanity of a barrister. His conservative business suits are correctly tailored and--with his close-cropped hair, trim mustache and ramrod-straight posture--it is difficult to imagine him in traditional Arab dress, bent in prayer, though his fingers constantly work over a set of amber prayer beads.
Assad does not drink and has not had a cigarette since he quit, cold turkey, his five-pack-a-day habit several years ago. He invokes the name of God often but is guided by political expediency more than by any higher power. He speaks of his desire to promote democracy but watches over his people with 13 military and intelligence agencies. He denounces Israel as the enemy, yet secretly cuts deals with Israel, honoring "red lines" across which his troops do not stray.
Tall and personable, Assad is a product of both his impoverished childhood and Syria's rich cultural heritage. He was born in 1930 in the agricultural village of Qirdaha, near the Mediterranean. His father, a farmer, was an Alawite, a Shiite Muslim minority subsect not known for its religious fervor. And as a youth Assad was said to be deeply affected by the isolation and deplorable conditions of the Alawite community.
By the time he was a teen-ager, Arab nationalism and Zionism were growing in the Middle East as competing forces. Assad joined the nationalistic and socialistic Baath Party while in high school and carried his political activism into the military academy, from which he graduated in 1955 as an air lieutenant. He took further aviation training in the Soviet Union and later established a secret military committee within the Baath Party. The committee formed the framework for his bloodless midnight coup in 1970.
The predictability of Assad's policies reflects his willingness to do anything to promote Syria's influence and Arab prominence on the world stage. When that meant needing better relations with Washington, he would help achieve the release of a U.S. hostage. When it meant abandoning an old ally, Yasser Arafat, he would use Syrian artillery to drive him out of Tripoli, Lebanon.
When it meant controlling Lebanon's destiny, he would send troops to support the Lebanese Christians--thus putting Syria and Israel on the same team--then switching sides and using his troops to back the Muslims and Palestinians.
In a review of Assad's 20-year reign, the human rights organization Middle East Watch said in a report released this week:
"From the very outset, this regime has been a gross human rights violator. Today, in spite of gestures of liberalization, its practices remain repugnant. Having killed at least 10,000 of its citizens during the past two decades, it continues to kill through summary executions and violent treatment in prison. It tortures on a routine basis and arrests and holds thousands without charge or trial."
Although Muslim fundamentalists reject the secular values of Assad's omnipotent Baath Party and view Syria's Alawite-dominated rule as heretical, Assad appears much less concerned about the threat of religious radicals than are his neighbors. While the Saudis, for instance, curtailed liberalization policies when fundamentalists protested, Assad went ahead and let Damascus evolve as one of the Arab world's most cosmopolitan and, by regional standards, wicked cities.
Over glasses of Scotch and Lebanese wine, Syrians and foreigners alike while away evenings in fine restaurants and greet the morrow in nightclubs featuring cabarets and the Arab world's only topless dancers. It is Assad's way of telling his Arab neighbors that he doesn't give a hoot what they think: He runs things the way he wants.