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HAFEZ ASSAD: 1930-2000

Death of Syria's Assad Complicates Peace Prospects

Mideast: Parliament declares 40-day mourning period for the 69-year-old president. Bashar Assad is seen as likely successor to his father, whose ironfisted rule lasted nearly 30 years.

June 11, 2000|JOHN DANISZEWSKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lean and gaunt in appearance, abstentious in his personal habits, and legendary for a long-winded negotiating style that tended to wear down interlocutors, Assad had a tumultuous political career that nonetheless gave modern Syria its most enduring period of stability.

A member of a minority religious sect, the Alawites, he was appreciated by Syria's Christians and other minorities for protecting them from the Sunni Muslim majority. But his relations with the dominant class of Sunni merchants and landowners in Syria always were problematical.

There was resentment among many Sunnis that their country was ruled by an Alawite, an offshoot of the Shiite branch of Islam. Alawites account for only 13% of the population, and some Sunnis look down upon them.

Political tensions flared in 1982 when members of the Sunni-dominated Muslim Brotherhood in the central city of Hama rebelled, calling for an Islamic government. That episode firmly established Assad's reputation for ruthlessness. Acting through his brother Rifaat, the commander on the ground, Assad ordered the Hama city center destroyed, killing an estimated 10,000 people.

A socialist during his youth and then leader of the Syrian section of the Arab nationalist Baath Party, Assad aligned Syria with the Soviet Union during the 1970s and 1980s.

But in 1990, with the Soviet power structure waning, Assad made a strategic switch and turned toward Washington, lining up in the U.S.-led coalition against Iraq's Saddam Hussein after Baghdad invaded Kuwait. Personally, Assad loathed Hussein, who led the rival Iraqi version of the Baath Party.

After the successful conclusion of war with Iraq, Assad for the first time publicly declared his goal of peace with Israel but conditioned on the full restoration of the Golan, a strategic patch of land that overlooks the ancient Syrian capital, Damascus, barely 25 miles away.

Syria took part in the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference and embarked on bilateral negotiations with Israel between 1992 and 1996. But then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated in November 1995, harbored doubt about the sincerity of Assad's quest for peace and preferred to concentrate on the Palestinian peace track. Nevertheless, toward the end of the process the two sides appeared to be nearing an accord in which Israel would fully withdraw from the Golan in exchange for Syria's recognition of Israel, normalization of relations and security guarantees on both sides.

Rabin's successor, Shimon Peres, halted the talks in 1996 during a wave of terrorist attacks against Israel, gambling on winning early elections. Instead, he was defeated by hard-liner Benjamin Netanyahu.

When Ehud Barak succeeded Netanyahu last year, there initially were hints from both sides that renewal of negotiations could lead to a speedy breakthrough.

Three brief negotiating sessions were held in the United States. But they never got past the main obstacle: Syria's insistence that Israel leave all of the land it took in 1967--and Israel's equally strong conviction that it should be allowed to retain a sliver of that territory, the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee, in order to secure its main source of fresh water.

Assad was willing to compromise on anything but territory. At a crucial meeting March 27 in Geneva with Clinton, his last trip outside Syria, Assad learned to his disappointment that Barak was bent on retaining that piece of shoreline. Assad's response was immediate: There can be no deal.

The loss of the Golan in 1967 had been a crushing blow for Assad. According to his biographer, Patrick Seale, Assad fainted with fatigue at the Defense Ministry, and after the fighting stopped he retired to his home and for three days refused to see anyone.

"Without a doubt," Seale wrote in his 1988 biography, "the defeat was the decisive turning point of his life, jolting him into political maturity and spurring the ambition to rule Syria free from the constraints of colleagues and rivals who he felt had led the country to disaster."

An Obsession With the Golan

Getting the Golan back became Assad's guiding obsession. As armed forces commander during the 1967 Middle East War, Assad considered himself responsible for the loss of the territory and went to war in 1973, having plotted a coordinated attack with Egypt's Anwar Sadat, to recover the Golan.

The 1973 attack, which took place during the solemn Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, caught Israel by surprise and Syrian forces managed to push the Israelis off most of the Golan. But the United States poured in military aid to Israel, and Assad was further undermined when Sadat agreed to a cease-fire in the Sinai, allowing Israel a free hand to regain most of what it had lost in the Golan.

For most of his time as Syria's leader, Assad was trying to do his best to maintain his country's position despite having few military or political assets. With the exception of the 1973 war with Israel, his essential weakness often forced him to react to events.

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