Syrian President Assad dies

Published June 11, 2000|Updated Sept. 27, 2005

The iron-willed leader, who seized power in a coup nearly 30 years ago with a dream of Arab unity, dies at age 69, reportedly of a heart attack.

Hafez Assad, the air force officer who ruled Syria for nearly three decades, transforming a Middle East backwater into an introverted regional power that endured as the center of unbending Arab hostility toward Israel, died Saturday in Damascus. He was 69.

Assad, a survivor of several assassination attempts and at least one heart attack, died of a heart attack, according to medical officials quoted by Agence France-Presse.

Among the Arab autocrats in the perpetual drama of Middle East peace, none was more courted, or more aloof, than the Syrian leader. No lasting peace could hold without him, but none could be negotiated with him either. A treaty remained elusive largely because of his role in demanding back every inch of Syrian territory, specifically the Golan Heights.

At home, Assad's longevity in office rested on a rigid intolerance of dissent, most starkly illustrated by the slaying of thousands of residents of Hama in February 1982 to end an Islamic insurgency. His was a suspicious police state, barring modern instruments like the fax or the Internet that might somehow become tools to undermine his government.

Assad often dreamed of a Saladin-like role as the unchallenged leader of a united Arab front. His regional ambitions were largely a failure and often took precedence over profound domestic concerns that had dragged Syria into poverty.

For most Syrians, Assad was the only leader they had ever known. Members of parliament wept as his death was announced Saturday. Stores closed, and the red-and-black national flag was lowered to half-staff.

Assad will be buried Tuesday, with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright representing the United States at the funeral.

Assad rarely traveled, even within Syria, and as he aged his public appearances were limited to holidays and religious ceremonies. But his withdrawn life was also devoid of the lavish trappings common to other Arab rulers. His home and office, where he often worked 18-hour days, consisted of two modest villas facing each other in a residential neighborhood in Damascus.

The stream of American presidents, secretaries of state and other officials who crossed his doorstep over the years, hoping to keep the latest peace effort from foundering, emerged with a grudging respect for Assad. He was at once courteous and calculating, professorial and persistent, unleashing flashes of self-deprecating humor during marathon negotiating sessions. The length of the sessions were as legendary as they were nerve-racking.

When Henry Kissinger arrived in 1973, becoming the first American secretary of state to visit in 20 years, their initial meeting lasted 6{ hours. The press, uninitiated in the ways of Assad, wondered if Kissinger had been kidnapped.

"His tactic was to open with a statement of the most extreme position to test what the traffic would bear," Kissinger wrote in Years of Upheaval, the volume of his memoirs published in 1982. "He might then allow himself to be driven back to the attainable, fighting a dogged rear guard action that made clear that concessions could be exacted only at a heavy price and that discouraged excessive expectations of them."

Assad was most renowned for lecturing foreigners, even American presidents, about the unfair colonial fragmentation of the Middle East. In case anyone missed the point, his reception hall was dominated by a large painting depicting the Arab armies under Saladin defeating the Crusaders during the battle of Hittin in 1187, a not-so-subtle reminder that he considered present circumstances temporary.

"Even in his bitterness toward Israel, he retained a certain wry humor about their conflicting views, and he seemed to derive great patience from his obvious sense of history," President Jimmy Carter wrote in The Blood of Abraham, a 1985 study of the region.

Syria was a young nation adrift before Assad's rule. The government had been a revolving door swung repeatedly by coups after independence from France in 1946, resulting in little development and a population weary of chaos.

The bloodless power grab he staged in November 1970 brought stability and the first modern construction of roads, schools and hospitals. Assad followed the Soviet model of a single-party police state, constructing a network of 15 competing intelligence agencies.

It was in regional politics, however, that Assad most sought to create a legacy, remaking Syria into a power among the Arabs. He was inspired by the Arab nationalism preached by President Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt, and like many of his generation, he sought to inherit Nasser's role as the voice of Arab unity.

His first priority as president was trying to erase the stain of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war defeat. In that he had a ready ally in President Anwar Sadat of Egypt. The two profited from competition between the United States and the Soviet Union, with Moscow pouring billions of dollars of weaponry into their arsenals.

After becoming enmeshed in military and diplomatic conflicts with Israel and Lebanon, a rebellion threatened Assad at home.

In June 1980, extremists lobbed at least two grenades at Assad, who kicked one away while a bodyguard flung himself on the second, losing his life. In revenge, the military unit controlled by Assad's brother, Rifaat, descended on a prison and gunned down at least 250 religious dissidents in their cells.

Muslim extremists next rose up in 1982 in Hama. They killed Baath Party officials and broadcast appeals from the mosques for a nationwide insurrection.

In pursuing the rebels, the Syrian military leveled half the city, killing at least 10,000 residents. The carnage brought widespread condemnation in the West, but it helped ensure Assad's utter control. When the choice came down to spilling blood or preserving his hold on power, there was really no question.

Syria also was linked to brutal attacks carried out by notorious terrorist groups like the Abu Nidal organization, whose targets included Israelis and Jews, Syrian dissidents, Jordanian diplomats and pro-Arafat Palestinians.

Inside Syria in the 1990s, Assad was consolidating his position and preparing for his eldest son, Basil, to succeed him.

In a December 1991 plebiscite on a fourth, seven-year term as president, Assad got 99.9 percent of the vote. As one Syrian writer noted wryly, "Even if Allah had run, he wouldn't have done as well."

But Assad's dynastic plans were threatened when Basil died in an automobile accident in 1994. Then, Assad picked his next son in line, Bashar, who had been training in London to be an eye surgeon, as his heir apparent. Assad is survived by four of his five children.

In recent years, rumors of his death would periodically circulate, but there had been no recent indication that his health had declined sharply. Lebanese President Emil Lahoud, in a letter to Bashar, wrote that he was the last to speak to the Syrian leader.

"The last phrase he told me was that our fate is to build for our children an assuring future and it is our duty to make sure they inherit better than what we inherited," Lahoud said in a letter distributed by his office. "Then there was a sudden silence and the line broke off."

_ Information from the Boston Globe, Knight Ridder and the Associated Press was used in this report.