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Sunday, June 18 2000 08:11 15 Sivan 5760


The secret of the Sphinx
By Larry Derfner

(June 16) - Syrians never expected Hafez Assad to give them freedom or hope, and he didn't disappoint them. He did, however, give them something they'd never had before - stability. Larry Derfner explores how Assad stayed in power for 30 years.

If Bashar Assad wants to excel at being a dictator, he can find no better model than his late father. Hafez Assad was one of the great ones.

"If you made any remark against Assad, and the mukhabarat [internal security forces] caught you, it was the end of your life," recalled Dr. Fouad Baghdadi, a Holon physician who left Syria with some 5,000 other Jews in 1993.

Even in casual conversation with acquaintances, Baghdadi, 56, was terrified to speak of Assad in any but glowing terms.

"Unless I was talking to somebody in my family, or with an old friend whom I trusted 100 percent, I would only say, 'There is no one like Assad; look what wonderful things he does for us,'" said the physician, who lived in Damascus.

David Makovsky, a former Jerusalem Post executive editor who has visited Syria five times, said that when he would ask vendors in a Damascus souk what they thought of the peace process, their unanimous reply was, "If President Assad says it's good, then we're for it."

The vote count for Assad in presidential referendums typically ran about 99.8%, with a few hundred blank ballots marring the results.

"When Assad would get re-elected president, there would be organized demonstrations. We [Syrian Jews] would also go out and cheer and hold signs - 'Assad forever,' " recalled Baghdadi.

Assad's Baath (Arab Socialist Resurrection) party isn't Syria's only political party, but according to the constitution - ratified early in his tenure - it is the dominant one. For example, the president must be a Baath member.

AMNESTY International's 1999 report on Syria said, "The fate of scores of prisoners who 'disappeared' in previous years remained unknown. Torture continued to be routine in some prisons."

The phrases "grossly unfair trials" and "held incommunicado" appeared again and again in the report.

Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said being in Syria is like "entering a time warp." The economy is primitive and threadbare. All of the country's 17 million citizens, in a sense, are held incommunicado.

A Ha'aretz reporter last year found only two ATM machines in the country, both for tourists' use. Banking was handled mainly by moneylenders.

Trade in foreign currency was punishable by death. Fax machines had only recently been allowed, and owners required government licenses.

"To do just about anything, you needed approval from the mukhabarat, and they took their time," said Baghdadi.

For 30 years Assad, who died Saturday at age 69, held his people in poverty, isolation, and fear. Yet the scenes of grief broadcast from Syria were real - either that or that country has hundreds of thousands of Oscar-caliber actors, all capable of sobbing on command.

To someone unfamiliar with Syria's way of life, this spectacle is unfathomable. But then the whole phenomenon of Assad seems impossible to grasp.

After all, he was defense minister during Syria's traumatic defeat in the Six Day War.

Yet three years later, he was president.

He was a member of a Moslem minority sect, the Alawites, who were despised as heretics by the majority Sunnis. He packed the leadership of the mukhabarat and the armed forces with Alawites. Yet the Sunnis, who make up about two-thirds of the population, bowed to Assad's rule.

How did he do it? What was the secret of this man's chilling success - this man whose nickname, going back to his days as an air force officer in the '50s, was "the sphinx?"

HE was born the ninth of 11 children to middling notables in Kardaha, a poor Alawite mountain village. He married above his station and got involved in Baath party politics, which was and still is inseparable from Syrian military politics. At the start of his military career he changed his last name from Wahash, which means "beast," to Assad, which means "lion."

The Syria in which Assad moved was a caricature of a fractious, anarchic Levantine state. Having gained independence from France in 1946, the country was left to sort out its bewildering web of group conflicts: Moslem vs. Moslem, Moslem vs. Christian, religious vs. secular, landowner vs. peasant, communist vs. socialist, Nasserite vs. anti-Nasserite, and many more.

Every Syrian seemingly belonged to at least two or three of the warring factions.

Not surprisingly, political power was attained through raw force and bloodshed. Generals ran the country, as coups and counter-coups followed on each other's heels. One Syrian government in 1962 lasted exactly a week.

Assad threw in with a fellow Alawite officer, Salah Jadid. They took power in a particularly bloody coup in February 1966, and Assad was named defense minister. He was part of a regime that represented the left wing of the Baath party, but that was just his starting point.

From then on, Assad would shift from Left to Right, secular to religious, national to tribal - wherever his instinct for power led him.

When the Six Day War left Syria devastated, then-defense minister Assad managed to escape being singled out for blame - but then, so did everyone else in the Syrian leadership.

Out of mutual self-interest, they "closed ranks and kept their [disputes] from going beyond the inner circle," said Dr. Eyal Zisser, a leading expert on Syria at Tel Aviv University.

Soon, though, Assad made his move against Jadid. In the struggle for the loyalty of high military officers, "Assad portrayed Jadid as a radical socialist concerned with civilian matters, while presenting himself as the strong militarist who wanted to strengthen the armed forces," said Zisser.

The turning point was Black September, 1970. Assad made a move startling in its boldness and treachery, undermining not only Jadid, his president, but his own soldiers while they were at war.

In the PLO's war against King Hussein in Jordan, Jadid, who controlled only part of the armed forces, sent Syrian tanks to aid Yasser Arafat's forces.

"For a variety of reasons - not the least of which was fear of a devastating Israeli reprisal - Assad refused to commit his air force to support the tank units. Jadid and his supporters were politically and militarily humiliated," according to a 1987 US Library of Congress report on Syria.

Less than two months later, Assad overthrew Jadid without firing a shot, and became president of the country.

RIGHT ABOUT this time, The Godfather started playing to movie audiences worldwide. While Assad probably missed it, he displayed a management style that seemed inspired by the Corleones.

With the exception of his wife, Anissa, and his five children, Assad made it a policy to trust no one. (He tried trusting his brothers, Rifaat and Jamil, to help enforce his will, but pushed them roughly aside in the early '80s when they tried to usurp his power.) Assad appointed underlings to run the lethal police, military, and paramilitary units that make up the mukhabarat, but kept them in the dark about one another, unable to join forces, accountable only to him.

In the mukhabarat, the military, and the Baath party, ambitious officials scuttled up and down Assad's ladder, scheming and backstabbing all the way - to the president's delight.

"Assad permitted and manipulated much of this maneuvering because it both revealed and dissipated the ambitions of potential rivals," wrote the Library of Congress report.

Yet Assad was also capable of magnanimous gesture, which augmented his iron fist and devious intellect in keeping his subjects obedient, said Zisser.

A story goes that a Syrian newspaper editor once received an angry phone call from an Assad aide for printing an item that upset the president.

"The editor protested that he didn't catch the offending item because he was at the bedside of his sick father. The editor thought he was a dead man, but later he got another call from the palace, saying Assad wanted to know how his father was, and could the president be of any help," Zisser said.

ASSAD WAS even good to the Jews in the years before he allowed them to emigrate to Israel and the US, when only a few dozen who chose to remain behind, said Baghdadi. He put the change in Assad's policy down to "international pressure."

Syria's patron, the Soviet Union, had collapsed and Assad was turning, at glacial speed, to see what the West might offer. At the Bush administration's urging, he sent a delegation to the Madrid peace talks, and eased up on Syrian Jewry.

"Towards the end he was good to us, very good to us," said Baghdadi. "We could go where we wanted, we held parties in the largest hotels, we were prosperous and happy, and we never got involved in politics."

Assad is better remembered, however, for what he did to the Moslems in the city of Hama in 1982. His troops killed an estimated 20,000 of them to stop an uprising by the Moslem Brotherhood.

To be fair, though, it wasn't a simple, capricious massacre. Some 1,000 Syrian soldiers were killed in the fighting. And the Moslem Brotherhood, which was financed, armed, and trained by Syria's enemies in Iraq and Iran as well as by the PLO, had been terrorizing the country for years.

Made up largely of Sunni Moslems, the Brotherhood's gunmen killed Alawite, military, Baath, government, and even Soviet officials in Syria. On at least one occasion, they tried to kill Assad himself.

In response, the president made membership in the Moslem Brotherhood a capital crime. He held public hangings. Since the assassins often traveled by motorcycle, Assad outlawed motorcycles.

But even toward the Moslem Brotherhood he dangled the occasional carrot. After driving the organization's leader into exile, he appointed the leader's sister to be Syria's minister of culture.

All along he made sure to keep a respectable proportion of Sunnis close to him. His best-known higher-ups - Defense Minister Mustafa Tlas, Foreign Minister Farouk Shara, and former military chief of staff Gen. Hikmat Shihabi - are all Sunnis.

As a rule, though, Assad raised up Sunnis who came from lowly backgrounds like his own. They identified with Assad on the basis of class - another fault line in Syrian society - and bore little if any loyalty to the wealthy, aristocratic Sunni leadership.

Still, Assad gave important jobs and patronage chiefly to fellow Alawites, often preferring Alawites who were also fellow tribesmen and/or clansmen. Frequently he showed a preference for blood relatives or in-laws. He made sure to pay his respects to Alawite tribal elders. And to gain legitimacy among Sunnis, he arranged for a revered Sunni cleric to declare the Alawites to be true Moslems.

He may have been a socialist, but he was also a Syrian. In a plurally divided society, Assad played everyone off against everyone else.

If he was a despot who kept his people in fear and darkness, he was no more despotic than were his many, many predecessors.

"Even before Assad, you could never say what you wanted in Syria," noted Baghdadi. Syrians never expected Assad to give them freedom or hope, and he didn't disappoint them.

HE DID, however, give them something they'd never had before - stability. They weren't afraid of domestic coups or foreign invaders.

"We weren't even afraid of crime," said Baghdadi. "The robbers and thieves knew what sort of punishment they'd get. People walked wherever they wanted to at night."

Assad also gave his people national pride.

"He turned Syria into a regional power, a force to be reckoned with," said Makovsky.

While the Egyptians, Jordanians and Palestinians made their deals with the hated Israelis, Assad said no, and thus held onto what he saw as Syria's integrity.

If he didn't regain the Golan Heights, he did regain Lebanon. And in his last act he godfathered, as it were, the expulsion of the mighty Israeli army from that satellite country of his.

"I'm sure there are people who are truly sad over his death - certainly the Alawites, the Baath party members, and all the people who got rich off of him," Baghdadi said. "But there are a lot of people who are happy he's dead, like the Moslem Brotherhood members whose families Assad wiped out. You won't see them, though, because anybody who isn't grieving is staying away from the cameras."

These dry-eyed Syrians still fear the power of the Lion of Damascus, which now protects his son Bashar, the opthalmologist of Damascus.

The question is: For how long? Even Hafez Assad can't run a dictatorship from the grave. Through Bashar, however, he's trying.

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