Syria's Ailing Hafez Assad Is Still the 'Lion' the U.S. Must Reckon with in the Middle East

updated 12/19/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/19/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

As American fighter-bombers streaked over the rooftops of Beirut last week, hammering Syrian antiaircraft batteries in Lebanon, the man who had so provoked Washington's wrath reportedly lay ill and possibly dying in Damascus. Having forced the U.S. and his archenemy, Israel, to acknowledge Syria's pivotal role in bringing peace—or war—to the Middle East, Hafez Assad, 53, the self-styled "lion" at the gates of the Arab world, seemed to have ceded his presidency to a committee of confidantes. Many on both sides have wished Assad out of the Mideast picture, but his disappearance during the first direct U.S. Syrian fighting gave the conflict a frightening, unpredictable dimension.

"He's a curious guy," says William B. Quandt, a top Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution. "You've got people who basically want to blast the Syrians now, but who have also said they find Assad the single most intelligent person in Middle East diplomacy. Yet he presides over a country whose policies are as destructive of what we are trying to accomplish in the Middle East as anybody can think of. It's hard to square all these impressions."

Assad, who has cultivated an air of mystery around his leadership, might take that description as a compliment. After 13 years, he has held power longer than any other Syrian leader since his country gained independence from France in 1946. Born into the obscure Alawite religious community, which comprises only 11 percent of Syria's population, he has kept the Sunni Muslim majority under control—and himself alive—by packing his government with family members and fellow Alawites. His brother Rifaat, 50, who commands Syria's brutal security forces, is the right hand of oppression. When the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic fundamentalist cabal seeking Assad's overthrow, staged an uprising last year in Hama, a city of 180,000 some 120 miles north of Damascus, the regime's armored troops razed whole neighborhoods and massacred at least 10,000.

Such ruthlessness has extended to Assad's international dealings. An aspirant to the role of pan-Arab leader last played by Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser, Assad has long wanted to reassert Syria's precolonial claims to Lebanon. Beginning with its 1975 civil war, sectarian strife in Lebanon has provided regular openings for Syrian influence through its "peacekeeping" forces. The Soviets, who see their star rising with Syria's, have helped all along, most recently with 7,000 advisers and a war chest of arms, though Assad has guarded his independence by paying for every last bullet with aid from other Arab nations. Now he has gained on a beleaguered Yasser Arafat in Tripoli for control of the Palestine Liberation Organization. "He's an incredibly strong, important figure, both positive and negative," says one U.S. official.

Assad's rise to power began in the village of Kardaha, near Latakia, where he was born on Oct. 6, 1930. The Alawites were reviled by many as heretics, and Assad's dirt-poor family were pariahs among the outcasts; other Alawites dubbed the clan "Wahsh," meaning pig. When Hafez was old enough, he changed the name to Assad—Lion. The Alawites preach a cyclical view of history. They also hold that true believers may justify a lie to protect their faith, which casts doubts on Assad's public conversion to Sunni Islam in 1970.

Violence appears to run in Assad's family. Two of his brothers reportedly tried to kill each other in a boyhood fight. Hafez, who came of age during the rise of Arab nationalism in the 1950s, agitated for the Baath Socialist Party in his student days and entered Syria's Military Academy in 1952, rising to air squadron leader and training in the Soviet Union. The Baathists seized power in 1963, and Assad was made a major general at 34, then minister of defense in 1966. When faction leader Salah Jadid sent Syrian tanks into Jordan in September 1970, Assad withheld air support. The result was a defeat that gave him the chance to arrest Jadid and assume full power.

Assad's wife, a member of the Makhluf family, and five children live simply in a Damascus villa (a presidential palace is being readied on the outskirts), and though he is reportedly incapacitated from a heart attack, or a stroke brought on by diabetes, he does not drink or smoke. By contrast, Rifaat, the enforcer, enjoys wives, mistresses, palaces and a fortune amassed through corruption. Even so, Assad's relatively stable rule was credited with bringing some prosperity before his bloated military budget and a trade imbalance hurt the economy. Says Henry Kissinger, who negotiated the Israeli-Syrian disengagement with Assad after the 1973 war: "I like him as a person. He's intelligent; he has a good sense of humor and a superb analytical mind. He is very, very tough."

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