- Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East by Patrick Seale
Tauris, 552 pp, £19.95, October 1988, ISBN 1 85043 061 6
Few countries were less promising for aspiring politicians than Syria in the Sixties. To begin with, the chances of merely staying alive during the political struggles were not high. Then, even if you managed to avoid death, there was a high risk of imprisonment or exile. In any case, it was not enough to belong to the victorious political party or even to the triumphant faction of the victorious political party. You had to be a member of a tiny committee of a splinter of a faction of a greatly divided organisation, the Arab Socialist Renaissance Party, known as the Ba’th. Then at least you had a two-to-one chance (against you) between elimination and success. If you chose one straw (Muhammad Umran’s), you would be dead; if you chose a second (Salah Jadid’s), you would still be in prison; and if you chose a third, you would be Asad. A Roman emperor of the third century had more chance of honourable retirement than a Syrian Ba’thist leader in the Sixties.
The eventual winner of a fiendish series of coups and counter-coups between 1963 and 1970 was a very prudent, wholly unostentatious military figure. Hafiz al-Asad came from one of the less impoverished peasant families in a remote Alawite village consisting of a collection of mud and rough stone huts. He was tough, serious and intelligent. Patrick Seale does not tell us much about his subject’s personal tastes – only occasional asides about his sweet tooth or the fact that he was ‘apparently uninterested in sexual experiment’ – but he emphasises the dogged qualities developed through his upbringing. His father’s comparative success gave Asad the chance to go to school in Latakia, an experience which encouraged a good measure of class resentment and a desire to take part in political and social reform. After school his career was shaped by his attachment to the Air Force and the Ba’th Party.
According to Mr Seale, Asad’s ‘commitment to conspiracy’, together with a capacity for ‘cautious, patient planning’, emerged at a young age. Such a prudent approach to political violence seems to have been rare in Syria at the time. During the Sixties, coups generally took the form of a daylight attack on the Army headquarters and the Damascus radio station, or a tank assault on the prime minister’s house. Asad was more gentlemanly: he eventually took power in a bloodless coup, his tanks deployed merely to ensure that his rival’s supporters gave up their jobs in the press and the radio. But before that there were several years of violent struggle between the Ba’thists and their Nasserist, Communist and Muslim enemies. And once the Ba’thists had got rid of their opponents, they turned on themselves: the Ba’th Regional Council against the Ba’th National Council, the Military Committee against other Ba’thists. The brutality of the Ba’th understandably puzzled Egypt’s President Nasser. In 1969 he asked after some Syrian Ba’thists and was told that they were dead or in prison or in exile. ‘Ah, you Ba’thists,’ he exclaimed. ‘You’re so harsh with each other! When we in Egypt formed our Free Officers movement we agreed that if we ever fell out, each of us would be free to return to private life.’