Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East 
by Patrick Seale.
Tauris, 552 pp., £19.95, October 1988, 1 85043 061 6
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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.’

Before becoming President in 1970, Asad was Minister of Defence in a calamitous ministry. Its principal weakness, according to Mr Seale, was that ‘three young doctors of fiery socialist views were catapulted into the three main offices of state.’ Their naive radicalism created havoc in the economy and contributed to the disaster of the 1967 war. Asad deserves some of the blame for the war and for the fiasco in 1970 when Syrian troops entered Jordan in support of the PLO and were driven out by King Hussein. But he had little influence over the doctors’ policies and little sympathy with their reckless, dogmatic government.

Asad came to power determined to bring about the social and economic transformation of Syria and to turn his country into a major regional power capable of countering the expansionist plans of the Israeli leaders. His chief problem was that his government, like its predecessors, had no legitimacy in the eyes of most Syrians. Even if they agreed with some of his aims, they did not want them to be carried out by a faction of the Ba’th Party dominated by members of the Alawite religious minority. Asad’s rule was therefore based on force from the beginning, its chief supports being the Army and the security services, its civilian props provided by a much-purged Ba’th Party. It was in fact a personal rule, a one-man dictatorship, as Asad himself demonstrated when his flamboyant younger brother Rif’at, in charge of the Defence Companies, challenged him on the streets of Damascus in March 1984. Driving without guards past rows of Rif’at’s tanks, Asad confronted his brother in person. ‘You want to overthrow the regime?’ Asad asked. ‘Here I am. I am the regime.’ Rif’at backed down and later went into exile.

Syria is a notoriously difficult country to extract information from, but Patrick Seale has managed to acquire a large amount of new material for this fascinating book. No Western writer knows as much about the country as he does, and his persistent research has revealed things which might otherwise have remained hidden for ever. The first part of the book, describing Asad’s rise to power, is an enthralling narrative of political intrigue, and a fine sequel to his excellent earlier work, The Struggle for Syria (1965, revised edition 1986).

Mr Seale has his detractors, who accuse him in general of ‘toeing the Damascus line’, and in this case of writing an apologia for Asad in return for the help he was given in Syria during his research. Two points need to be made here. The first is that Asad does not emerge from this book as a particularly attractive person: intelligent, usually of sound judgment, but also dull and rather ponderous. The book is not hagiography. Seale discusses the regime’s many blemishes on human rights, lists its economic failures as well as its successes, and makes no attempt to pretend that life in Syria is very pleasant. Euphemisms and cases of special pleading are rare enough to stand out: ‘Asad did not revel in killing,’ he tells us after describing the Hama insurrection in which as many as ten thousand people may have been killed, ‘but resorted to it only for raisons d’état or in what might laxly be called self-defence.’ Perhaps the argument itself is rather lax. Only psychopathic dictators ‘revel’ in killing; the others revel in power and, like Asad, are often prepared to kill a lot of people in order to keep it.

The second point is that Mr Seale has not attempted to write either an impartial life or an official biography. As he explains in the preface, the ‘book is an attempt to explain what the world looks like from the seat of power in Damascus.’ And this is surely a useful exercise. In the West we are usually being exhorted to look at the view from Jerusalem: little Israel beset by malevolent hordes championed by that ruthless ogre, Russia’s man in the Middle East, Hafiz al-Asad. But from the Syrian capital things look a bit different. To the south-west is Israel with its superb Armed Forces and nuclear weapons, Israel entrenched on Syria’s Golan Heights, Israel shooting demonstrators in the West Bank, Israel periodically raiding or invading Lebanon. To the west there are Israel’s close allies, the Maronite Christians, and to the south is the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan, a traditionally pro Western enemy of the Ba’th. To the north Turkey admittedly does not seem to present much of a threat, but to the north-east is Iraq, its appalling regime at this moment threatening Syria and supplying weapons to the Lebanese Maronites.

Asad’s principal aim after taking power was to restore Arab unity and to rebuild Arab strength so that sooner or later Israel would be forced to relinquish the territories it had captured from Jordan, Syria and Egypt in 1967. The only way of achieving this, he told President Sadat of Egypt, was through the formation of a united Arab front guided by a single policy. It was on that basis that he planned and fought the war of 1973. Sadat, however, who was dough in the hands of any flatterer, had two policies: one (his real one) which he followed with Kissinger (‘my friend Henry’), and the other which he pretended to follow with Asad. Unfortunately, Kissinger also had two policies: his real one he told the Israelis, and with the other he duped Sadat.

There has never been a better chance for a comprehensive peace in the Middle East than in the period following the October war. It was destroyed by Kissinger, who cared nothing about a solution to the central issue of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Palestine question, but worked instead for a separate peace between Egypt and Israel. By returning Sinai to Sadat, he reasoned, he would remove the principal military threat to Israel and allow Zionism an easy life and expansion in Lebanon and the West Bank. Of course he did not tell this to Sadat, who continued to believe that ‘my friend Henry’ would sort the whole thing out. But Asad, who could see what was going on, implored the Egyptian leader not to make a separate peace. Later, in Damascus at the end of 1977, Asad pressed him not to go to Jerusalem, but Sadat was adamant, arguing that a grand gesture from him would be reciprocated by Begin. It wasn’t. Just as he had once been duped by Kissinger, he was now comprehensively duped by the Israelis. At Camp David Sadat and Carter even thought they could handle Begin and Dayan, a pitiful notion when one compares those two naive and fundamentally decent men with the Israeli duo, two of the toughest and most obstinate characters in 20th-century politics. Asad’s fears have since proved justified. Kissinger’s legacy to the Middle East, as Patrick Seale points out, consists of the Israeli invasions of Lebanon and the repression in the West Bank and Gaza.

If the Arab-Israeli conflict has occupied Asad since the beginning of his presidency, the Lebanese civil war, shortly to complete its 14th year, has been hardly less time-consuming. During the first year of fighting, Asad played the role of mediator, sending his foreign minister into Lebanon to promote a series of moderate constitutional reforms which should have been acceptable to both sides. These proposals, which sought to ensure a slightly fairer share of political power for the Muslim sects, have remained as the basis of his plans for Lebanon. After a year of peaceful mediation, however, Asad felt obliged to send troops into the country to stop one side winning. The Syrian President needed a draw. If the Maronites won, this would strengthen the position of their Israeli allies, while a victory for their left-wing opponents allied to the PLO would provoke an Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon. In the spring of 1976, when the second of these results seemed imminent, the Syrian Army intervened to prevent it. For the next six years, the Syrians remained in most of the country (though not in the south or the Maronite areas), trying to contain new outbreaks of violence and attempting vainly to find agreement on constitutional reform.

Asad’s position in Lebanon was overturned in 1982 by Israel’s invasion of Lebanon and the siege of Beirut. The Israeli leaders believed they could destroy Syrian influence by conquering most of the country, expelling the PLO from Beirut and installing their protégé, Bachir Gemayel, as president. Bachir was assassinated and replaced by his brother, but the Israelis and their American backers still thought they could obtain an Israeli-Lebanese agreement that would confirm Israel’s gains in the country at the expense of Syria. George Shultz duly arrived in Lebanon and decided that Asad need not be brought into the discussions. He did not seem to understand why Syria might object to Israeli overlordship in Lebanon and reacted petulantly when Asad tried to explain his objections. Later, with Syrian encouragement, Asad’s Lebanese allies thwarted the American-Israeli designs and the Israeli-Lebanese agreement of May 1983 was cancelled. Three years after the invasion, Israel had retreated to a ‘security zone’ on the border, the American and other peace-keeping forces had departed, and the Syrians were still there. Today Asad’s role in Lebanon is much the same as it used to be – trying to stop his allies killing each other and unsuccessfully encouraging political reform.

On the issues of Lebanon and the Arab-Israeli conflict, Mr Seale’s exposition of the view from Damascus is perceptive and lucid. It becomes rather less so when he discusses other, less understandable aspects of Syrian regional policy. Perhaps this is because he himself finds them less understandable. We can appreciate why Asad’s suspicions of Israel and the US led him to oppose Kissinger, Sadat, Begin and Shultz. But it is difficult to understand why Jordanian embassy officials in Europe had to be killed and car-bombs set off to prevent an agreement between Jordan and the PLO which might have led to negotiations with Peres on the West Bank. It is not easy to work out what he had in mind when he encouraged the insurrection against Arafat inside Fatah which led to Palestinian guerrillas attacking their own camps. Even more incomprehensible was the decision to allow Syria’s Lebanese allies, the Shi’ite Amal militia, to devastate again and again the Palestinian camps in Beirut which had experienced such terrible massacres in the past. Perhaps Asad had convinced himself that Arab salvation was possible only through him and that everyone – Palestinians, Lebanese, Jordanians as well as Syrians – must be coerced into accepting his view.

‘More than any Arab statesman of his day,’ Mr Seale writes in his final pages, ‘Hafiz al-Asad represents the Arabs’ aspiration to be masters of their own destiny in their own region.’ He acknowledges that this aspiration remains largely frustrated, but points out that Syria now has greater political weight than at any time over the last twelve hundred years. The balance-sheet of achievement and failure is perhaps too complicated to draw up: hard-won victories could be undone tomorrow, apparent failures could still turn out all right. General Franco was once described as the least bad and most intelligent of the Francoists, and perhaps a similar compliment might in the end be awarded to Asad. After all the violence of the Sixties, perhaps Syria did eventually find itself in the hands of the wisest and least bad of the Ba’thists.

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