Hafez Assad: National Hero or a Tragic Alternative?

“Most Syrians, especially the generation that never knew any other ruler, came to see no alternative” were Hunnebusch’s words when writing about Hafez Al-Assad’s personality cult. The definition of a national hero is relative, and due to the lack of diversity in the political spectrum, citizens of long-established dictatorships rarely have the ability to find this definition. By the end of Hafez Assad’s leadership in 2000, a generation of Syrians did not have a political consciousness that expanded beyond the Assad family and the surrounding elite. There are many factors that contributed to the Assad’s monopoly of power, and subsequently the political consciousness of Syrians: The country’s desperate need for political stability with constant Israeli threats on its Southern borders, Hafez’s “corrective movement” which appealed to the middle-class elites on all sectarian grounds, and the failure of the only political alternative at the time, political Islam. This paper argues that Hafez’s personality cult and rise to power are based on the aforementioned three contextual factors, which left Syrians with no alternatives in the early 1970s until the Syrian Presidential Monarchy was bequeathed to Hafez’s son, Bashar Al-Assad.

The timing of Hafez Assad’s rise to power was suitable for Syria’s need for political stability and to address the humiliation of the 1967 Six-Day War. The “Corrective Movement”, merely Assad’s military coup, was a new wave of pan-Arabism (the last being the failed attempt to establish the United Arab Republic with Nasserist Egypt). Assad proved to be extremely stubborn in his pursuit of the nationalist desire to liberate the Syrian territories occupied by Israel (Hannebusch 68). This principle culminated in the simultaneous Syrian-Egyptian offensive on Israel on Yom Kippur in 1973 (October War). According to Hannebusch, the state-public relations at the beginning of Assad rule were checked by the outbreak of the 1973 war, which rallied Syrians against Israel and behind the government (68). Moreover, Assad’s coup d’état came during a time in which Syria suffered through political instability from frequent military coups, ever since the last French soldier departed in 1946. In his Syria: A History of The Last Hundred Year, John McHugo argues that in the beginning of Assad’s rule, few had predicted he would manage to maintain his power until 2000, but almost everyone agreed that the political stability would be established only with a firm military hand (155). This claim is supported by the Hannebasch who justified the establishment of the new Presidential Monarchy: “The new priority put on state consolidation over revolution and awareness of the factional fragility of collegial leadership led the new elite to explicitly opt for a strong presidential regime” (67). This discussion leads us to the analysis of the social classes to which the Assad regime most appealed.

Despite the fair description of his rule as an Alawite hegemony, Hafez Assad’s regime recognized that establishing any sustainable political structure in Syria would require the involvement of the Sunni elite, mostly the Aleppo and the Damascene notables. At the beginning of his rule, Hafez Assad “made overtures to the business community and members of the old Sunni notable elite, enticing some of them back to Syria to join in the rebuilding of the country” (McHugo 184). While trying to revive his image as a pious Muslim by appealing to religious scholars, Hafez Assad also succeeded in persuading the rich merchants of Aleppo to line up behind him (McHugo 197). Assad, intelligently, recognized that in order to raise his popularity among most of the Sunni populace in the country, he needed to increase the number of Sunnis in the high ranks of the army and his political party. Hannebusch reasons: “he [Hafez Assad] also deliberately co-opted significant number of them [urban Damascene Sunnis] into the top ranks of the party and many non-party technocrats into the government” (67).

Analyzing the role that Assad played as a national hero in the context of Syria must include a comparison between what he personally offered, as opposed to the most prevalent political alternative, namely political Islam. Coming from a peasant background, Hafez Assad focused on improving the conditions of the long-marginalized Syrian peasantry class. McHugo argues that “the most important [strand to the corrective revolution] is the transfer of power from the old, Sunni notable elite to the ambitious, newly educated sons of the countryside… nationalization and redistribution of land had deprived the great families of their power” (188). While Hafez appealed to the peasantry, he also brought education, electricity, piped water, railroads to a large area of the country. Life expectancy and literacy rates increased while the education gap between women and men decreased significantly by the 1990s (Mchugo, 186). For a viable political structure to prevail as an alternative for Hafez Assad, political Islam needed to offer a better regime that would suit the political and social dynamics of the country.

The failed and brutally massacred Islamic insurgency of 1982 in Hama did not offer Syrians a better alternative, because of the significant percentage of minorities and peasantry in the country and the lack of appeal of political Islam in Syria at the time. By the time the Muslim Brotherhood uprising of 1976 in Aleppo broke out, Hafez had already taken on the image of a “Protector of minorities” in the country. He appealed to both the minorities and the Sunni elite in the two largest cities in the country, yet left behind lower-class Sunnis and the historically marginalized Sunni notables in other urban centers, namely Hama. Moreover, peasants were wary of the potential return of landlords and merchants to power were the Assad regime to end. Thus, the Muslim Brotherhood lost both the minorities and the radical secular left. Hannebusch, moreover, argues that the anti-populist version of Islamic ideology lacked sufficiently wide appeal in Syria (102). These factors made the only political alternative available for Syrians in the early 1980s unappealing to a significant percentage of the population.

In any country that is not a dictatorship, the conception of national heroism is mostly embodied in the deeds and the achievements of the political leader to be elected. In the context of Hafez’s dictatorship, Hafez’s successes as a “national hero” depended on the tools and the context of which he took advantage to maintain his regime. The timing of his rise to power was suitable for another wave of pan-Arabism to counter the Israeli threat. Moreover, his ability to play the rhetoric of an inclusive leader of progressive and politically diverse parliament and opposition have gained him grounds in different sectarian groups in the country, namely the Sunni notables of Damascus and Aleppo. What largely contributed to his success, however, is indeed the lack of political alternatives for Syrians. The failure of the Muslim Brotherhood to form a politically viable opposition to the regime has contributed to their tragic loss that inflicted the country as many as 40,000 lives in the Hama massacre committed by the Assads: both Hafez and his brother, Rifaat.



Hunnebusch, Raymond. Syria: Revolution From Above. London and New York: Routledge. 2001. Print

McHugo, John. Syria: A History of The Last Hundred Years. New York: The New Press. 2014-2015. Print.