Hafez al-Assad was born in Qardaha in northern Syria to peasant parents. The Assad family was from the Alawite Muslim minority (a breakaway sect from Twelver Shi’ism), traditionally the poorest and least powerful group in Syria. Assad became a member of the Ba’ath socialist party, as a teenager in 1946. Like many young Alawites, Assad received a free education in the Syrian military academy.
While at the academy, Hafez al-Assad became lifelong friends with Mustafa Tlass, who would become the Syrian defense minister in the Assad regime. Assad was trained in the Soviet Union, and although he supported pan-Arabism, he opposed the 1958 union with Egypt to create the United Arab Republic (UAR) because of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s dominance of it.
Syria dropped out of the UAR in 1961 with the support of the Ba’ath Party. As the fortunes of the Ba’ath Party rose, Assad was made head of the Syrian air force in 1964. The Ba’ath Party came to power in a bloodless coup in 1966. In a series of complex interparty rivalries Assad supported the military wing, versus Salah Jadid, who advocated a more radical socialist program.
In the so-called corrective revolution of 1970, Assad defeated Jadid and seized power. In the 1971 referendum Assad was overwhelmingly elected president, a position he held until his death. Assad consolidated power by appointing close friends and fellow Alawites, who then owed their advancement directly to him to key positions within the military, intelligence services, and government offices.
The Assad regime, a one-party state with a cult of personality surrounding Assad, proved to be remarkably stable. The infrastructure, including transportation and communication systems, was improved, and the government invested heavily in education, health care, and a huge dam on the Euphrates backed by Lake Assad to increase agricultural productivity and provide electricity for the country.
The regime also spent heavily on the military, the backbone of its support. The status of women was also improved. Syria experienced economic growth in the 1970s, but stagnation set in during the 1980s. Assad was closely allied with the Soviet Union and, after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, suffered a loss of military supplies as well as international support.
Although Assad continued publicly to advocate pan-Arabism, he increasingly adopted a Syrian nationalist stance in regional politics. During the Lebanese civil war Syria was asked by various Lebanese factions and Arab nations to intervene militarily in 1976.
However, after the civil war ended, Syrians troops remained in Lebanon, and Damascus continued to exercise considerable influence over Lebanese politics. In the face of mounting international pressure Syrian troops ultimately withdrew from Lebanon in 2005.
The Assad regime was secular and proclaimed that Syria was a “democratic, popular, socialist state.” The Muslim Brotherhood, dominated by Sunni Muslims, opposed Assad’s secular state and in the early 1980s mounted a bombing campaign of bus stations, military installations, and other targets with the aim of bringing down the regime.
Following a massive uprising in Hama, a brotherhood stronghold north of Damascus, Assad ordered Syrian troops to bombard the city and crush the rebellion in 1982. The brotherhood was defeated, but thousands were killed and much of the old city was destroyed.
Assad strongly supported the Palestinian cause for self-determination, although he frequently clashed with the Palestine Liberation Organization under Yasir Arafat, whom Assad disliked. In negotiations with the United States and Israel, Assad was remarkably consistent.
He demanded the full return of the Golan Heights, Syrian territory lost to Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and not fully regained in the 1973 war, in exchange for a peace settlement. Owing in part to his long rivalry with Saddam Hussein in Iraq and support for the revolutionary regime in Iran, Assad supported the coalition invasion of Iraq in the First Gulf War in 1991 but opposed the U.S. invasion in 2003.
Assad suffered a near-fatal heart attack in 1983, and, while he was still ill, his brother Rifaat attempted a coup. After Assad rallied loyal troops, the coup failed, and Rifaat was sent into exile and by 1988 removed from all official positions.
Assad’s son Basil was initially groomed for succession, but after he died in an automobile accident in 1994, another son, Bashar, an ophthalmologist by training, was picked to follow his father as president. Hafez al-Assad was a pragmatic, authoritarian, and consistent political leader. After Hafez al-Assad’s death in 2000 Bashar was elected president.
He followed his father’s general policies but loosened political controls and attempted to liberalize the system. He encouraged technological developments, particularly the Internet and computer technology. Bashar had to balance the desires of old Ba’ath hard-liners, however, who were loath to give up the privileges and power enjoyed under his father with political liberalization.
Owing in part to increased oil revenues, the Syrian economy grew in the 1990s. Like his father, Bashar demanded the return of the Golan Heights, and Israeli-Syrian negotiations failed to resolve the impasse. By 2006 Bashar faced mounting opposition from Israel and the United States for his support of Hizbollah, the Islamist Lebanese movement that continued to confront Israel along its northern border. The Assad regime seemed threatened by possible military attack from both Israel and the United States. In September 2007 Israelis conducted an airraid on a possible Syrian nuclear cache.