History. November 13, 1970: Hafez Al Assad seizes power in Syria
Half a century already! Fifty years ago, Hafez Al Assad, Bashar’s father, took power in Syria after what turns out to be more of a coup than a coup. It was November 13, 1970. Assad, who has already made a place for himself in the highest spheres of a state controlled by the Baath Party, Minister of Defense and having the upper hand over the army, is at knife edge drawn with Salah Jedid, rather Marxist, then the strong man of the country following… of a coup d’etat perpetrated on February 23, 1966 and who leads the party. Two powers already face to face but who preferred to postpone their clashes for pragmatic reasons. Until the contradictions of this alliance between civilians and soldiers came to light.
An extraordinary congress of the Ba’ath party was called on October 30, 1970, two days after the death of the great Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. His disappearance not only moved the Arab populations. It has also shaken a number of governments, including that of Syria. In 1958, Damascus and Cairo had come together in a United Arab Republic (UAR), which did not contribute little to the emergence of new fault lines within the Syrian political class, including after the disappearance of this RAU, in 1961.
Tension and confusion
This October 30, therefore, at the opening of the Baath meeting, the tension is high. Especially since a certain state of confusion reigns in the country, as noted by Souhaïl Belhadj, political scientist, doctor of the Institute of political studies of Paris. “At the request of Jedid, yet himself from the army, the debates focus on the merits of the privileges granted to officers and their interference in the conduct of the country’s affairs. Two days before the close of the congress, Assad invites 500 officers to a meeting at the headquarters of the Air Force to inquire about their state of mind and to urge them to play their part in the continuing political crisis. On November 12, Jedid got the congressmen to come out formally against the retention of Assad in his functions as party leader and minister. The following day, in the morning, Assad retaliates and orders his men to surround the building where the work of the Congress is completed and proceeds to the arrest of Salah Jedid as well as that of his closest lieutenants ”(1) . At the same time, a purge is triggered within the military, government and party to eliminate Jedid’s supporters. A task entrusted to Muhammad Al Khuli, head of the intelligence services of the Air Force, one of the lieges of Hafez Al Assad. What they call the “corrective movement” is taking hold in Syria, but still under the aegis of the Baath Party.
An operation without bloodshed, even popular. “Carried at arm’s length by the merchants of the souk of Damascus, Hafez Al Assad was greeted as a savior when he seized power in 1970. Both by the artisans and traders mobilized by the urban bourgeoisie as well as by all of the population, worn out by the radicalism of the neobaasists. For many, General Al Assad embodies a new beginning, ”writes journalist Caroline Donati (2). An episode which, in any case, showed the tactical and political intelligence of this lion (this is the meaning of Assad in Arabic), who died relatively early (born in 1930, he was barely 70 years old) but who knew how to build an extraordinary regime that survived him.
Sharing the same condition of social marginalized
To understand its structures and organization, it is important to look at the process that allowed Hafez Al Assad to take the reins of the country. And first of all to look back on the years which followed the independence of Syria, proclaimed on April 17, 1946, after the departure of the last French mandatory troops.
In this regard, Souhaïl Belhadj points out that “the institutional instability and the repeated political crises which agitate the post-independence period are linked to the persistence of a particularly deep social conflict, bringing together groups aggregated according to family solidarity. , denominational, regional, corporate ”(3). This brings us to the heart of the problem, whereas many authors or historians would only see the evolution of Syria and the seizure of power by Hafez Al Assad as a stranglehold by the Alawites (4). On the contrary, for Souhaïl Belhadj, “the ethno-religious and class nature of the social conflict in Syria has made political leadership unique. It is this particular type of conflict which conditioned the momentum and the unitary logic of the group of men which seized power in 1970 ”(5). He continues: “The cohesion of this group – leader and partisans – was due to a spring of loyalty based on the sharing of the same condition of social marginalized, the refusal of traditional“ feudal ”domination, adherence to a pan-Arab ideology. Syrian (regionalist) and the experience of founding experiences such as youth activism or participation in two coups d’état. “
Trompe-l’œil political liberalization
This helps to better understand that, contrary to widely spread assertions, the seizure of power by Hafez Al Assad does not exactly correspond to an Alawite “hold-up”. So it is true that “a political leadership that wants to last can not ensure the sole support of a minority social group, moreover confessional, or resort to an intemperate use of force and violence”, recalls Belhadj. Which does not exclude these two realities. But if we consider only these two elements, then power is necessarily unstable and could not have lasted five decades.
As Matthieu Rey, associate researcher at the Collège de France, underlines, “the system is based on circles of power” (6). At the top, Assad surrounds himself with relatives, not necessarily Alawites. “Everyone has contact with other strata of power, forming as many circles. (…) In addition to the secrecy and informality of the center, there is the constant search for integration, based on the tacit acceptance of a distribution of powers. Anyone can take place in the system of power provided that the role of the leader is not questioned and that he defends his position. This is particularly true at the beginning of his reign – which will have lasted thirty years all the same – when “the system enjoys a certain popularity”. He demonstrated liberality and even openness by creating the National Progressive Front (FNP), to which the Communist Party (which, at that time had not yet experienced a split), the Nasserists… A political liberalization in trompe-l’oeil, Assad not tolerating any uncontrolled opposition, that is to say not pledging allegiance to him, with his procession of repressions, imprisonments and assassinations.
The “lion” knows how to fall back on its feet
In fact, Hafez Al Assad has always had in mind a necessary balance between domestic and international contingencies. He knows the regional place occupied by Syria, on the border with Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq. He knows the story of the irredentist Bilad Al Cham, this great Syria which included Palestine, Jordan and Lebanon. He is not fooled by the intentions of the great powers, the USSR and the United States, in this period of the cold war. Washington wants to contain Soviet influence and take pride of place in access to energy and therefore strategic resources. He has not forgotten that in 1955 Turkey and Iraq sealed an alliance, the Baghdad Pact, in which the United Kingdom, Jordan and Lebanon will participate in one way or another. A pact which resulted in pressure on Syria with concentrations of Turkish and Iraqi troops at the borders. A situation which, at the time, had pushed Damascus, under the impetus of a Baath party not yet hegemonic but participating in the government, to get closer to Nasser’s Egypt. This would lead to the creation of the United Arab Republic (RAU) and push the army to consider a rapprochement with the USSR, in particular for the delivery of arms. The attitude of Nasser, who maneuvered to ward off the Communists and the Baathists and transferred Syrian officers to the depths of Egypt, would result in a major dispute. It results in the formation, by military executives, of a clandestine committee in which we find Hafez Al Assad.
This is one of his qualities: he knows how to get back on his feet, whatever the situation. Thus, when the Six-Day War broke out in 1967, he was Minister of Defense. The defeat against Israel is terrible and heavy for the Arab forces engaged in the conflict triggered by Tel Aviv. Israel occupies the Egyptian Sinai, Gaza and the Palestinian West Bank and the Golan Heights. With the exception of Sinai, the other territories are still occupied. Against all expectations, Hafez Al Assad remains in his post as Minister of Defense. A few years later, during the Jordanian crackdown on Palestinian resistance – Operation “Black September” – he refused to send the air force to help the Palestinians and cover a column of Syrian tanks dispatched to lend them a hand. . This will not prevent him, once installed in power, to make the recovery of the occupied Golan his priority. Without success, as we know.
A rapprochement with the United States
“In the aftermath of the 1970 coup, Assad set out to consolidate his political ascendancy, which no Syrian political leader has managed to do since independence”, notes Souhaïl Belhadj (7). Hence the rapidly implemented project of an “institutional transformation” aimed at remedying “chronic political instability (…) by raising the question of the limits of collegial leadership of the Baath party”. Internationally, he hastens to tour Arab capitals to gain recognition from his peers and reconnect with the Arab League. He wants both to avoid destabilization and to try to build a coalition to retake the territories occupied by Israel. Moreover, “Syrian foreign policy balances between a strong collusion with the USSR and a rapprochement with the United States”, notes Matthieu Rey (8).
In the early 1980s, ill, he began to think about his succession when the fall of the USSR was announced. He turns his alliances around by getting closer to the United States. He had already had the green light from the West to invade Lebanon in 1976. Subsequently, in 1991, he joined the international coalition formed against Iraq. He died on June 21, 2000. His eldest son, Bassel, had been approached to take over, but he was killed in a car accident in 1994. Another of his sons, Bashar, took up the torch. Fifty years after the coup of November 13, 1970, the Assad family still reigns over Syria.