Mahmut Toprak/ World Bulletin
Hafez Assad: Anti-Imperialist Hero or Israel’s Hidden Ally?
Hafez Assad came to the power in Syria forty three years ago, on 21 November 1970. Political life in Syria in the 1960s had been marred with vicious power struggle in which the Syrian army and the Ba’ath party were heavily involved. The founders of the Ba’ath party in the 1940s, Michael Aflaq and Salah al-Bitar, were two prominent ideologues of high reputation across the wider Arab world, advocated the involvement of military elites in politics as a part of progressive revolution.
It seems evident that they had a success in this design as a significant number of leading army officials became affiliated with the party in the late 1950s. Yet the malaise of this ill-defined program became quickly exposed once these officers turned hostile against each other, carrying out counter-coups with no clear ideological or political agenda.
The Syrian Ba’ath went through a period of silence between 1958 and 1963, partly as a result of Nasser ‘s political maneuvers during the United Arab Republic. Yet the party returned back to power in 1963 when the pro-Ba’ath forces executed a successful military coup. Hafız Assad was given a seat in the military council where he was to run ideological indoctrination programs for the army officers. One year after this he was elevated to the position of Commander of Syrian Air Forces where he would exercise a more critical influence over Syrian politics.
Internal feud in the Ba’ath organization turned more acute after 1965; a group of young Ba’athists led by al-Jadid, a close partner of al-Assad, was opposed to the rule of Aflaq and al-Bitar, the old guardians of the party. As each group run its own secret cells within the army it was no surprise that they played armed forces off against each other. Neo-Ba’athist group launched another military coup in 1966 as a result of which the old party elite conceded the defeat and were forced to leave the country. A watershed moment for not only the Ba’ath regime in Syria but also in the wider Arab world as the spiritual founders of the Ba’ath movement were expelled from their home country.
Hafez al-Assad, now the Minister of Defense, was one of the key figures of the new regime. He knew that they needed time to consolidate their grip in power; the Syrian army was still divided on ideological grounds and the ruling elite had nothing to rely on but the armed force. Under these circumstances Al-Assad was to face a challenging test in his first year, namely the Arab-Israeli war in 1967.
No need to mention the catastrophic consequences of this war for Syria. Israel destroyed almost entire Syrian air forces in a single day and occupied the Golan Heights with no Syrian counter-offensive. A closer look at the Israeli military operations and the Syrian response reveals surprising facts; there was no Israeli attack on Golan Heights during the first four days of the War and the Syrian army was well-positioned across the region.
In some of the biographical works of the Israeli soldiers involved in this campaign it has been underlined that the Syrian soldiers responded them only in confined areas of the region. Most of them had already declined, leaving the Israeli army an open space to move forward without serious resistance. Of course, there were bloody clashes at certain points, but that the overall number of Israeli losses was estimated around 200 hundreds confirms these accounts of Israeli soldiers.
What turns out to be a more crucial question is, then, who were responsible for this strategy on the field? Al-Assad, the Minister of Defense at that time, were rather concerned with consolidating his domestic power and well aware that he needed the backing of Syrian army to eliminate his rivals within the establishment. Accordingly, later in his memoirs he accused Salah Jadid, toppled by Assad in the 1970 coup, of broadcasting the false radio message claiming the fall of Qunaytra, capital of Golan (the city had not fallen to the Israelis at that time. This was one of tragic moments causing the disintegration of Syrian forces on the field). Al-Assad did nothing to stop the advancing Israeli army and prevented his forces from engaging a full-scale engagement with the invaders. In the end, Syria lost the Golan Heights only with trivial military losses, making it possible for the army leadership, namely al-Assad, retains their power in domestic politics.
Hafez Assad’s first encounter with Israel is full of suspicious decisions, doubtful exchanges and controversial engagements. His rhetoric has always been instrumental in covering a bigger political master plan he envisaged. His performance during the 1967 War was one of the early signs of this pattern, on which this research will look at in greater detail in the following sections.Last Mod: 19 Kasım 2013, 15:12