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Saturday, 10 June, 2000, 14:58 GMT 15:58 UK
Obituary: Syria's shrewd master
A frail President Assad in Moscow last year
President Assad brought stability to his country, turning Syria into a major player in the Middle East - but he did so through repression.

Feared and respected more than loved, he foisted his personality on his people, both on the streets and on television.

Born in 1930, Hafez al-Assad was a peasant's son. He imposed himself as the country's leader in a coup in 1970 having risen through the ranks of the air force and the socialist Baath party.

He came to power in a coup in 1970
He came to power in a coup in 1970
He showed his ruthlessness in the town of Hama, a former stronghold of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood which, in 1982, was inciting mass uprisings against him. In response, Mr Assad sent his army in and at least 10,000 people were massacred.

Repression in Syria continued throughout Mr Assad's reign and many opponents fled. A personality cult grew up around the president, who was rarely seen in public, even before the health scares of recent years.

Though not an oil producing state, Syria saw a rapid modernisation of its infrastructure under President Assad. Electricity and better roads brought prosperity to a new middle class.

But for those Syrians who were either out of favour, or simply overlooked, grinding poverty remained a daily fact of life.

Power in Lebanon

In 1976 Mr Assad had ordered Syrian troops into Lebanon, the vital buffer state between his country and Israel. Curbing Israel's power and influence was the central plank of his foreign policy.

He had been angry at the way the Palestinians in Lebanon had been besieging the Maronite Christians, believing this would give Israel a pretext for intervening.

Israeli warplanes bomb Beirut in 1982
Israeli warplanes bomb Beirut in 1982
In 1982, when the Israelis did invade, Syrian guerrilla tactics, combined with Mr Assad's shrewd diplomacy, saw them off.

Hafez al-Assad's biographer, Patrick Seale, agrees.

"The Soviet Union gave him support and re-armed him at that crucial moment", he says.

"He was able to abort and destroy an American-brokered accord between Israel and Lebanon which would, in effect, have brought Lebanon into Israel's orbit. That could be said to be his finest hour."

But Mr Assad had drawn the wrath of the West who accused him of being behind the bomb attack on the American base in Beirut which killed 258 marines.

Syria was accused of backing state terrorist acts including the 1985 hijacking of a TWA airliner in Lebanon.

New alignment

Nevertheless, when President Assad committed his troops to the Allied force against his arch-rival Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War, the West backed off from trying to limit Syria's spheres of influence.

Although he presented himself as the only true unifying force in Arab nationalism, Assad was continually at odds with his neighbours, most notably Saddam Hussein's Iraq and fundamentalist Iran.

Securing the Israeli held Golan Heights remained Assad's unfulfilled ambition
Securing the Israeli held Golan Heights remained Assad's unfulfilled ambition
Always central to Assad's foreign policy was his determination to win back the strategically vital Golan Heights, which Syria lost to Israel in 1967.

Their recovery in full was always the stumbling block to efforts to bring about a Middle East peace settlement.

Though he failed in this aim, President Assad, always a pragmatist, became the focal point of Arab hardline opposition to Israel and he brought stability to Syria that must now be in jeopardy in the political vacuum his death will cause.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Mark Urban
"The lion of Syria is laid to rest"
President Assad's biographer, Patrick Seale
"He managed to steer his country through the dangers of Middle East politics"
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10 Jun 00 | Middle East
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