Hafez al-Assad Takes Control of Syria

Hafez al-Assad assumed control over the Syrian government, ensuring long years of stable but authoritarian rule by the conservative (Nationalist) wing of the Syrian Baՙth Party. The Nationalist victory was assured only after a struggle with socialist elements within the party, which favored military intervention in outside conflicts and closer ties to the Soviet Union.

Summary of Event

In 1947, in the wake of World War II, the Baՙth Party Ba{ayn}th Party[Bath Party] (officially, the Arab Socialist Baՙth Party) was formed as a reaction against Western colonialism and capitalism. The Arab term Baՙth translates as “resurrection.” The founders were Syrian middle-class intellectuals Salah al-Din al-Bitar and Michel Aflaq. The party itself, through its espousal of pan-Arab Pan-Arabism[PanArabism];and Ba{ayn}th Party[Bath Party] nationalism, Nationalism;Arabs rapidly developed branches in neighboring Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon. In 1952, the Arab Socialist Party, Arab Socialist Party led by Akram al-Hawrani and whose orientation tilted more toward the Soviet Marxist model, merged into the Baՙth movement. From the beginning, tensions existed between the Baՙthists’ Marxist-socialist Marxism element and its more nationalistic faction; however, the true extent of the intraparty split would not become manifest until after the Baՙthists joined with sympathizers of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser to take control of the Syrian government in 1963. Syrian coup of 1969
Revolutions and coups;Syria
[kw]Hafez al-Assad Takes Control of Syria (Feb. 27, 1969)
[kw]Assad Takes Control of Syria, Hafez al- (Feb. 27, 1969)
[kw]Syria, Hafez al-Assad Takes Control of (Feb. 27, 1969)
Syrian coup of 1969
Revolutions and coups;Syria
[g]Middle East;Feb. 27, 1969: Hafez al-Assad Takes Control of Syria[10200]
[g]Syria;Feb. 27, 1969: Hafez al-Assad Takes Control of Syria[10200]
[c]Government and politics;Feb. 27, 1969: Hafez al-Assad Takes Control of Syria[10200]
[c]Cold War;Feb. 27, 1969: Hafez al-Assad Takes Control of Syria[10200]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;Feb. 27, 1969: Hafez al-Assad Takes Control of Syria[10200]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Feb. 27, 1969: Hafez al-Assad Takes Control of Syria[10200]
Assad, Hafez al-
Jadid, Salah
Atassi, Nureddin al-
Hussein I
Bitar, Salah al-Din al-
Aflaq, Michel
Hafiz, Amin al-
Hawrani, Akram al-
Nasser, Gamal Abdel
[p]Nasser, Gamal Abdel;and Syria[Syria]
Tlass, Mustafa

Syrian politics had usually been unsettled, and even quite chaotic, since independence from France had been achieved in April, 1946. The instability of the situation was aggravated by the centuries-old religious divisions within the boundaries of the Syrian state and by fallout from the Arab-Israeli conflict. From 1958 to 1961, Syria had been governed from Cairo, Egypt, as part of the United Arab Republic United Arab Republic (UAR), led by Egyptian military strongman Gamal Abdel Nasser. Then, on September 28, 1961, the Syrian military, exasperated by what it saw as Egyptian policies to “colonialize” Syria, dissolved the UAR. Two years of short-lived and erratic regimes led to the March 8, 1963, coup that finally installed the Baՙthists and Nasserites in power.

An authoritarian regime, the National Revolutionary Command Council, National Revolutionary Command Council, Syrian under General Amin al-Hafiz as president and Bitar as prime minister, quelled a bid for a military takeover by the Nasserites under Jasim Alwan on July 18, 1963, and eliminated all pro-UAR elements from the government. However, they failed to counteract a coup from within their own Baՙth Party on February 23, 1966. This coup was initiated by the party’s Military Committee, which by then was dominated by officers from the minority Alawite (or Alawi) sect. Alawite sect By then, the Baՙthists had established firm control as the only legal political party, but the infighting among its factions, and even certain individuals within these party factions, had become intense. Aflaq and al-Hafiz went into exile; Bitar was imprisoned but was later able to escape abroad.

The new leadership—headed by General Salah Jadid, deputy secretary-general of the Baՙth Party, and President Nureddin al-Atassi—was confronted with the reality of an increasingly venomous rift between the party’s Marxist-Socialist faction (which they favored) and the Nationalists (who were coming increasingly under the grip of a coterie of Alawite officers led by Hafez al-Assad, a general in the Syrian air force). Assad was named minister for defense in the Atassi cabinet. The Alawites, a radical branch of Shiite Islam, were an often deprived and sometimes persecuted minority group, comprising 12 percent of the Syrian population. Prior to Assad’s rise to power, the Alawites had been mainly peasant farmers, and generally they were undereducated in comparison with more favored elements in Syrian society. Jadid, Atassi, and their wing of the Baՙth Party tried to establish a Marxian economic structure and sought to strengthen their country’s ties to the Soviet Union. Favoring a decisive resolution to the conflict with the Israelis, Jadid’s regime allied Syria with Egypt and Jordan in the Six-Day War Six-Day War (1967)[Six Day War] of June 5-10, 1967. For the Arabs, this conflict proved to be an unmitigated military disaster, and the Israelis seized the Golan Heights and the city of Quneitra from the battered Syrian forces.

The brunt of the unpopularity inevitably incurred for this defeat fell, curiously, not on Defense Minister Assad but on Jadid and Atassi. Realizing that power was beginning to slip through his fingers, Jadid, in a desperate move aimed at eliminating potential opposition, planned to move against Assad. Instead, the defense minister, assisted by his Sunni Muslim ally and deputy defense minister, Lieutenant-General Mustafa Tlass, successfully countered by securing control in the Alawite home region of Latakia Province and in portions of Damascus on February 27, 1969.

From that moment, Assad played the dominant role in the now divided government; forces loyal to Jadid and to Assad were locked in a virtual standoff. The final phase in the power struggle came as a result of Jadid’s desire, in the face of opposition from Assad and Tlass, to have Syria intervene in the conflict in Jordan Jordanian-Syrian relations[Jordanian Syrian relations]
Syrian-Jordanian relations[Syrian Jordanian relations] between the army of Jordanian King Hussein I Hussein I and the Palestine Liberation Organization Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Hussein’s troops broke the Palestinians and drove them from Jordan in the “Black September” Black September (1970) clashes of 1970. Syrian forces crossed the border to intervene in support of the PLO and, after a brief series of sharp engagements (September 19-22, 1970), sustained severe losses and were hurled back. Assad’s refusal to commit the Syrian air force to the battlefront, which allowed the Jordanians air superiority, was a decisive factor in Syria’s defeat. Instead, having consolidated their forces, Assad and Tlass used the air force and selected infantry units to stage a coup—later dubbed the Corrective Revolution Corrective Revolution (1970) —on November 13, 1970. Jadid and Atassi were arrested, and Assad assumed the dictatorial powers that he would maintain until his death on June 10, 2000, when they were inherited by his son Bashar al-Assad.


Although the takeover of Syria by Hafez al-Assad brought order that Syria had hitherto lacked, stability came at the price of much personal liberty. Assad’s Machiavellian policies were designed to keep disparate groups in line and achieved a coerced, rather than a consensual, unity based on a fear of the regime rather than loyalty. As is the case for many totalitarian states, veneration for the dictator often took on cultic proportions. Assad, though sustaining a militant rhetoric against Israel and the Western powers, never matched deeds with action and was careful to keep the Soviets at arm’s length. Syria thus became more insular during his years in power and generally confined its interventions to neighboring Lebanon. Syrian coup of 1969
Revolutions and coups;Syria

Further Reading

  • AbuKhalil, As’ad, Geoffrey Aronson, Louay Bahry, et al. The Middle East. 10th ed. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2005. In the section on Syria, Assad’s political astuteness and popular frustration with political instability are shown to have contributed to his early successes.
  • Goldschmidt, Arthur, Jr., and Lawrence Davidson. A Concise History of the Middle East. 8th ed. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2006. Provides, among other things, a useful overview of Syria within the broader regional context; al-Assad is portrayed as a devious, practical politician who invariably chose survival over ideology.
  • Hopwood, Derek. Syria, 1945-1986: Politics and Society. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1988. A succinct and readable appraisal of Syria’s historical and political landscape, with a clear analysis of the importance of the split within the Baՙthist movement.
  • Mackey, Sandra. Passion and Politics: The Turbulent World of the Arabs. New York; Dutton, 1992. Depicts Syria as a deeply fissured land, and Assad’s rise from poverty to power as attributable to Alawite solidarity and his own ruthless personality.
  • Seale, Patrick, with Maureen McConville. Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988. The most complete biographical sketch of the enigmatic Syrian strongman at the time of its publication. Stresses his Alawite roots and presents his life as the struggle against one opponent after another.

Syria and Egypt Form the United Arab Republic

Middle East Turmoil Leads to U.N. Action in Lebanon

Israel Defeats Arab States in the Six-Day War