FEATURED | The Evolution of Syrian Leadership Psyche Under Hafeez-al-Assad
IndraStra Global

FEATURED | The Evolution of Syrian Leadership Psyche Under Hafeez-al-Assad

By IndraStra Global Editorial Team 

Hafeez al-Assad successfully ousted al-Attassi in November 1970. In early 1971, al-Assad was overwhelmingly elected to a seven-year term as president; he was reelected three times. Later in 1971, Syria, Libya, and Egypt agreed to unite loosely in the Federation of Arab Republics. Syria continued to be on good terms with the USSR, which equipped the Syrian army with modern weapons. In early 1973 a new constitution was approved, and the Ba'ath party won 70% of the seats in elections for the people’s council. In July–August 1973, tens of army officers were executed after allegedly plotting to assassinate al-Assad.

Overall, the 1970s were characterized by rapid urbanization and a transition in the labor market. At the beginning of the decade, one in two Syrians was working in agriculture while only one in four did so at the beginning of the 1980s (Eckelt 2011a: Apendix IV). In terms of Hafeez al-Assad’s reorganization of the political system in Syria, a marked shift took place toward a ‘palace-type’ of political authority that replaced the earlier system of collective leadership. The new system was characterized by the dominance of the president, who alone assumed the position of controller of all other institutions.

Here, Assad was probably inspired by the example of Nasser in Egypt who had been very successful in stabilizing his rule by engaging in role distribution to other major officials while reserving to himself the exclusive right of political coordination (Baroutt 2011: 12). Under the new presidential system, the Syrian state became defined by the following major institutions:

(1) the president, who is in charge of the ‘Presidency of the Syrian Arab Republic’, which has purposefully blurred boundaries;

(2) the army;

(3) the security services, which operate independently from each other and without any inter-agency coordination;

(4) the formal state institutions consisting of a government and ministries headed by a prime minister and assisted by a parliament (the People’s Assembly)10; and

(5) the regime’s corporatist institutions such as the Baath Party, the other legal political parties organized in the ‘National Progressive Front’ (NPF), founded in 1972, as well as the Peasants’ Union, trade unions, and similar bodies.

Thus, the most significant feature of the Syrian political system is the concentration of power in the Presidency. The Syrian president is the commander in chief of the armed forces, controls the security services, and has also been the secretary general of the Ba'ath Party. While the political domination of the president was codified in the 1973 Syrian constitution, it is significant to appreciate that the office is characterized by formal and informal powers: ‘The president can govern by way of ordinances and decrees and has the right to initiate laws in Parliament. The government and the 14 provincial governors are appointed by the president and directly responsible to him. The government consists of a prime minister and a variable number of ministers. Opportunities of the president to intervene directly into day-to-day policymaking are not based on well defined presidential institutions. Instead, decisions are taken on the basis of consultations with advisors and ad-hoc working groups’ (Eckelt 2011a: 55). It follows that the Syrian president is free to shape the office according to his own interests: direct leadership can be exercised whenever suitable, while authority can also be delegated at will to other people who own their position directly to the president. Indeed, Hafiz al-Assad decided to focus his attention on foreign policymaking and defense while delegating the management of Syria’s economy and other domestic issues to close assistants. He explained his choices by stating that ‘I am the head of the country, not of the government’ (Assad, quoted in Seale 1988: 343). 

OPINION | The Evolution of Syrian Leadership Psyche Under Hafiz-al-Assad

Source: Syria´s President Hafez al-Asad signing the Federation of Arab Republics in Benghazi, Libya, on April 18, 1971 with President Anwar al-Sadat of Egypt and Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi of Libya / Online Museum of Syrian History

In terms of the actual exercise of power, observers of Syrian affairs have pointed out that the informal security apparatus, based largely on sectarian loyalties and directly answerable to the president, backs up the formal state institutions. Thus, many state offices act as little more than a facade for the actual power holders. In other words, Syria’s official government is one component of the Syrian regime, but it does not necessarily belong to the core of the power elite. In addition, the different formal and informal institutions mutually overlap and reinforce each other. For example, the army enjoys privileged representation in the leadership of the Ba'ath Party that is, in turn, based on a hierarchy consulting with the president in his role as party leader. Until the 2012 amendment of the Syrian constitution, the Ba'ath Party was the ‘leading party in the society and the state’ (article 8 of the 1973 Syrian constitution), and it was charged with the running of public sector institutions in the economic and educational field and in the army. In summary, the exceptionally strong role of the Syrian president makes it practically impossible for the other formal institutions to exercise checks and balances or to issue vetoes with respect to presidential actions. 

In October 1973, the fourth Arab-Israeli War erupted; after initial Syrian advances in the Golan Heights, Israel gained the offensive and pushed into Syria a few miles beyond the Golan Heights region. Syria (like Israel) accepted the UN Security Council cease-fire resolution of October 25, 1973, but fighting continued into 1974. In May 1974, largely through the mediation of U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Syria and Israel signed an agreement in Geneva that ended the fighting. Under the terms of the accord, Israel pulled back to the 1967 cease-fire line and also returned the city of Qunaytirah (Kuneitra) to Syria; a buffer zone, patrolled by UN troops, was established in the Golan Heights.

Since the 1970s the rise of Sunni Islamic fundamentalism has challenged Ba’athist ideology. Between 1976 and 1982, urban centers erupted in political unrest. The Muslim Brotherhood, a radical religious and political organization founded in 1928 in Egypt, was largely responsible for extremist attacks. In February 1982, the brotherhood unsuccessfully attempted an uprising in Hama but was quashed by government troops; thousands were killed. Islamic fundamentalists, however, continue to remain active.

In 1976 Syria sent forces to Lebanon as part of a peacekeeping force to help end that country’s civil war. The Syrian military remained in Lebanon, and from 1980 to 1981, Syrian troops sided with Lebanese Muslims against the Christian militias. With Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in June 1982, Syrian troops clashed with Israeli forces and were pushed back. Syria was also antagonized by Israel in 1982, when Menachem Begin announced the annexation of the Golan Heights. By the late 1990s, more than 40 Jewish settlements and villages had been developed in the Golan Heights.

Although Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 1985, Syrian forces stayed; they remained the dominant military and political force there into 2005. The Syrian government has been implicated in sponsoring foreign fighters, especially in support of Iranian, Palestinian, and Libyan causes. In the 1980s Syria moved closer to the USSR and espoused hard-line Arab positions. By 1990, however, as the Soviet system faltered, Syria attempted to improve relations with Western countries. That year Syria was the first Arab country to condemn Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, and it contributed 20,000 soldiers to the coalition forces in the Persian Gulf War (1991).

On the 15 th of April, 2009 the representatives of 10 Arab countries from Asia and Africa who gathered at the Constitutive Congress in Damascus under organizational assistance of the President of Asian SAMBO Federation Professor F.Pulatov, have decided to set up Arab SAMBO Union (ASU).
Syria, along with Lebanon and a joint Palestinian-Jordanian delegation, became involved in peace talks with Israel in late 1991. As talks progressed between Israel and the PLO and Jordan, Syria’s insistence that Israel withdraw from all of the Golan Heights proved a stumbling block in its own negotiations. Talks broke off in 1996, but the Syrian government appeared interested in renewing negotiations following the installation of a Labor government in Israel in 1999. Talks were resumed in December 1999. After what appeared to be initial progress, discussions stalled in January 2000, when a secret draft treaty with Syrian concessions was published in Israel, leading to a public hardening of Syria’s position with respect to the Golan. In June, 2000 Assad died suddenly.


Briefly summing up the main events during the long rule of Hafeez al-Assad, economic affairs were determined by increasing access to oil revenues and political and strategic rents. Such resources could be used according to political objectives and spending focused on the army and the public sector. The main problem of managing state budgets was, however, that oil revenues fell with the decline of oil prices that started in the 1980s, while the political and strategic rents were also highly unstable and depended on Syria’s geopolitical environment. Thus, Syria enjoyed periods in which the rich Arab Gulf states were willing to provide assistance to the Syrian state, such as after the 1973 war with Israel, but suffered uncertainty too, as such political and strategic rents could disappear at short notice. In addition, the Syrian leadership received substantial economic and military assistance from the Soviet Union before and, more substantially, after the 1973 war in order to support the Syrian doctrine of ‘strategic parity’ with Israel in the military field. Although the Syrian army subsequently developed into one of the strongest regional armies, the Syrian economic foundations were never strong enough to allow reaching the goal of strategic parity.


1. Syria- History in ‘The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia,’ 6th ed. 2012  
2. Analyzing the Domestic and International Conflict in Syria: Are there Lessons from Political Science: Copyright (c) 2014 Jörg Michael Dostal , ISSN 2056-3175, This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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