In Defense of Hafez Assad
Jude Wanniski
June 14, 2000


To: Colin Powell
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: The Death of Syria’s Assad

On the working assumption that if George W. Bush is elected President and asks you to be his Secretary of State, I thought you might find it useful to read a memo I requested from Peter Signorelli, the Middle East expert on my Polyconomics staff. In the 17 years he has been with me, Peter has proven himself an extremely careful analyst in separating fact from propaganda, which is the kind of analysis our corporate and financial clients expect of us. You may note yesterday’s editorial in The Wall Street Journal as well as widespread columns and comments, particularly in the New York Post, that portray Assad as a “Monster.” This is most definitely worthless propaganda, spoon-fed to editorialists by outside advisors who have a vested interest in continuing the demonization of Assad after his death, as they did while he lived. If you read the following memo and wish for corroboration, I suggest you invite Rowlie Evans to lunch and get a thorough review from a man who covered the Middle East from the earliest days of Israeli statehood. Now basically retired, Rowlie appeared with his longtime partner on their Saturday CNN Evans&Novak show, with a replay of an interview he conducted with Assad several years ago. You can get a feel from that interview and Rowlie’s comments at the conclusion of the show. But it would be worthwhile for you to get his view first hand of Assad as being an honorable man, one who was a victim of Israel in the 1967 war, not an aggressor. Here is Signorelli’s memo, which came to me independently of my telephone conversation with Rowlie Evans Tuesday morning:

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Part of Assad’s demonization was because he was for so long a Soviet ally in the region. That ended with the coming of Gorbachev, but Israel and its allies found it convenient to maintain his demon image, simply rewriting history in a version that omitted or discarded any facts contrary to the image of the Syria/Assad they wanted to present. The Wall Street Journal seems to be leading the pack in the USA that is intent on portraying Assad as a monster, despite so much evidence to the contrary.

The late President Hafez Al-Assad was pilloried in the Western press as an intransigent Arab revanchist for his insistence that the Golan Heights be returned by Israel to Syria. The Israeli argument, which was retailed by Western media as well, was that Israel was compelled to seize the Golan in the 1967 Middle East War because Syria was using the Heights to shell Israeli settlements below them. Because of that threat, Israeli argued, return of the Golan to Syria would pose major security problems for Israelis. This of course is a grand distortion of the facts behind the seizure of the Golan by Israel.

No less an authority than the late General Moshe Dayan, Israel’s Defense Minister in 1967 who gave the orders to take the Golan, revealed that the seizure of that territory from Syria was not based on any strategic military necessity. Dayan, who initially opposed taking the Golan, acknowledged that the so-called firefights with the Syrians in the Golan were the consequence of conscious and deliberate provocations by Israel and that the bottom-line reason for seizing the Golan from Syria was more a question of acquiring farmland, not security considerations. In an interview in 1976 with Israeli journalist Rami Tal, and kept secret for 21 years before being printed in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot, Dayan revealed that “even on the fourth day of the war [when Dayan gave orders to take the Golan], the Syrians were not a threat to us.” (The authenticity of the interview was attested to by Dayan’s daughter, MP Yael Dayan, in 1997.) Furthermore, Dayan advised “80% of the clashes” with Syria were deliberate provocations by the Israelis. “We would send a tractor to plow some area where it wasn’t possible to do anything, in the demilitarized area, and knew in advance that the Syrians would start to shoot. If they didn’t shoot, we would tell the tractor to advance further, until in the end the Syrians would get annoyed and shoot. And then we would use artillery and later the airforce also...” This was taking place prior to the Six-Day war, with Israeli tanks being deployed against Syria in border skirmishes.

So much is made of Syria’s military intervention into Lebanon, as if it were a war of territorial expansion by Damascus. Look at the situation at the time. Lebanon was torn by sectarian warfare. In 1975, warring Christian and Muslim militias and PLO guerrillas were threatening the territorial integrity of the country as well as the stability of newly elected Christian president Sarkis’s government. In 1976, Syria intervened militarily to restore order (with the tacit approval of both the U.S. and the Arab League), to end the sectarian warfare, and to prevent the decimation of the Lebanese Christian communities by left-wing Muslim militias, particularly in southern Lebanon. Would Israel really have preferred a victory in Lebanon by the (mostly Shi’ite and virulently anti-Israeli) Muslim militias?

Assad’s military response to the threat posed by Islamic extremists of the anti-secular Muslim Brotherhood in the Syrian city of Homa resulted in approximately 10,000 casualties (although we now see the Assad demonizers throwing out ludicrous figures of 20,000 to 30,000 or more casualties from that incident). The government responded with all its military resources. Some accounts try to present the action as if it were the indiscriminate slaughter of innocent unarmed civilians. No doubt there were numerous innocent civilian casualties, but the action was a military response to an armed insurrection against the government. For all their condemnation of Assad’s response, would the Israelis or the West actually have preferred a militantly anti-West, anti-Israel new regime in Syria?

One thing Assad ought to be given credit for is the fact that he played a major role in preventing another outbreak of war with Israel. Although mauled by the Israelis in past wars, the Syrian armed forces, well-supplied over past years by Soviet arms and advisers, is still a formidable force, and still a serious security consideration for Israel. Yet Assad chose to keep his forces in check, lowering the threshold in the region for any war with Israel. An implacable foe of Israeli territorial ambitions, he in no way abandoned insistence that Israel abide by myriad UN resolutions calling upon it to restore land seized from the Palestinians, but he clearly kept that struggle from returning to armed hostilities. That was no small accomplishment, especially given the growing mass sentiment and support in the Arab world for resolute struggle by any means necessary against the Israeli intransigence of the Begin and Netanyahu years.