Archived declassified files from the Central Intelligence Agency point to successive U.S. administrations supporting Syria’s long-serving President Hafez al-Assad, the father of current President Bashar al-Assad, as a bulwark against Arab radicals. Israel also recognized Hafez al-Assad as the “most pragmatic” of all the Arab leaders of his day…
In fact, in 1980, longtime CIA Middle East operative Wilbur Eveland told the magazine, The Middle East, that under Allen Dulles in the 1950s, the CIA secretly backed Arab nationalist leaders like Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser. The United States wanted to gain favor with rising pan-Arab leaders like Nasser because of the unpopularity of feudalistic monarchs like Egypt’s King Farouk who was overthrown by Nasser in 1952. However, two years later America’s flirtation with Middle Eastern nationalism waned as the CIA’s Kermit Roosevelt, the son of President Theodore Roosevelt, helped oust Iran’s nationalist Prime Minister Mohamed Mossadeq from power, replacing him with the exiled Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.
According to Eveland, Miles Copeland, a chief assistant to Roosevelt, passed a suitcase containing $3 million in cash to one of Nasser’s aides, telling him it was for items like new uniforms and cars for Nasser to maintain his officers’ loyalty until more CIA help could arrive. Nasser took the money but considered it a bribe so he used the money to build the Cairo Tower, used for television transmission. Nasser considered the tower, which was also funded with Soviet money, to be an extended middle finger directed at Washington and the CIA. The tower soon became known as “Roosevelt’s erection.” By the time the tower was completed in 1961, America’s brief love affair with Arab nationalism had long-since ended and its new-found relationship with anti-socialist and anti-communist Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Islamic zealots was beginning, not only in the Middle East but also in Pakistan, Indonesia, and Malaysia.
Helping to tarnish the image of Arab nationalist leaders like Nasser in Egypt and Ahmed Ben Bella in Algeria was Israeli propaganda that overstated Communist influence over the Arab nationalist governments and movements in the Arab world. This propaganda was readily accepted by Dulles and Israel’s chief interlocutor (some would say Mossad’s top spy) inside the CIA, James Jesus Angleton.
A declassified formerly Secret CIA report on the Muslim Brotherhood, dated October 1982, indicates the CIA backed Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s improved relations with the Muslim Brotherhood as Sadat purged Nasserites and leftists from the Egyptian government, expelled Soviet military advisers from Egypt, and loosened Nasser-era restrictions on the Brotherhood. The CIA was also encouraged by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s disillusionment with the Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution in Iran because of its “excesses.” The CIA claimed that unlike the “fanatical” Shi’a Muslims, the Brotherhood, founded by Sunni Muslims, was “more willing to attempt, when possible, to influence the policy of secular regimes by nonviolent means.”
Relations between Sadat and the Brotherhood deteriorated after Sadat’s trip to Israel in 1977 and the subsequent Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. However, the CIA claims that the Brotherhood was not part of the conspiracy by Muslim radicals to assassinate Sadat in 1981 and President Hosni Mubarak’s subsequent crackdown on Islamist radicals did not include the Brotherhood.
However, it is in Syria where the Brotherhood has never had any legal or semi-legal presence, having launched bloody rebellions against the Alawite-dominated government of Hafez al-Assad in Aleppo in 1980 and Hama in 1982. In June 1979, the Brotherhood killed 50 Alawite cadets at an Aleppo artillery school. The 1980 rebellion in Aleppo began after the government declared that membership in the Brotherhood was a crime punishable by death. A Brotherhood-linked group thought to be financed by Saudi Arabia, the Lions of Mohammed, conducted a series of assassinations of prominent Alawites, beginning in 1976. One of the victims was Assad’s nephews. Russia’s current support for Bashar Assad likely stems from what occurred to Soviet citizens during the Brotherhood’s terrorist campaign of the 1980s. Another formerly Secret CIA report from July 1980 states: “Since January 1980, at least 12 Soviet advisers have been assassinated.”
Assad’s response to the Aleppo and Hama rebellions was swift and the Brotherhood was dealt a crushing defeat. The 1982 CIA document calls the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, the dominant component, along with more radical Saudi- and Qatari-funded Salafist Wahhabis, of the present Syrian rebel coalition, capable of conducting “terrorist operations in Syria” with “government leaders, including [Hafez] Assad . . . primary targets for assassination attempts.” In a heavily-redacted portion of the CIA report, the Brotherhood’s funding is called “secretive.” However, the CIA determined that the Brotherhood’s funds are “obtained through donations from Brotherhood members or sympathizers, particularly those in the oil-rich states of the Arabian Peninsula.”
Other declassified CIA documents clearly show that a major part of the U.S. Intelligence Community believed that Hafez al-Assad was a stabi8lizing factor in the Middle East and should have been supported by the United States. During Operation Desert Storm, Assad committed Syrian troops to fight alongside American and allied troops in the campaign to oust Saddam Hussein’s forces from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. As early as 1978, the National Foreign Assessment Center of the CIA wrote in a Secret Intelligence Memorandum, dated November 7, 1978, that Hafez al-Assad “brought an unprecedented degree of stability to Syria since he seized power in 1970, and he is the first Syrian leader to participate in the Middle East peace process,” adding, “Assad is the first Syrian leader to publicly commit Syria to peace with Israel.” The memo points out “before Assad, according to one count, there were 21 coups or attempted coups between 1946 and 1970.”
Speaking to the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco on January 26, 1984, CIA director William Casey said, “Assad has brought 13 years of relative stability at the price of heavy repression of dissent . . . President Assad is no mere pawn of the Soviet Politburo. He is a man of strong, independent will, a formidable negotiator.” In a May 17, 2984 letter to John Davis Lodge, the U.S. ambassador to Switzerland, Casey wrote: “The Soviet supply of arms to Syria does not translate into control over President Assad’s foreign policy . . . Assad frequently has demonstrated his willingness to act against Moscow’s wishes when he thinks fundamental Syrian interests are at stake.”
The CIA also saw Assad’s stepping into Lebanon during that nation’s long and bloody civil war as an “adroit and careful” move. Right-wing Lebanese Christians and their Israel Lobby supporters in the United States often cited Syria’s peacekeeping occupation of Lebanon as naked aggression and a cause for sanctions against Damascus. However, the CIA memo states “The Syrians recognize the advantages of a relationship with the U.S. and many believe these ties have restrained Israel in Lebanon.”
The CIA clearly favored a successor to Assad who could keep Syria stable. It turned out that the successor would be Hafez’s son, Bashar al-Assad, the British-trained ophthalmologist who took over the reins of power in 2000. Hafez’s first chosen successor, his son Bassel, was killed in a car crash in 1994.
The CIA’s favored future for Syria was spelled out: “We believe the future stability of a post-Assad Syria will depend primarily on the ability of Assad’s inner circle of Alawite supporters to maintain cohesion and pick a successor skillful enough to hold the regime together.” Today, the CIA is backing, along with Saudi, Qatari, European Union, and Turkish paramilitary and intelligence forces, a loose coalition of Salafists, Al Qaeda, Muslim Brotherhood, and exiled Sunni Syrian elites who have committed bloody terrorist attacks throughout Syria and even within the centers of government in Damascus.
The Baath Party is cited in the CIA memo as having a “multiconfessional” character since the party’s three founders came from three different religious backgrounds: Zaki Arsuzi, an Alawite; Michel Aflaq, a Greek Orthodox, and Salah Bitar, a secular Sunni. The Muslim Brotherhood, described as “extreme right-wing” in the memo, opposes the Baath Party throughout the Middle East because of its commitment to Arab socialist principles. The largely Jewish neo-conservatives in the United States raced to Iraq to ensure the total “de-Baathification” of Iraq after the U.S. invasion of that country. The same could be expected in a post-Baathist Syria.
As early as 1983, an anti-Assad faction in the CIA began to emerge. In a Secret memo, dated September 14, 1983, it was stated: “The U.S. should consider sharply escalating the pressures against Assad through covertly orchestrating simultaneous military threats against Syria from three border states hostile to Syria : Iraq, Israel, and Turkey. Fast forward from 1983 to today and the policy is the very same one being used to force Bashar al Assad from power in Syria.
However, there was a time when Hafez and Bashar Assad were important to Washington. Like Nasser, Saddam Hussein, Muammar Qaddafi, Manuel Noriega, and other U.S.-supported leaders, the Assad family has become dispensable and like past “throw away” regimes, their days are likely numbered.