Hafez al-Assad (Arabic: حافظ الأسد Ḥāfiẓ al-ʾAsad, Levantine pronunciation: [ˈħaːfezˤ elˈʔasad]; October 6, 1930 – June 10, 2000) was a Syrian statesman, politician, and general who served as Prime Minister of Syria between 1970 and 1971 and then President between 1971 and 2000. He also served as Secretary of the Syrian Regional Command of the Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party and Secretary General of the National Command of the Ba'ath Party from 1970 to 2000 and Minister of Defense from 1966 to 1972. Politically a Ba'athist, al-Assad adhered to the ideologies of Arab nationalism, Arab socialism and secularism. Under his administration Syria saw increased stabilization, with a program of secularization and industrialization designed to modernize and strengthen the country as a regional power.
Born to a poor Alawite family, al-Assad joined the Syrian wing of the Ba'ath Party in 1946 as a student activist. In 1952, he entered the Homs Military Academy, graduating 3 years later as a pilot. While exiled to Egypt (1959–1961) during Syria's short-lived union with Egypt in the United Arab Republic, al-Assad and other military officers formed a committee to resurrect the fortunes of the Syrian Ba'ath Party. After the Ba'athists took power in 1963, al-Assad became commander of the air force. In 1966, after taking part in a coup that overthrew the civilian leadership of the party and sent its founders into exile, he became Minister of Defense. During al-Assad's ministry Syria lost the Golan Heights to Israel in the Six-Day War in 1967, dealing Assad a blow that shaped much of his future political career. al-Assad then engaged in a protracted power struggle with Salah al-Jadid, chief of staff of the armed forces, al-Assad's political mentor, and effective leader of Syria, until finally in November 1970, al-Assad seized control, arresting Jadid and other members of the government. He became prime minister and in 1971, he was elected president.
In 1973, al-Assad changed Syria's Constitution in order to guarantee equal status for women and enable non-Muslims to become president; the latter change was reverted under pressure from the Muslim Brotherhood. al-Assad set about building up the Syrian military with Soviet aid and gaining popular support with public works funded by Arab donors and international lending institutions. Political dissenters were eliminated by arrest, torture, and execution, and when the Muslim Brotherhood mounted a rebellion in Hama in 1982, al-Assad suppressed it, killing between 10,000–25,000 people. In foreign affairs, al-Assad tried to establish Syria as a leader of the Arab world. A new alliance with Egypt culminated in the Yom Kippur War against Israel in October 1973, but Egypt's unexpected cessation of hostilities exposed Syria to military defeat. In 1976, with Lebanon racked by the civil war, al-Assad dispatched several divisions to that country and secured their permanent presence there as part of a peacekeeping force sponsored by the Arab League. After Israel's invasion and occupation of southern Lebanon in 1982–1985, al-Assad was able to reassert control of the country, eventually compelling Lebanese Christians to accept constitutional changes granting Muslims equal representation in government. al-Assad also aided Palestinian and Lebanese resistance groups based in Lebanon and Syria. He supported Iran in its war against Iraq (1980–1988) and he joined the US-led alliance against Iraq in the Gulf War of 1990–1991. al-Assad sought to establish peaceful relations with Israel in the mid-1990s, but his repeated call for the return of the Golan Heights stalled the talks. He died of a heart attack and he was succeeded as president by his son Bashar al-Assad.
al-Assad was a controversial and highly divisive world figure, being lauded as a champion of secularism, women's rights and Syrian nationalism by his supporters, but his critics have accused him of being a dictator who constructed a cult of personality and whose authoritarian administration oversaw the multiple human rights abuses both at home and abroad.
By the late 1990s, al-Assad increasingly suffered from ill health. American diplomats said that he found it difficult to remain focused and projected weariness during their meetings. It was speculated that al-Assad was incapable of functioning for more than 2 hours a day. However, his spokesperson didn't respond to these speculations and al-Assad's official routine in 1999 had no significant change from that of the previous decade. He continued to have meetings and traveled abroad occasionally; most notably, he visited Moscow in July 1999. al-Assad's government was accustomed to working without his direct involvement in day-to-day affairs.
On June 10, 2000, at the age of 69, al-Assad died from a heart attack he suffered while speaking on the telephone with Lebanese prime minister Salim al-Hoss. His funeral was held 3 days later. al-Assad is buried with his son Bassel in a mausoleum in his hometown of Qardaha.