Defeat and the state: June 1967 and Hafez al-Assad’s Syria

As then-defense minister, Hafez al-Assad was instrumental in Syria’s loss of the Golan Heights to Israel in 1967. His quest to avert accountability for this defeat was at the heart of the tyranny he instated over the following decades, writes Yassin al-Haj Saleh on the June War’s anniversary.

[Editor’s note: The below was one of a collection of articles written for the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the June 1967 War by a group of independent Arab media outlets, including Al-Jumhuriya, Ittijah, dona Taraddod, 7iber, Sowt, Mada Masr, Ma3azef, and Manshoor. The article was first published in Arabic on 4 June, 2017. It was translated into English by Mada Masr.]

Half a century has passed since the June defeat, a period during which Syria has fallen under the rule of a dynasty built by the defense minister of the June 1967 war, Hafez al-Assad. This fact is enough to show that we are living political realities that are organically tied to the June defeat, realities that have since been generalized and reproduced as a result of this tie.

June 1967 is an issue of telling paradox in the Syrian context, in the sense that the war per se has not been studied at all in its two immediate dimensions, the military and the political. Yet the June defeat was a psychologically and culturally shattering event, not to mention a founding moment for the political context in which we have been living for half a century.

Two prominent Syrian intellectuals have each written an important book on the defeat: Sadiq Jalal al-Azm wrote Self-Criticism after the Defeat, and Yassin al-Hafez wrote The Defeat and the Defeated Ideology. Both left a significant influence on a generation of Syrian and Lebanese intellectuals, to the extent that al-Hafez can be considered a hero of the June defeat, due to the prominence of the event in his thought during the decade or so between it and his death in 1978.

There was an urgent need for “self-criticism” that Azm expressed early on following the defeat, but it was al-Hafez who attended to this need systematically, through his placing the defeat at the center of his political thought, and through the political organization he led and co-founded, the Arab Revolutionary Workers Party, and its influence in Lebanon at a time when Beirut was the cultural and media heart of the Arab world.

Through Irrationalism in Arab Politics, The Vietnamese Historical Experience, and The Defeat and the Defeated Ideology, it was al-Hafez who gave the June defeat a central place in the thinking of those for whom it was not a part of their memory or personal experience, such as the author of these lines. In this sense, he is the hero of the defeat, or its maker. Authors create, with their writings, a reality that may not exactly match the reality lived by its contemporaries. But through such authors, this reality is “lived” by those who did not experience it directly.

What of the June war, though? We were defeated in a war, weren’t we? Not completely. The war almost never happened. The defeat was great, and the war small, or perhaps the defeat was great because the war was small.

It was more than that, however. There is much talk of the June defeat in the Syrian cultural context, and very little talk of the June war. After the defeat, political conditions arose which would not have been possible without it. These conditions prevented a direct examination of the defeat and the reckoning with the chain of events that led to the occupation of Syrian land that remains occupied and the displacement of most of its people, who remain displaced. These conditions can be summarized in one sentence: the defense minister of the defeat became the feared ruler of the country.

Neither al-Azm, nor al-Hafez, nor any other Syrian intellectuals and journalists wrote about the war, and it doesn’t seem that they cared at any point to investigate the preludes to the military confrontation, its details, the moves of its actors, and the political choices that followed it. They also did not write about the conditions that prevented them from addressing the war. They spoke of some social and cultural structures that either lay the foundation for the defeat or were regenerated by it. Their examples relied on Egypt primarily, in fact almost exclusively. This could be useful, but the obvious dictates that we must know what happened; that we grasp as much reliable data and details of the facts of the six days on the battlefield as possible: how we fought or didn't fight; why we did such-and-such or did not; the ways in which the political and military leadership acted; how civilians interacted with the event; and how the event was covered in the media. All of this would have been needed to allow us to practice “self-criticism” and build a more coherent picture of the “defeated ideology.” That didn’t happen, and it seems that neither its necessity nor the reasons why it didn’t happen have been seriously pondered.

Politically, no one took responsibility for the catastrophe, and no one was held accountable. The truth wasn’t told. Not one government report was issued that included a detailed narrative of what happened. Without political accountability or an examination of the event and its details, but with immense psychological fixation on “the defeat” by the intellectuals who “immortalized” it, the June defeat turned from a national crisis, for which individuals, groups and specific apparatuses might be held responsible, into a collective shame, tarring all its contemporaries; from a politico-military event into a cultural condition; from a historical event to an original sin; and from the realm of the world and existence in the world to the realm of metaphysics.

It was different in Egypt, our biggest partner in defeat. There is much Egyptian writing on the defeat, recording its military and political events, relying on the accounts of participants in the buildup to it, and benefiting from American and Israeli documents, among others. The events of the battlefield are known to a reasonable extent; the political events are well known. A form of accountability took place, even if it was limited, and more like the offering of a scapegoat. Egypt’s “June” Defense Minister, Abd al-Hakim Amer, committed suicide, or was “suicided.” He didn’t seize power in a coup, or inherit it with the death of Gamal Abdel Nasser, which was two months before Syria’s “June” Defense Minister’s coup.

The response to defeat was proffered through a narrow military articulation in Egypt and was not proffered in any form in Syria. When the response was taken up by intellectuals with no influence over the country’s affairs, it was done in a loose socio-cultural manner. What was needed was something clearer, more direct and more radical all at once: changing the political regime that caused the humiliating military defeat. The political structures in the Syrian Arab “Republic” and the United Arab “Republic” (the formal name of Egypt at the time) limited the political ownership of the publics in whose name they ruled, justifying this on grounds of the confrontation with Israel. To fail in this confrontation would have annulled the implicit contract between the state and ruled, and mandated the returning of power to them. It was imperative that political change adhere to what the identity of the two countries as republics required, and that it likewise be an expression of the political and moral responsibility that doesn’t always comply with the “political rationality” sought out by al-Hafiz on the wrong terrain.

It doesn’t appear that the minister of defense explained even to his peers in power at the time what happened and how it had happened; not half a century ago; not at the time of his coup against those peers; nor at any other time. The then-minister of health, Abd al-Rahman al-Aktaa, queried what was behind the announcement of the fall of Quneitra before the Israelis occupied it. The angry reply of the minister of defense was that these were military secrets! The Syrian intelligence officer Khalil Mustafa gives a clearer idea of the politics of truth-telling in the Baathist State. Mustafa wrote a book titled The Fall of the Golan, accusing the defense minister of responsibility for the defeat, and of hastening to confirm it by announcing the fall of Quneitra prematurely (an announcement that may have encouraged the Israelis to occupy the area). It seems the officer was arrested because of his book, and it is not known if he was ever released (there is some information that he was alive in prison during the first years of Bashar’s rule).

Minister Hafez al-Assad’s position strengthened after the June defeat instead of weakening. His Baathist comrades ruling at the time, the “Februarists,” were not in a stronger position than him, morally or politically, and none showed a willingness to take public blame. However, the June state did not think for a moment to hold anyone accountable, and there were no grounds to punish the minister of defense alone, so the state in effect provided a cover for the strongest man within it, the minister of defense, who would not hesitate to strengthen and fortify his position.

Almost immediately after the defeat, Hafez consolidated his grip on the army and took to isolating it from the influence of his Baathist comrades, who were stronger than he was in the party. Shortly after, he leapt to power in a white coup, dispensing with his comrades who combined weakness with a lack of principle.

The regime did not change in response to the defeat; instead, it became a continuation of it. This continuity was realized in the era of Hafez and his progeny, which continues to this day, and in the June war that did not happen and the June defeat that very much did.

 

The real center of power in “Assad’s Syria” was the army, or rather the “armed forces,” and not the Baath Party. This is not because the party was in its majority opposed to Assad before his takeover, but because it was subservient at all times to the authority that was founded in its name. It did not have significant autonomous power in the shadow of that authority; one would have to be deluded, like Ibrahim Makhous, or Salah Jadid, to believe the Baath Party had any independent political weight. In the eighth and final article of a series published on the June defeat, Khaled Mansour relays that Ibrahim Makhous, the Syrian foreign minister at the time, said, “It doesn’t matter if Damascus falls, or even Aleppo, for these are only lands that can be reclaimed and buildings that can be rebuilt. But the Baath Party, the hope of the Arab nation, if it falls, it cannot be brought back.” Besides the fact this statement places the Baath and the nation deeply at odds with one another, it also contains a great deal of delusion about the party. A little over three years later, the “hope of the Arab nation” had turned into a tool in the hands of the defense minister against that same foreign minister and his peers.

The land was not reclaimed, and the party didn’t have leverage against the missing element that Makhous said nothing about: the army, which was defeated but easily capable of victory over the Baath Party. An anecdote ascribed to Mohsen Ibrahim gives an idea about the real center of power at the time. The man visited Damascus in 1969, at the head of a Lebanese leftist delegation seeking the truth about information circulating of a struggle between Defense Minister Hafez al-Assad and the Baath Party leadership. The visitor met Salah Jadid, the regional secretary of the party, who assured him that the popular organizations were all “with us,” that the union of labor syndicates was “with us,” that the Peasant Union was “with us,” that the Women’s Union was “with us,” that the National Union of Syrian Students was “with us,” and naturally that all of the Baath Party was “with us;” we, the legitimate leadership of the party and the state; and that no one was with Comrade Assad except for the army, the air force, and the intelligence! It’s said that Ibrahim turned to his company and said: “He only has the army, the air force, and the intelligence? Run!”

The defeated army was not restructured, because it was turned into a prop for the struggle for power. Victory in this battle became what was important and would have been impossible had the army been scrutinized and its leadership held accountable. But in this same manner, institutional and moral continuity was achieved between the June defeat and the defense minister’s takeover of power forty-one months later. Not only did the priority of grabbing power mean not paying the price for the defeat; it also meant that the army—defeated in a public national war—was used to fight and win a private factional war: the war for power.

Further: to achieve victory in the private war, the defense minister had to turn the army into a fiefdom between June 1967 and November 1970, which in turn necessitated lowering the status of the army and investing resources in apparatuses better-equipped to win the private war: the security apparatuses which surveilled and subdued citizens. Early on, the security apparatuses transformed so as to become the political foundation of the new regime, alongside military divisions performing security functions that were either formed during the Hafez era or grew out of previous iterations, such as the Defense Companies and the Special Forces Division and the Republican Guard. The national army lapsed into a flaccid institution propped up by humiliation, bribery, corruption, sectarian discrimination and, of course, worship of the president. But the new ruler does not forfeit these useful tools—the Baath Party and the national army—for they are valuable in obscuring the state’s private property.

If the suspension of Baath Party conferences during the second half of Hafez al-Assad’s thirty-year rule (the party’s internal rules mandate the holding of a conference every five years) gives an idea of the disintegration of the party’s position in the structure of his state, then what is even more indicative of the national army’s position during the rule of Assad père and part of that of Assad fils is the person of the defense minister, Mustafa Tlass. In his more than thirty years in office, this “happy idiot” authored books on flowers; on Garlic and Long Life; on the art of cooking; on The Matzah of Zion (an abominable anti-Semitic screed rehashing the familiar blood libel, accusing Damascene Jews of murdering Christians to use their blood in food preparation); as well as ghazal poetry on Gina Lollobrigida; a selection of quotations of Hafez al-Assad; and many other works of the same caliber. He was happy to play the role of the jester which the regime had to publicly denounce once or twice after certain embarrassing foolish statements, clarifying that its foreign policy was expressed through the president and the foreign minister and no one else. Despite this, Tlass was kept on as defense minister in the state that conceives of itself as living a constant war, not because he was indispensable but precisely because he was a figurehead which could be dispensed with at any time.

In short, there was an inevitable causal relationship between the June defeat and the Hafez al-Assad state ever since the failure to hold those responsible for the public defeat to account, and the state became the spoil of the private war, appropriated by those defeated in the same public war. Instead of the defense minister being punished with dismissal, or perhaps with arrest or even execution, he rewarded himself by seizing control of the state and making of it an apparatus for public punishment, and for imprisonment, torture, and execution, and dismissing the general mass of Syrians from politics. The man of “military secrets” made the state the most secretive, factional, and violent organization in Syria, before bequeathing it to his son after thirty long years.

The Golan Heights, which were occupied fifty years ago, remain occupied today, with those residing therein appearing fortunate in comparison to their compatriots in the “liberated” mother country.

The “self” criticized by Sadiq Jalal al-Azm is no more, for it is no longer Arab nationalist, aspiring to emancipation, progress, and unity. The secretive, factional, violent, eternal state has become the sole project. We no longer possess a self to criticize. In the place of the forward-looking self are now manifold identities turning toward the past. The June defeat of half a century ago is not the reason. The reason is that the public defeat turned into a private state, and the ever-renewing project of the private state involves depriving the public of politics “forever.”1 This state is a continuation of the defeat by non-Israeli means.

***

Yet does it seem we have forgotten the war of 1973? This time, there was a war, but we were defeated militarily, for military victory over Israel’s American-guaranteed triumph was beyond our power. From this, we should have concluded a necessity: the avoidance of war with Israel, and the waging of politics in our countries. Instead, in Syria, as in Egypt, the 1973 war was described as the last of wars, in a recognition of the reality, but politics was waged with... Israel. The public was not informed at any time of the truth of the infeasibility of war. Rather, the impression was given, in Syria especially, that we never stopped preparing for war. This was not true. It was a constant evasion of politics and political accountability. And the 1973 war was framed as a victory that erased the defeat, and exonerated the defeated, and even made Hafez al-Assad in particular a victorious hero.

The defense minister of defeat, who was not held accountable in 1967, vaulted above accountability after 1973. After 1982, he became the owner of the state, holding the public to account, and killed tens of thousands. With the close of his rule, his progeny maintains fidelity, and is killing hundreds of thousands.

From the public defeat to the private state to hereditary ownership, the path runs straight.

  • 1. A reference to the widespread pro-regime slogan, "Hafez al-Assad is our leader forever."