How Fighter Pilots Made Modern Syria
Hafez Al Assad was an aviator before he was a regime leader
by TOM COOPER
It’s no secret that Hafez Al Assad, the military ruler of Syria from 1970 to 2000 and the father of current regime leader Bashar Al Assad, was an air force pilot.
Indeed, Hafez’s flying career was instrumental in his rise to power — and in that way shaped modern Syria.
One of more widespread legends about Hafez-the-pilot is that he was one of Syria’s first combat fliers. But this is untrue. The first Syrian pilots were trained by the French in 1946, the same year in which the Syrian Arab Air Force was established.
Hafez didn’t join the air force until 1950.
In 1947, Col. Abdel Wahad Al Hakim, the SyAAF’s first commander, hired eight foreign instructor pilots to train up another batch of pilots. Among these instructors were two Germans, one of whom — Fritz Strehle — flew Messerschmitt Me.262 jet fighters during World War II.
However, the star instructor was undoubtedly Mato Dukovac, the top Croatian ace of the war. He claimed 44 kills while flying Messerschmitt Bf.109s on the Eastern Front before defecting to the Soviet Union and then joining the nascent Yugoslav air force in 1944. He subsequently defected to Italy in 1946.
Working at the Estabel air base in Lebanon, the Croats and Germans trained at least 30 Syrians — including Salah Jadid and Muhammad Umran — to fly 10 North American T-6 Texans and two Piper Cubs that the United States had overhauled and donated to Syria.
Reinforced by two Piper Cubs provided by France and four Douglas DC-3s that the SyAAF took over from Syrian Airways, the American-supplied planes formed the core of the nascent force that took part in what Arabs call the Palestine War — and Israelis their “Independence War” — from 1948 to 1949.
Immediately following the armistice that ended that war, the Israelis hired the same Croats who had trained the Syrian fliers to also train Israeli pilots. Dukovac refused the officer and emigrated to Canada, but five of his colleagues worked in Israel for at least a year.
Hafez Al Assad entered the military academy in Homs in 1950. Four years later, upon hearing about establishment of the Air Force College at Nayrab air base outside Aleppo, he requested to be re-assigned there. Under the instruction of Capt. Fouad Kallas, who later rose to command the air force, Hafez learned to fly Texans and Fiat G.46 and G.55 fighters.
He graduated in 1955.
Meanwhile, Syria placed an order for 12 British-made Meteor F.Mk 9s in 1950 and — following a temporary arms embargo — received these between December 1952 and March 1953. Lacking its own advanced training facilities, the SyAAF preferred to send its future jet pilots abroad for training — usually in Egypt and Great Britain, but sometimes in Italy, too.
As one of the best students in his class, Hafez was selected for a jet conversion course in Great Britain. However, this was cancelled and thus he learned to fly Gloster Meteors during a six-month course at the Egyptian Air Force College at Bilbeis air base, training under Capt. Hosni Mubarak, the future president of Egypt.
Hafez completed this course and returned to Syria just in time to join the Meteor-equipped No. 9 Squadron, then under the command of Squadron Leader Munir Al Garudy. That’s how Hafez got involved in attempts to intercept some of British and French reconnaissance aircraft that regularly overflew Lebanon, Syria and Iraq.
During the 1956 Suez Crisis, rumors circulated that the Soviets had deployed no fewer than 123 MiGs to Damascus and were about to launch a military intervention against British and French forces in the eastern Mediterranean.
The SyAAF had no early warning radars, but one of its fighter-controllers and the Egyptian air force attaché in Damascus developed a plan to catch one of intruders with help of information provided by local police stations via telephone.
Early on the morning of Nov. 6, 1956, Hafez scrambled to intercept a lonesome Canberra PR.Mk 7 from the Royal Air Force’s No. 13 Squadron, which a policeman had spotted in the Lattakia area. Although Hafez managed to approach the British plane close enough to open fire, his shells missed and the intruder escaped in direction of Cyprus.
A few hours later, two Meteors led by Garudy scrambled from Almazza air base near Damascus. Two more Meteors — including one flown by Hafez — took off at Nayrab. Their target was another Canberra that a policeman had located in Lattakia.
This time, the Syrian interceptors caught with the British reconnaissance plane somewhere over Homs and attacked it from two sides. The Canberra took a hit into its starboard engine while approaching the Lebanese border and two of the crew ejected. The third crewmember failed to get out and died when the bomber crashed just meters inside Syria.
Shortly before the sunset, Hafez was scrambled for the third time, apparently in an attempt to intercept a Lockheed U-2 operated by the CIA that — just like the British planes before it — was apparently searching for those alleged 123 MiGs.
After failing to reach his high-flying target, Hafez returned to land after the sunset. Due to a radio malfunction, he didn’t receive a call advising him that the wind had changed direction.
Hafez overshot the runway and crashed his Meteor against a low rock wall. Thrown out of his cockpit by the force of impact, he was lucky to land in the middle of a Palestinian refugee camp with only a few minor injuries. His jet went up in flames.
Garudy reprimanded Hafez and gave him a suspended jail sentence.
Hafez was assigned to a group of 20 Syrian pilots traveling to the Soviet Union for a 10-month conversion to MiG-15s and MiG-17s. He returned in 1958, only to find out that Syria had joined Egypt and Yemen to form the United Arab Republic.
Re-designated as the eastern province of that union, Syria found itself under the control of Egyptian field marshal Abdel Hakim Amer, who promptly stripped out most of Syria’s industry and re-settling it in Egypt. Similarly, the republic seized all of Syria’s aircraft — including a batch of around 20 radar-equipped MiG-17PF interceptors — and sent them and their crews to Egypt.
This is how Hafez ended serving with No. 31 Squadron of the United Arab Republic Air Force, commanded by Garudy and staffed by several other Syrian pilots —among them Salah Jadid and Muhammad Umran.
Instead of flying, Hafez joined Jadid and Umran in clandestine political activity. They formed a secret military committee dedicated to terminating the UAR and the entire civilian political establishment in Syria.
Syria seceded from the republic in September 1961 in the midst of a military coup. However, as soon as a new government established itself in power in Damascus, Hafez and all other members of the Ba’ath Party were purged from the military and forced to quit.
Following his participation in a failed coup in 1962, Hafez fled to Lebanon only to find himself arrested, repatriated to Syria and jailed for a few months. No sooner was he was out of prison than he helped to plan the next coup. A paramilitary force under his command captured Dmeyr air base, 25 miles northeast of Damascus.
With a Ba’ath government firmly in control, Hafez was put in charge of ending factionalism in the Syrian military and making it a monopoly of the party. While developing Dmeyr air base into his own stronghold, he began appointing a number of confidants to senior and sensitive positions.
In this fashion, he established an efficient intelligence network, thus securing his own position. As a reward for his distinguished work and loyalty to the Ba’ath Party, in 1964 Jadid appointed Hafez as commanded of the SyAAF.
Later the same year, Jadid and Umran clashed over Jadid’s call for a single-party dictatorship and closer cooperation with the Soviet Union. Eventually, Jadid won. He established himself in power in Damascus in the course of another coup, after which he appointed Hafez as minister of defense in 1966.
By that time, Hafez was so deeply involved in politics that he had to appoint Brig. Mohammad Assad Moukiiad as assistant commander to run the air force in his stead.
Although Hafez saved Jadid during a CIA-supported countercoup attempt in late 1966, Syria’s defeat in the June 1967 Six Day War caused a lasting rift between the two.
They not only blamed each other for the catastrophe, but differed strongly on political issues. However, because Jadid was still in control of the security and intelligence sector, Hafez had to wait for an opportunity to assume greater power.
This opportunity finally came in November 1970, when Hafez had Jadid and his loyalists arrested. The Al Assad family has ruled Syria, or what’s left of it, ever since.