Obituary: Nureddin Atassi

Nureddin Atassi, politician, born 1929, Minister of the Interior 1963- 64, Member Syrian Presidential Council 1964-65, Secretary-General Baath Party 1966-70, President of Syria 1966-70, Prime Minister 1968- 70, died Paris 3 December 1992.

NUREDDIN ATASSI was one of the many casualties in the labyrinth of Syrian politics. He was, perhaps, luckier than most: he stayed alive, though his life was wasted as a result of his brief prominence in the 1960s.

In Syria in that turbulent decade it was difficult not to be involved in politics, and as he entered his forties Atassi was swept into the centre of things by many of his old friends from Damascus University, by his fellow Sunni Muslims anxious to hold on to power, and by the new friends he found in the Baath party, the central force in Syrian political life from its formation in 1947 up to the present day.

After the reluctant French withdrawal in 1946, Syria soon earned a deserved reputation as an ungovernable, artificial entity - the first, Western-backed, coup was in 1949, and there were 10 more before Hafez Assad took over in 1970 to bring Syria stability at the price of repression.

In March 1963 the Baathists took over after the collapse of the union between Syria and Egypt, a desperate attempt by the Syrians to find a role for their country Egyptian heavy-handedness ensured the failure of this first attempt at Arab unity, though it forged a national consciousness, particularly among those who served in Cairo - among them, Hafez Assad.

Atassi, from the civilian wing of the party, became interior minister when the Baathists took over in 1963, and deputy prime minister in 1964. He earned a reputation for ruthlessness which was not matched by political acumen. The result was that he failed to see the way things were going, and did not understand the forces at work. It was more by accident than design that Atassi found favour with the 'neo-Baathists' who staged a putsch in 1966, ousting the founders of the party. He became secretary-general of the party and was president from 1966 to 1970.

That was the crunch year, when the simmering row between the military and the civilian wings of the Baath party came into the open, complicated by the attempts by the Sunni majority to hold on to power, and the efforts of the minority Alawites to take over. The showdown came when Atassi and Saleh Jadid sent the Syrian army into Jordan to support the Palestinians against King Hussein's troops, and Hafez Assad left the troops unprotected by refusing to commit the air force, which he commanded.

The resulting ignominious withdrawal of the Syrian force strengthened Assad's hand, and in 1971 he completed his bloodless take-over, imprisoning Jadid and Atassi, though Atassi was later allowed to go into exile in Libya.

(Photograph omitted)