Obituary: Salah Jadid

Salah Jadid, army officer and politician: born 1924; died Damascus 19 August 1993.

SALAH JADID was the man who lost a power struggle with Hafez Assad, the Syrian president, and paid for his failure with 23 years in a Damascus jail.

An austere, incorruptible army officer, he began his political career as Assad's friend and co-conspirator on the Military Committee which they set up - modelled on Gamal Abdel Nasser's Free Officers' Movement - while serving in Cairo during the short- lived union between Egypt and Syria. Assad, Jadid and three others represented the new young radical trend in the Baath party, which was then dominated by the more conservative civilian elements around Michel Aflaq and Saleh Bitar, the founders of this party dedicated to socialism, pan-Arab nationalism, and renewal.

In 1966 Jadid was the architect of the coup which managed to seize power, though he and his colleagues had no popular backing; as so often in the history of the Baath and Syria, the struggle was entirely between the party leaders and their supporters, while the great mass of the people tried to carry on with their lives and avoid becoming embroiled.

Then an army major, Jadid was a man who never courted popularity, and often antagonised people by expecting them to follow his example of long hours of work, austere living, and cheap cars instead of ministerial limousines. As the effective leader of the party from 1966 to 1970, Jadid made the mistake of allowing control of the army to slip away from him, for all his early reliance on disaffected army officers to back his take-over.

Hafez Assad, less doctrinaire and more pragmatic than Jadid, quietly began chipping away at his colleague's support, removing a chief of staff loyal to Jadid, and then ousting the commander of the 7th Armoured Brigade, known as one of Jadid's men. The crunch came in 1970 when King Hussein of Jordan was finally forced into confrontation with the Palestine guerrillas who had set up a state within the state, and seemed on the point of trying to take over in Amman itself. Both Assad and Jadid paid lip-service to the cause of Palestine, and supported the Palestinian fighters. But Assad realised, as Jadid did not, that the Palestinians were a greater threat to the Arab countries in which they were allowed to operate than they were to Israel. Their hit-and-run raids could never cause enough damage to make Israel waver in its policies, but their actions could bring Israeli reprisals at a time and a place not of the Arabs' choice.

Hard pressed by King Hussein's Bedouin troops, the Palestinians in Jordan appealed to Syria for help. Assad, then defence minister, sent arms, and eventually and with great reluctance was forced to agree to Jadid's demand that Syrian tanks should go in. But Assad, a pilot and former head of the air force, would not commit Syrian planes, with the result that the small Jordanian air force was able to pick off the tanks without opposition. The Syrian expeditionary force was humiliated and forced to retreat.

The fiasco brought the simmering struggle for power between Assad and Jadid to a head. Still in control of the civilian wing of the party, Jadid called a party congress which as its first move ordered Assad not to make any further military transfers or appointments without party approval. Assad took no notice and, while Jadid's apparatchiks in the Congress hall passed resolutions stripping Assad and his supporters of their functions, Assad quietly surrounded the building with his own troops.

On 12 November 1970, the party congress ended, and the next day Assad ordered the arrest of his leading opponents, headed by Jadid. Many were quietly exiled, and Jadid might have been given that option. But when Assad confronted him, Jadid neither sought mercy nor promised support. 'If ever I attain power, you will be dragged through the streets of Damascus until you are dead,' he told Assad. That sealed Jadid's fate. He was sent off to the Mezze prison in Damascus, where he remained until his death last Thursday.