Assad participated in a coup against the Syrian government in March 1963 popularly known as the Eighth of March Coup. The conspirators moved quickly to consolidate power and outlawed all political parties except for the Baath Party. The following year Assad assumed the post of commander of the air force.
Yet another military junta launched a second coup in 1966, this one led by a group of Alawite military officers that included Assad. The new ruling junta purged much of the Baath old guard. During 1966–1970, Assad served as minister of defense. The loss of the Golan Heights in the 1967 Six-Day War seriously undermined Assad's political clout. This resulted in a protracted struggle with his mentor and rival Salah al-Jadid, chief of staff of the Syrian armed forces.
A split in the Baath Party between nationalists and progressives provided Assad the opportunity to seize control of the government in November 1970. The prime minister, part of the progressive wing, was arrested along with other key government officials. Assad had engineered a bloodless coup. He took the post of prime minister himself and in 1971 was elected president for the first of five times. To be sure, Assad's reign had a dark side. Under his rule, political rivals and dissidents were subjected to summary arrest, torture, and execution.
On 6 October 1973 Assad and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat launched a joint Syrian-Egyptian sneak attack against Israel (known as the Yom Kippur War). Their goal was to recapture territories lost in the 1967 Six-Day War. Egypt wanted the Sinai back, and Syria sought return of the Golan Heights. After early setbacks, the Israelis were winning the war when a United Nations' cease-fire went into effect on 22 October, but Assad was furious with Sadat, claiming that he had botched the operation.
Assad sent troops to Lebanon in 1976 during the civil war there. Syrian troops thus took up a permanent presence in Lebanon under the auspices of the Arab League, remaining there until 2005.
The only significant internal threat to Assad's iron-fisted rule came in 1982 when the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood rebelled in Hamah. Assad responded with brutal force, ordering security forces to suppress the unrest by using poison gas that may have killed as many as 35,000 civilians.
Assad was a shrewd and ambitious man who made Syria a political and military leader in the Arab world. He died in Damascus on 10 June 2000. His son, Bashar Assad, succeeded him in power.
Seale, Patrick. Assad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.