On November 13, 1970, a young air force officer from the coast of Syria launched a bloodless coup. It was the latest in a series of military takeovers since independence from France in 1946, and there was no reason to believe it would be the last.
Fifty years later, Hafez al-Assad’s family still rules Syria.
The country is in ruins from a decade of civil war that killed half a million people, displaced half the population and wiped out the economy. Entire regions are lost from government control. But Hafez’s son, Bashar al-Assad, has an indisputable grasp on what remains.
His rule, half of what was spent on war, differs from his father’s in some ways – depending on allies such as Iran and Russia rather than projecting Arab nationalism, driven by a clever kleptocracy rather than socialism. The tools are the same: repression, refusal to compromise and brutal bloodshed.
Like the Castro family in Cuba and North Korea’s Kim dynasty, the Assads have attached their name to their country in the way that few non-monarchical rulers have done.
“There can be no doubt that 50 years of the ruling Assad family, who have been ruthless, cruel and suicidal, have left the country, what can only be described as broken, failed and almost forgotten,” said Neil Quilliam, a deputy colleague at Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa program.
‘Ruthless but brilliant’
Following his acquisition in 1970, Hafez al-Assad consolidated power. He introduced key members of his Alawite sect, a minority in the Sunni majority in Syria, and established a Soviet single-party police state.
His power was absolute. His Mukhabarat – or intelligence officials – were ubiquitous.
He turned Syria into a power package in the Middle East. In the Arab world, he gained respect for his uncompromising position on the Golan Heights, the strategic high ground lost to Israel in the 1967 war. He engaged in US-mediated peace talks, sometimes they seemed soft, only to frustrate the Americans by withdrawing and asking for more territory.
In 1981, in Iraq’s war with Iran, he sided with the Iranians against the entire Arab world who supported Saddam Hussein – starting an alliance that would help save his son later. He supported the US-led coalition to liberate Kuwait after Saddam’s invasion in 1990 and gained credit with the Americans.
“He was a ruthless but brilliant man who had once wiped out an entire village as a lesson to his opponents,” wrote former US President Bill Clinton, who met Assad several times, in his memoirs “My Life.”
Clinton referred to the 1982 massacre in Hama, in which Assad’s security forces killed thousands to crush a Muslim Brotherhood insurgency.
The massacre, one of the most notorious in the modern Middle East, left hatred that sparked another uprising against its son years later.
“An important element of the Assad regime’s survival has been: No compromise at home, exploiting the geopolitical changes regionally and globally, and waiting out your enemies,” says Sam Dagher, author of the book “Assad or We Burn the Country: How a Family Powerful destroyed Syria. ”
Challenges and opportunities
Bashar al-Assad borrowed heavily from that playbook after his father’s death in 2000. Unlike his father, critics say he repeatedly squandered opportunities and went too far.
First welcomed as a reformer and modernizer, Bashar, a British-trained ophthalmologist, opened the country and allowed political debates. He quickly squeezed down, facing challenges and a rapidly changing world, beginning with the September 11 attacks in America.
He opposed the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and was worried that he would be the next. He allowed foreign fighters to enter Iraq from his territory, inciting an uprising against the American occupation and furious Americans.
He was forced to end Syria’s long dominance in Lebanon after Damascus was accused of assassinating former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Still, he sharpened ties with Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
Like his father, Bashar al-Assad raised the family to isolate his power – a younger, more modern generation, but one of many Syrians is seen as more violent when it comes to amassing wealth.
The Assad family’s most serious challenge came with the Arab Spring Uprising that swept the region and reached Syria in March 2011.
His response to the initially peaceful protests was to release the security forces to sniff them out. Instead, the protests grew and later turned into an armed uprising with the support of Turkey, the United States and Arab nations. His military fragmented.
With his army approaching collapse, Assad opened his territory to the Russian and Iranian military and their agents. Cities were pulverized. He was accused of using chemical weapons against his own people and killing or imprisoning opponents en masse. Millions fled to Europe or beyond.
For most of the world, he became a pariah. But Assad masterfully portrayed the war as a choice between his secular regime and Islamic fanatics, including the Islamic State group. Many Syrians and even European states became convinced that he was the lesser evil.
Eventually, he effectively eliminated the military threat against him. He is almost certain to win the presidential election that falls due next year in the crushed shell that is his Syria.
Dagher nevertheless said that the war transformed the Syrians in an irreversible way. An economic meltdown and increasing difficulties can change the calculation.
“A whole generation of people has been awakened and will eventually find a way to take back the country and their future,” he said.
When the US election results rolled in, which showed the winner Joe Biden, memes of Syrian opposition trolls spat how Assad has now exceeded nine US presidents since Richard Nixon.
“In my life, my Syrians had to vote four times for the only president on the ballot … Hafez Assad. His son is still president. “After migrating to the United States, I voted for six different presidents,” wrote Zaher Sahloul, a Syrian-American doctor in Chicago who left Syria in 1989. ” I wish my country would one day witness free elections. ”
Hafez al-Assad’s legacy may have looked completely different if he had not called Bashar to succeed him, Quilliam said.
“It would not have been beneficial, but Bashar’s legacy will overshadow Assad’s legacy and make it synonymous with cruelty, the deliberate destruction of a great country and the brutalization of a beautiful people,” he said.