On November 13, 1970, a young air force officer from the coastal hills of Syria launched a cold coup. It used to be the most recent in a succession of military takeovers since independence from France in 1946, and there used to be no reason to think it will be the final.
Yet 50 years later, Hafez Assad’s circle of relatives still rules Syria.
The country is in ruins from a decade of civil war that killed a half million people, displaced half the population and wiped out the economy. Entire regions are missing from government regulate. But Hafez’s son, Bashar Assad, has an unquestioned grip on what remains.
His rule, half of it spent in war, is different from his father’s in some ways, dependent on allies like Iran and Russia relatively than projecting Arab nationalism, run with a crony kleptocracy relatively than socialism. The tools are the same: repression, rejection of compromise, and brutal bloodshed.
Like the Castro circle of relatives in Cuba and North Korea’s Kim dynasty, the Assads have attached their name to their country the way few non-monarchical rulers have done.
It wasn’t lucid if the government intended to mark the 50-year milestone this year. While the anniversary has been marked with fanfare in preceding years, it has been a more subdued celebration all the way through the war.
“There can also be no doubt that 50 years of Assad circle of relatives rule, which has been ruthless, merciless and self-defeating, has left the country what can only be described as broken, failed and nearly forgotten,” said Neil Quilliam, an associate fellow at Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa program.
“Ruthless but Brilliant”
After his 1970 takeover, Hafez Assad consolidated power. He brought into key positions members of his Alawite sect, a minority in Sunni-majority Syria, and established a Soviet-style single-party police state.
His power used to be absolute. His Mukhabarat, or intelligence officers, were omnipresent.
He turned Syria into a Middle East powerhouse. In the Arab world, he gained respect for his uncompromising position on the Golan Heights, the strategic high ground missing to Israel in the 1967 war. He busy in US -mediated peace talks, every now and then appearing to soften, only to frustrate the Americans by pulling back and asking for more territory.
In 1981, in Iraq’s war with Iran, he sided with the Iranians against all the Arab world backing Saddam Hussein, starting an alliance that would help save his son later. He supported the US-led coalition to liberate Kuwait after Saddam’s 1990 invasion, gaining credit with the Americans.
“He used to be a ruthless but brilliant man who had once wiped out a whole village as a lesson to his opponents,” former US President Invoice Clinton, who met with Assad several times, wrote in his memoirs “My Life.”
Clinton used to be referring to the 1982 bloodbath in Hama, where security forces killed thousands to crush a Muslim Brotherhood rebellion.
The bloodbath, one of the infamous in the contemporary Middle East, left hatreds that fanned the flames of another rebellion against his son years later.
“A key element of the Assad regime’s survival has been: No compromise domestically, exploit the geopolitical shifts regionally and globally, and wait your enemies out,” said Sam Dagher, writer of the book “Assad or we Burn the Country: How One Circle of relatives’s Lust for Power Destroyed Syria.”
Challenges and Opportunities
Bashar 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 eye doctor, opened the country and allowed political debates. He quickly clamped back down, faced with challenges and a hastily changing world, beginning with the September 11 attacks in The us.
He objected the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, worried he would be next. He let foreign fighters enter Iraq from his territory, fuelling an insurgency against america occupation and enraging the Americans.
He used to be forced to end Syria’s long domination of Lebanon after Damascus used to be blamed for the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Still, he tightened ties with Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
Like his father, Bashar Assad elevated circle of relatives to insulate his power — a younger, more contemporary generation, but one seen by many Syrians as more rapacious in amassing wealth.
The Assad circle of relatives’s gravest challenge came with the Arab Spring uprisings that swept the region, reaching Syria in March 2011.
His response to the to start with peaceable protests used to be to unleash security forces to snuff them out. Instead, protests grew, turning later into an armed insurgency backed by Turkey, america and Gulf Arab nations. His military fragmented.
With his army nearing collapse, Assad opened his territory to Russia’s and Iran’s militaries and their proxies. Cities were pulverized. He used to be accused of the usage of chemical weapons against his own people and killing or jailing opponents en masse. Millions fled to Europe or beyond.
For much of the world, he became a pariah. But Assad masterfully portrayed the war as a choice between his rule and Islamic extremists, including the Islamic State group. Many Syrians and even European states became convinced it used to be the lesser wicked.
Eventually, he effectively eliminated the military threat against him. He’s all but sure to win presidential elections due next year in the shattered husk that is Syria.
Still, Dagher said the war transformed Syrians in irreversible ways. An economic meltdown and mounting hardship may change the calculus.
“A whole generation of people has been awakened and will eventually find a way to take back the country and their future,” he said.
As US election results rolled in, showing Joe Biden the winner, memes by Syrian opposition trolls mocked how the Assads have now outlasted nine American presidents since Richard Nixon.
“In my life, my fellow Syrians had to vote four times for the only president on the poll, Hafez Assad. His son is still president. After migration to america, I voted for six different presidents,” wrote Zaher Sahloul, a Chicago-based Syrian-American doctor who left Syria in 1989. “I wish that my homeland will witness free elections someday.”
Hafez Assad’s legacy might have looked moderately different had he not shoe-horned Bashar into succeeding him, Quilliam said.
“It should not have been favorable, but Bashar’s legacy will overshadow Assad’s legacy and make it synonymous with cruelty, willful destruction of a great country, and the brutalization of an attractive people,” he said.