The Syrian Civil War shows no sign of stopping, and it is only a matter of time before America gets involved — most likely in some clandestine manner. With this in mind, let us look back on the rise to power of Syria’s president-for-life, Bashar al-Assad. Trying to succinctly describe the Middle East’s constantly fluctuating alliances is difficult, and probably even more difficult to follow. But I ask you to try with me — this is important.
PART ONE: Hafez al-Assad
Our story begins with Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad (whose adopted last name means “the Lion” in Arabic). Hafez joined the fledgeling Ba’ath Party in 1946, which supported both socialist ideals and Arab nationalism. He was a key organizer and brought several college-age young men into the movement.
By 1950, Hafez had joined the Syrian Armed Forces and became a decorated pilot. His time in the military saw Syria switch allegiances from the Soviet Union to Egypt, joining what was called the United Arab Republic in 1958. While other Middle East countries (Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey) were aligned with the United Kingdom, Syria and Egypt formed their own alliance. At this time, Hafez befriended future Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. Egyptian President Nasser dissolved the Ba’ath Party, causing Assad and his colleagues to attempt a coup in 1962. This failed, and he briefly served prison time in Lebanon.
The Iraqi Ba’ath Party (including Saddam Hussein) successfully overthrew the Iraqi government in February 1963, emboldening the Syrian branch of the party to try again. This time they succeeded — and over the next three years, the Syrian Ba’ath Party took control in Syria, and then split in two, leaving the military in charge. This split also severed ties with Iraq, as the civilian (non-military) members had stronger relations with Iraq.
After the coup, Assad was appointed Minister of Defense by new leader Salah Jadid. This was a grave mistake on Jadid’s part; in November 1970, Assad (who had full control of the military) arrested and overthrew Jadid and installed himself as permanent Prime Minister, commencing 42 years of his family’s rule and the tyrannical government we see today.
His early years were spent consolidating power and keeping the peace between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in Syria. Assad was not a devout Muslim (he was raised by a mystical, Shia sect), but placed Sunnis into positions of power in order to placate the masses, and would work Muslim terms into his speeches. To appear legitimate, he held a free election, arrested his opposition, and won with 99.6% of the vote. His ruthlessness was recognized by the world, with Human Rights Watch estimating over 17,000 people had “disappeared” without trial and President Carter placing Syria on the inaugural list of state sponsors of terrorism in 1979. In later years, thousands of Muslim Brotherhood followers would be arrested and tortured, as well.
Assad allocated up to 70 percent of the budget to a military build-up, and purchasing large quantities of arms from the Soviet Union. Syria joined Egypt in the Yom Kippur War against Israel in October 1973. While Israel won the war, only Egypt agreed to sign a peace treaty and Assad became a national hero among anti-Israeli Muslims. This also helped further align Syria with Jordan, Lebanon and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), while now distancing themselves from Egypt.
By the mid-1980s, Assad not only suffered constant political opposition, but physical restraints as well. He suffered a heart attack, had diabetes and inflammation in his veins. During Operation Desert Storm in 1990–91, Syria cooperated with the United States and was a member of the multinational coalition. America and Syria had a pragmatic relationship; President Bush rightly considered them a terrorist nation, while Assad naturally opposed the United States due to his aligning with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. But both sides saw the benefit of a weakened Iraq, and both nations reaped the rewards.
PART TWO: Bashar al-Assad
In June 2000, Hafez al-Assad died from a heart attack, leaving his son Bashar to fill the void. Another “election” was held, with Bashar receiving 97.2% of the votes. Bashar and Hafez, on the surface, were like night and day: the son avoided the military and politics, was a practicing physician, studied ophthalmology in London and married a British woman. This background and exposure to Western values may be part of the reason Secretary of State Clinton erroneously believed that the new Assad was a “reformer”, as she called him.
In some small ways he was a reformer. Assad allowed private banking for the first time, and was instrumental in bringing the Internet to Syria in 2001 — although he ordered all social media sites to be blocked, and passed a law requiring Internet cafes to keep track of patrons’ searches and anything they write. Political dissidents are still tortured, imprisoned, and killed.
Although Syria had opposed Iraq in Desert Storm, they reversed course during the more recent war. Assad did not outright join the fight against the United States, but did allow foreign fighters (Syrian and otherwise) to enter Iraq through the Syrian border. How this hindered American efforts cannot be understated.
Assad has aligned himself with Shia-dominated Iran, which has made Syria’s relationship with Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia troubled. In 2011, Assad told the Wall Street Journal that he considered himself “anti-West” and “anti-Israel”, but suggested this may be a political decision; having the opposing viewpoint, he said, could lead to his being overthrown. He accepted the possibility of a peace treaty with Israel, but pointed out that this was merely a euphemism for “permanent ceasefire” — the treaty would not bring real peace, trade agreements or normal relations so long as the Syrian people sympathized with the plight of the Palestinians.
Almost two years ago, the Syrian Civil War began, with citizens demanding reforms and democracy while being violently repressed. The war was not strictly internal and arose from the so-called Arab Spring that brought forth new governments in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Whereas those three were relatively quick, the outcome in Syria remains to be seen and anyone who believes in freedom and democracy should not skip the daily headlines in their newspaper. President Obama has called for Assad to step down, and it certainly seems that a transitional government ought to be set up, or Assad should release his iron fist at the very least.
As of October 2012, over 33,000 Syrian citizens have been killed and almost 500,000 have become refugees. The rebel forces are supported by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and the Kurds of Iraq. There is also the war of language — with the media in Syria calling the rebels “armed gangs” and “terrorists”. Downplayed is the popular support of the rebellion, including the support of several top government and military officials who have switched sides.
And the future remains unclear. We know that Assad must — and will — step down, if not assassinated first. But what do we know about those who will take his place? Will they embrace freedom and human rights? Or will they be another dictator or oppressive religious regime? We know who we are rooting against, but does anyone know who we are rooting for?