The anti-dictatorship movement spreading through the Arab world has now reached Syria, a nation with which the United States has had a mixed history—denouncing the Syrian government and military as supporters of terrorism, while at the same time sending terror suspects kidnapped by the CIA to Syria to be tortured on our behalf.
When I wrote my book, Tyrants: The World's 20 Worst Living Dictators, I included a chapter about Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, the accidental dictator who inherited his dictatorship from his father. Here is that chapter, including some background history.
THE NATION—Syria is the size of the state of Washington, but with more than triple the population—about 21 million people. Since 1961, Syria has been ruled by the Ba’ath Party, the same party that ruled Iraq until the fall of Saddam Hussein. Almost three-quarters of the Syrian population are Sunni Muslims and another 15% or so belong to other Muslim groups, most notably the Alawites, who have held the leading political positions in Syria since 1966. Ten percent of Syrians are Christians and they have traditionally been treated well.
A MAGNET FOR INVADERS—On the crossroads of history, Syria was occupied by Akkadians, Amorites, Hittites, Canaanites, Phoenicians, Arameans, Hebrews, Egyptians, Sumerians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Iranians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, European Crusaders, Mongols, Mamluks, and Turks. Syria is the site of the oldest preserved Jewish synagogue and the earliest identified Christian church. What is now Syria entered the twentieth century as part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. After World War I and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, nationalists proclaimed the independent Arab Kingdom of Syria with Emir Faisal of the Hashemite dynasty king. However, in July 1920, French troops defeated Faisal’s Arab army at the Battle of Maysalun and imposed military rule. Faisal moved on to Iraq, where he was king until his death in 1933.
INDEPENDENCE—In 1922, the League of Nations gave Great Britain control of Transjordan and Palestine; and France was given what would evolve into present-day Syria and Lebanon. Nationalist revolts, protests, and strikes continued throughout the 1920s and 1930s, particularly among the Sunni majority. After the Free French and the British drove out the pro-Nazi Vichy government, Syria proclaimed its independence in 1943. In 1945, the French tried to reestablish control, but pressure from the newly created United Nations forced them to withdraw the last of their troops on April 17, 1946. Syria’s first decade of independence was chaotic. It saw a failed invasion of Israel in 1948, a military coup in 1949, twenty cabinets and four constitutions.
THE PARTY—The Ba’ath Party was founded in 1945 in Damascus by Michel Aflaq, a Christian, and Salah al-Din al-Bitar, a Sunni Muslim. It was conceived as a secular, pan-Arab nationalist party and it gained its greatest popularity in Syria and Iraq. Democracy was restored in Syria in 1954 and Ba’athists won seats in the next parliamentary elections. In 1959, when Syria joined Egypt to form the United Arab Republic, the Ba’ath Party leadership, as part of the union agreement, agreed to disband the party. This did not sit well with the party rank and file, and the union with Egypt was not popular with Syrians in general. A military coup in Syria put an end to the United Arab Republic in 1961. Ba’athist military officers, with help from other nationalists, seized power on March 8, 1963, a month after Iraqi Ba’athists gained control, albeit briefly, in their country. In Syria the Ba’athists banned all other political parties, but factions developed within the party itself. In June 1967, Syria lost the Golan Heights to Israel during the Six-Day War and in 1970 Syrian forces failed in their attempt to invade Jordan. On November 12, 1970, the minister of defense, Hafiz al-Assad, led a bloodless military coup that removed Syria’s civilian leadership. Assad and his son have ruled Syria ever since.
THE FATHER—Hafiz al-Assad would prove to be much less interested in ideology than previous Ba’ath leaders. His main concern was securing personal power. The Alawites, the religious minority to which Assad belonged, follow a syncretic version of Islam that combines elements of Twelfer Shi’ism with Christian practices. For example, in addition to observing Muslim holidays, the Alawites also celebrate Christmas and Epiphany. They are considered heretics by orthodox Sunni Muslims, some of whom refer to them as “little Christians.” The Alawites are centered in eastern Syria. Because they constitute barely 10% of the Syrian population, Hafiz al-Assad, in order to stay in power, had to create a coalition of Syria’s non-Sunni minorities. During the final years of his life, five of his seven closest advisors were Christians.
Within a few years of seizing power, Assad was supreme commander of the armed forces, head of the Ba’ath Party, and head of the executive branch of the government. He was responsible for choosing all government ministers and their deputies, all senior civil servants, all military officers, and all judges. Although he had allowed the legalization of friendly political parties and of a basically impotent parliament, Assad retained the right to dissolve that parliament.
TORTURE—In 1984, Amnesty International released a list of thirty-eight types of torture used by Assad’s regime. In addition to the usual practices, Syrian torture included “The Black Slave,” in which the victim is strapped onto a device which, when turned on, inserts a heated metal skewer into his or her anus, and “The Chicken,” whereby the victim is strapped to a revolving wooden bar resembling a roasting spit and subjected to beating with sticks.
BRUTALITY AND TERRORISM—On October 6, 1973, Syria and Egypt attacked Israel in an attempt to regain lost territory. A negotiated settlement ended the fighting after three weeks, but the Golan Heights remained under Israeli control. In 1975, Assad sent Syrian troops into Lebanon, which was immersed in a complex civil war. They remained there for thirty years. In 1982, 200 members of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood staged an insurrection in the northern city of Hama. Assad responded with overwhelming force, pounding the city with mortars for three weeks and killing more than 10,000 civilians.
Beginning in the 1980s, Assad used terrorism as a foreign policy tool. He supported Abu Nidal’s Palestinian terrorist group, the Fatah Revolutionary Council, and Abdullah Ocalan’s Kurdish Workers’ Party, among others. He was also widely accused of supporting numerous terrorist organizations through intermediaries so that he personally could deny involvement in their acts. The terrorists who blew up the Khobar Towers barracks in Saudi Arabia in 1996, killing nineteen U.S. soldiers, planned their attack in Syria.
Assad intended to pass on control of Syria to the oldest of his four sons, the charismatic Basil, but on January 21, 1994, Basil was killed in a car accident while driving to the airport in the Syrian capital of Damascus. Assad then turned to his second son, Bashar.
THE SON—Bashar al-Assad was born in Damascus on September 11, 1965, and attended the elite Fraternity School. Because Basil was the heir apparent, Bashar was free to pursue a relatively normal life. More bookish and intellectual than his flashy older brother, who went straight into military training, Bashar chose to study medicine. This probably pleased his father, who, as a youth, had hoped to become a doctor, but was prevented from pursuing his goal because his family lacked the necessary financial resources. Bashar earned his medical degree from Damascus University in 1988 and then met his military service requirement by working as an army doctor. He moved to England in 1992 to do postgraduate training in ophthalmology at the Western Eye Hospital in London. He would later marry Asma Akhras, a Syrian who was raised in London.
When Basil died, Bashar returned to Damascus for the funeral and found that his life was about to be turned upside down. Having decided to groom Bashar to be his successor, Hafiz al-Assad set to work to bolster his credentials with the all-important military. Bashar, after his obligatory two years as an army doctor, had left the service with the rank of captain. Now he was enrolled in a course for tank battalion commanders and then put in charge of a tank unit in November 1994. He was promoted to major in January 1995. The following year he enrolled in the command and general staff course at the Higher Military Academy and he graduated in July 1997. He was immediately promoted to lieutenant colonel and put in charge of the same Republican Guard brigade that Basil had commanded. Early in 1999 he moved up to the rank of staff colonel.
To further strengthen Bashar’s status, his father insisted that respected members of the military praise him publicly. Even more important, Hafiz set about eliminating from positions of power, in the military and in the intelligence and security agencies, anyone who might challenge Bashar, including Hafiz’s own brother, Rifa’t. They were replaced by trustworthy loyalists. Bashar’s brother-in-law, Asif Shawkat, the husband of Bashar’s older sister, Bushra, was given a position in Syrian Military Intelligence and quickly promoted to second-in-command.
BUILDING THE BASHAR BRAND—Hafiz al-Assad also initiated a public relations campaign to sell Bashar to the Syrian citizenry, blanketing the country with posters of Hafiz, Basil, and Bashar with captions that read, “our leader, our ideal and our hope.” Acknowledging the public’s cynicism about governmental corruption, Hafiz put Bashar in charge of a highly visible anticorruption campaign (just as he had done earlier with Basil) with offices throughout the country where citizens could go to express their complaints. Of course real anticorruption prosecutions were extremely selective, as possible challengers to Bashar found themselves charged with various offenses, while regime loyalists survived unscathed. Bashar was given the chairmanship of the Syrian Computer Society, a position previously held by Basil. However, unlike his late brother, Bashar, an academic, took the post seriously and is credited with promoting the introduction of the Internet to Syria, a development that was rarely a foregone conclusion in dictatorships.
Hafiz also gradually educated Bashar in Syria’s relationship with Lebanon, and by late 1998, Bashar was handling the management of Lebanese affairs. He met with a wide range of Lebanese political figures and took a particular liking to Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary-general of Hezbollah. Combining his two portfolios, anticorruption and Lebanon, Bashar targeted the Syrian business associates of Lebanon’s billionaire prime minister, Rafiq al-Hariri, a Sunni Muslim whom Hafiz al-Assad wanted removed from power.
DICTATOR BY DEFAULT—When Hafiz al-Assad died on June 10, 2000, the Syrian parliament quickly lowered the minimum age for presidents from 40 to 34 and Bashar was sworn in. Many Syrians and foreign observers found it hard to believe that Bashar al-Assad could stay in power for long and considered him a transitional president until the real powers-that-be decided who would take his place. But Hafiz had done a good job of eliminating Bashar’s most dangerous contenders. In addition, the most powerful players in the military, the intelligence services, the government bureaucracy, and the Ba’ath Party were content to leave Bashar alone—as long as he didn’t try to rock the boat.
FAKE REFORM—For example, Bashar convinced the parliament to pass a law legalizing private banks, but not one private bank actually opened. More significantly, Bashar released more than 600 political prisoners, and he encouraged the formation of political and cultural forums where citizens could discuss democracy. Syrian intellectuals were so refreshed by this climate of openness that they called it the “Damascus Spring.” Soon hundreds of pro-democracy advocates were meeting at these forums and circulating petitions promoting a more open society. Even members of parliament were calling for an end to the emergency laws that had been in place since December 1962. Then the crackdown began. The authorities shut down the discussion forums and arrested almost all of their most vocal members. It is unclear whether the dismantling of the discussion groups was an example of the Syrian old guard overruling Bashar’s reformist tendencies or if the creation of the forums in the first place was a trick to identify regime opponents.
ANTI-SEMITISM—Bashar has been uncompromising in his anti-Semitism. When Pope John Paul II visited Damascus in May 2001, Bashar used his welcoming speech to denounce the Jews, saying, “They tried to kill the principles of all religions with the same mentality in which they betrayed Jesus Christ and the same way they tried to betray and kill the Prophet Muhammad.” At an Arab summit conference in Beirut in March 2002, he declared that all Israelis were legitimate targets for terrorist attacks.
GREATER SYRIA—Syrian troops invaded Lebanon in 1975 to “stabilize” the country during its civil war. This action was not really that surprising considering that Syrians had, for centuries, considered both Lebanon and Palestine part of “Greater Syria.” In the current context, the Syrian occupation created a buffer zone that allowed Syria to support anti-Israeli terrorist groups without having them actually operate out of Syria. It also ensured that Lebanon remained a closed market for Syrian products and a place of employment for more than one million Syrians, most of whom would otherwise be unemployed if they had to return to Syria. Assad maintained control of Lebanon through the use of 30,000 troops, an extensive military intelligence network, and financial support of Shi’ite political parties, including Hezbollah, Shi’ites constituting one-third of the Lebanese population.
On August 27, 2004, Bashar ordered Rafiq al-Hariri, the longtime enemy of the Assad family, to have the Lebanese parliament amend its constitution to allow the pro-Syrian president of Lebanon, Emile Lahoud, to remain in office after his six-year term expired in November. Although Hariri was humiliated by the way the young Bashar treated him, he pushed through the amendment anyway—in a ten-minute legislative session. One week later, France and the United States co-sponsored a resolution in the United Nations, which was passed by the Security Council, demanding that Syria withdraw its 20,000 remaining troops from Lebanon and disband the armed wing of Hezbollah. This was a stunning development for Bashar and the Syrian leadership because France had always been Syria’s leading Western supporter.
On October 20, Rafiq al-Hariri resigned as prime minister and began to make plans for the May 2005 parliamentary elections, which would be monitored by international observer groups. On February 2, 2005, Hariri and the Lebanese opposition publicly called for the complete withdrawal of Syrian troops. Twelve days later, Hariri was assassinated by a massive truck bomb in Beirut that also killed nineteen other people. There followed a series of increasingly large street demonstrations, starting with one for Hariri’s funeral. On March 8, Nasrallah and Hezbollah mobilized 500,000 pro-Syrian demonstrators. Six days later, the combined Sunni, Christian, and Druze opposition brought out one million people for the largest demonstration in Lebanese history.
Following the release of a United Nations report that implicated the Syrian leadership, including one of Bashar’s younger brothers and his sister’s husband, in the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri, or at least in a refusal to seek out the perpetrators, Bashar al-Assad agreed to withdraw his troops. The last of the Syrian troops finally left Lebanon on April 26, 2005. Although this was a blow to Bashar’s prestige, Syria maintained major influence in Lebanon through its intelligence presence, its deep involvement in Lebanon’s security forces and its business connections.
DANGEROUS GAMES—It is still possible in Syria to be convicted of “opposing the party’s revolutionary goals” or “harming the state’s reputation.” Torture continues to be commonly used. For example, in a February 2005 trial of eighteen Kurds for “activity against the authority of the state,” every one of the defendants claimed that they had been tortured with electricity, and one said he had been sodomized with a piece of wood.
Bashar, like ex-dictator Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan, has played a dangerous and delicate game, balancing support for Islamist extremists with cooperation with the U.S. government in its battle against terrorism. On the one hand, he has allowed foreign fighters to cross through Syria on their way to join the insurgency in Iraq. On the other hand, he has allowed the U.S. to send terror suspects, such as Canadian Maher Arar, to his prisons to be interrogated and tortured.