On November 13, 1970, a young air force officer from the coastal hills of Syria launched an operation to overthrow the country’s government. Hafez Assad and his supporters were successful. They took control of the government in a bloodless coup.
Fifty years later, Assad’s family still rules Syria. Yet the country is in ruins from 10 years of civil war. At least 500,000 people have died in the fighting. The conflict has displaced half of Syria’s population. Large areas are lost from government control. But the son of Hafez Assad, Bashar Assad, has unquestioned rule over what remains.
Both father and son have used the same tool to stay in power: repression, violence and rejection of compromise.
“There can be no doubt that 50 years of Assad family rule, which has been ruthless…and self-defeating, has left the country what can only be described as broken, failed and almost forgotten,” said Neil Quilliam. He is an associate fellow with the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, an independent policy center based in London.
Ruthless but brilliant
After taking power in 1970, Hafez Assad established a single-party police state – one like that in the former Soviet Union. He moved members of his Alawite sect into positions of power. The Alawites are a minority in Syria, where most people are Sunni Muslim.
Assad also turned Syria into one of the most powerful countries in the Middle East. In the Arab world, he gained respect for his refusal to negotiate on the Golan Heights, an area that Syria lost to Israel in the 1967 war. In 1981, he supported Iran in its war with Iraq while most of the Arab world supported Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Assad later supported the United States-led efforts to liberate Kuwait after Iraq’s 1990 invasion.
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton remembered meeting with the Syrian leader several times. “He was a ruthless but brilliant man who had once wiped out a whole village as a lesson to his opponents,” Clinton wrote in his book, “My Life.”
Clinton was talking about the 1982 massacre in Hama, Syria. That is when Syrian security forces killed thousands to crush an overthrown attempt led by the Muslim Brotherhood. The massacre left hatred that fueled another rebellion against Assad’s son Bashar years later.
The Assad family’s survival, says Sam Dagher, comes from refusing to accept any criticism from within and a willingness to “wait your enemies out.” Dagher is an expert on Syria. He wrote the book “Assad or We Burn the Country: How One Family’s Lust for Power Destroyed Syria.”
Bashar Assad’s rule
Bashar Assad, a British-trained eye doctor, first appeared to be a reformer after the death of his father in 2000. He opened up Syria and gave political activists some freedom.
But following the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, Bashar Assad quickly changed. He opposed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq because he believed his country would also be invaded. He let foreign fighters enter Iraq from Syrian territory and became an enemy of the U.S.
Assad was forced to end Syria’s control of Lebanon after the Syrian government was blamed for the killing of Rafik Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister. Yet Assad strengthened his country’s ties to Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
But it was the Arab Spring protest movement that frightened Assad the most. It reached Syria in March 2011. At first, he ordered security forces to put down the peaceful protests. But the demonstrations grew, and some members of the Syrian military began to side with the protestors.
With his army nearing collapse, Assad opened his country to military forces from Russia and Iran. Syrian cities were destroyed in bombing raids. He was accused of using chemical weapons against his own people and killing or jailing thousands of critics. Millions of Syrians fled to Europe or other areas.
Assad said the country’s war was a choice between his rule and Islamic extremists, including the Islamic State (IS) group. Many Syrians and some European states believed it was better to have Assad than to have IS.
Still, Sam Dagher said the war changed Syrians in permanent ways. The collapse of the economy has affected everyone.
“A whole generation of people has been awakened and will eventually find a way to take back the country and their future,” he said.
Of the father and son, it is Bashar Assad who will be remembered as the most oppressive, said Neil Quilliam. His name and actions will be remembered as the “willful destruction of a great country and the brutalization of a beautiful people,” he said.
I’m Susan Shand.
The Associated Press reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
Words In This Story
coup - n. to oust a government and take over by non-democratic means
doubt – n. uncertain something is true
ruthless – adj. without restraint
fellow – n. someone who is paid to study a subject at a university or research center
sect – n. a group
brilliant – adj. extremely intelligent
massacre – n. killing many people
brutalization – n. something done with great cruelty