For most people in the West well into the 2000s, Syria was either an unknown, a rogue state, or one of many Arab dictatorships. This changed in 2011 with the outbreak of the Arab Spring. Nevertheless, since then only heavily filtered and biased narratives of the Syrian conflict have found their way into German- and English-language media. But the conflict can hardly be understood without a degree of knowledge about Syria's history under the Ba'ath Party.
Lack of information is not the only reason for the numerous misunderstandings propagated in the West about Syria. They are also due to a contemporary tendency to avoid complex issues that emerges when we are too preoccupied to confront a topic with the care and rigour it requires. Furthermore, the media often favours sensationalism at the expense of discussing the factors that are actually important and the historical background behind them. In this respect, communicating basic facts about the decades of Syria’s domination by the Assads can help to foster a better understanding of a country which today represents a microcosm of the rest of the world.
Ever since the Ba’ath Party seized power by a military coup on 8 March 1963, Syria has been under a state of emergency in which laws were suspended, newspapers shut down, and political parties banned. People are forbidden to gather in public spaces. Prior to 1963 Syria had dozens of newspapers and magazines; afterwards, there were only two. Ten years later, a third, government-run newspaper was established. The army was politicized; officers failing to demonstrate loyalty to the regime were discharged. This purge contributed to Syria’s crushing defeat by Israel in the 1967 war, experienced by the Syrians and many other Arabs as a bitter humiliation. This had effects on the morale of the population as well as on culture and the arts. Moreover, the 1967 war brought the era of a progressive, secular, socialist Pan-Arabism to an end.
Hafez al-Assad was Minister for Defence in 1967, and was required neither to stand down nor to assume any responsibility for the defeat; three years later, he seized control of the state through another military coup. He immediately began securing his regime against further coups by filling key positions in the security services and the military with his relatives and trusted associates. Most were members of the Alawite ethnic group, which makes up around 12 percent of the Syrian population. This fuelled sectarianism and undermined the mutual trust which, in an epoch of secular patriotism, had hitherto prevailed among the majority of Syrians. The regime rapidly isolated itself, and civil society was deprived of any legal means of independent expression. Public life came to be characterized by fear and latent hostility. The Syrian people no longer had any influence whatsoever on the regime.
Following Syria’s intervention against the PLO and progressive Lebanese groups in the Lebanese Civil War in 1976, exasperation over the social and political situation in the country spread. Protest manifested in two forms: left-democratic, against the tyranny of the security services and the ruling cult of personality; and militant Islam. A crisis point was reached in 1979: Islamists massacred dozens of Alawite soldiers in Aleppo, while growing street protests called for democracy, civil rights and the rule of law. Political parties, professional associations (lawyers, doctors, pharmacists, engineers, etc.), and students all took part in the demonstrations. The regime responded to this insubordination with violence, arresting thousands of Islamists, leftists, unionists, and ordinary citizens, including the author of this article. I had just turned 20 at the time. In the course of its blanket repression of all forms of protest, in 1982 the regime massacred between 20,000 and 30,000 people in Hama and laid waste to extensive areas of the city, which had been cordoned off during the slaughter. The Hama massacre was burned into the Syrian consciousness, and brought back memories of the 1967 defeat. It was a crippling blow to the Syrian people, bound up with collective humiliation and a life lived in fear. Thus, on the heels of the political takeover of 1970 came the complete takeover of society in the 1980s.
Every seven years, Hafez al-Assad received over 99 percent of the vote in festival-like, staged referendums with no opposing candidates. From the mid-1980s, slogans like “Assad Forever” began to appear, and the President was declared “Father Leader” and “Sovereign”. The referendums were referred to as “homages”; the Arabic word, bai’a, refers to an Islamic tradition in which social elites pledge allegiance to a new ruler. This was indicative of a reactionary change of direction—albeit in modern guise—taking place throughout society, politics, and culture. In the absence of free elections or military coups, and following the crushing of all forms of protest whether peaceful or armed, the only prospect for change remaining to the Syrian people was the death of their ruler. But from the mid-1980s, Hafez al-Assad had already begun to arrange for his power to be passed on within his family, so as to head off any problems that might attend his demise. He began by side-lining his brother Rifaat, who was vying for the succession; leader of the so-called Defense Companies, Rifaat had ordered both the Hama Massacre and that of the inmates of the prison in Palmyra. Hafez then manoeuvred his eldest son Bassel into position as his successor. However, Bassel was killed in a car crash in 1994, and so the president had to bring his second son Bashar home from Great Britain, where he had been studying ophthalmology. The new heir to the throne rose through the ranks of the military to be made colonel in less than six years, and involved himself in crucial political issues, in particular the administration of Lebanon, at the time the Syrian “crown jewel”.
Hafez al-Assad died in June 2000; the constitution of the Syrian “People’s Chamber” was forthwith unanimously altered so as to lower the minimum age for assuming the presidency to 34—Bashar’s age at the time. One day later, he was promoted to Lieutenant General. Bashar al-Assad became president of a totally depleted Syrian society, and Western states backed him, with France at the front of the pack. Jacques Chirac had already received Bashar at the Élysée Palace prior to his presidency; Madeleine Albright visited him in Damascus to offer condolences for his father’s death and thus bestow her blessing upon the transfer of power. The protests against the privatization of the Syrian Republic and its transformation into a dynastic power were completely ignored by the Western democracies and international institutions. Under Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian economy was “liberalized”, while the 1963 state of emergency was maintained, which turned the already wealthy owners of the state apparatus into something like a ruling bourgeoisie. Assad’s nephew, Rami Makhlouf, became a symbol of this new class; he was said to be the Assad clan’s portfolio manager. Meanwhile, by 2007 37 percent of the Syrian population was living on less than two dollars a day.
The Syrian uprising of 2011 began against the backdrop of the “Arab Spring”, which in the space of two months had broken out across Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain. In Syria, the revolution was driven by widespread discontent among a population whose country had not belonged to them for decades, and which was now reclaiming its dignity. From the first day of protests, the regime responded with a level of violence which only escalated, through to the deployment of chemical weapons and barrel bombs. The regime received help from abroad from Iran, Iran-allied groups, and Russia. Meanwhile, the rebels’ calls for international protection, repeatedly issued from autumn 2011, were not listened to. The regime’s brutality set in train a dynamic of militarization and Islamization of the uprising, which in turn intensified the broader sectarianism. Salafists in the Gulf States backed groups of Sunni fighters in Syria, but the regime also played the jihadist card in June 2011, 100 days after the outbreak of the insurrection, by releasing Islamist political prisoners from its jails. The rise of Salafist extremism in Syria was merely another opportunity for the regime, whose watchwords since the beginning of the popular uprising had been “Assad or nobody!”, and “Assad, or we’ll burn the country down!” The latter slogan saw direct implementation, to which hundreds of thousands of people fell victim. The right word for it is genocide.
The slogan “Assad or nobody!” is directly connected to the emergence of the Assad dynasty and its ideology of “eternity”, which means nothing other than a permanent war waged against change and the future. The eternizing of the present meant that the only doors left open for Syria were in the past—embodied by the politics of the Islamists. They are the product of an eternized present in which there is room for nothing other than what has already been taking place for half a century: dynastic rule and violence. Between 2013 and 2016, Islamist groups heaped so many appalling crimes on Syria that one could say that on top of the country’s humiliation by Israel and Assad, a further Islamist stratum has been added.
If the first decade of Hafez al-Assad’s rule represented the transition from the seizure of power to the appropriation of Syrian society, then under Bashar al-Assad there has been a transition from an unpatriotic state to an unpatriotic society, whose different constituent parts all follow different masters. In the approximately eight years of civil war, Syria has indeed been “burned down”, a process which has killed over 600,000 people dead and turned the country into a Russian-Iranian protectorate headed by Bashar al-Assad, his murderous brother Maher, and his billionaire nephew Rami Makhlouf.
Today, according to a United Nations report, 83 percent of Syrians are living below the poverty line. An earlier report estimated the costs for the reconstruction of the country at around 400 billion US dollars. Previously, passports were used in Syria to restrict international travel, especially for freethinkers and opponents of the regime. Today, passports are sold to refugees for $800 apiece, and no other state, Germany included, has raised any objections. Thus today the regime is levying extra funds for its war machine from people who are forced to flee abroad because of the regime. According to a Syrian human rights organization, the Syrian passport is currently the fourth worst, and at the same time the most expensive, in the world.
The particular hallmark of the Syrian tragedy is that it could have been prevented if those who had already been ruling for 41 years when the insurrection broke out had not insisted on keeping power entirely and exclusively for themselves. Hundreds of thousands of human lives could have been saved, and barbaric structures such as IS and Al-Qaeda would never have been able to develop or take hold in Syria. Moreover, the so-called “refugee crisis” would not have taken place in the same way. The political transformation that has failed to materialize in Syria due to the genocidal character of the Assad dynasty and the geopolitical yoke that is strangling the Syrian people remains the order of the day. We do not know when the next eruption will come; but it would be short-sighted to wager that it will not.
Yassin Al Haj Saleh is a left-wing Syrian writer living in exile in Germany. His latest book, The Impossible Revolution—Making Sense of the Syrian Tragedy, appeared in 2017. Al Haj Saleh is currently a fellow of the programme “Europe in the Middle East—The Middle East in Europe” at the Forum for Transregional Studies in Berlin. Translation by Sam Langer and Joel Scott.