In memory of a dictator: Hafez al-Assad's political legacy

In memory of a dictator: Hafez al-Assad's political legacy
Analysis: Hafez al-Assad died 15 years ago. But the militarised security state that he established stands up today, over the dead bodies of Syrians.
5 min read
10 June, 2015
Hafez al-Assad was not a universally popular figure during his 30-year rule [Getty]
After 30 years in power, Hafez died on June 10, 2000. The peasant boy who rose through the ranks of the military took power in 1970 through a bloodless coup.

Western TV channels, as well as Arabic media, mourned for him back then as the source of Syria's stability, despite fighting a major war in 1973 against Israel and intervening in a decade-long civil war in neighbouring Lebanon.

The so-claimed state stability was based on imprisoning, torturing and killing thousands of Syrians who directly and indirectly opposed his regime under a thick power-knitted cover of nationalistic propaganda.

The same stability was sustained through the massacre of tens of thousands of Syrians in Hama in 1982.

With his death, Syrians were hopeful that his young, Western-educated son would forward much-needed reforms, as he promised in his first speech as president. However, with time, it was clear that Hafez left behind a well-rooted "deep state" regime that was willing to see the country burn to the ground before relinquishing power.

Early years

Hafez rose to power through a series of coups that toppled the traditional leadership of the Baath Party and brought its military faction, mainly Salah Jadid and himself, to power.

Rising through the ranks, Hafez clashed with Jadid on several issues until he managed to secure the support of the military and orchestrated a swift and bloodless coup over Jadid and his entourage.
     Hafez left behind a well-rooted 'deep state' regime that was willing to see the country burn to the ground before relinquishing power

His rhetorical skills and charisma were used to build strong legitimacy around his personality. By ending the rifts inside the Baath party - through exiling and detaining opposition - Hafez was set to consolidate power and institutionalise a militarised vision of the Baath.

Assad differed from his predecessor at the outset, visiting local villages and hearing citizens' complaints. He presented himself as a revolutionary, a game changer.

One of his first acts as ruler was to visit Sultan Pasha al-Atrash, father of the Aflaqite Baathist Mansur al-Atrash, to honour his efforts during the Great Arab Revolution.

He made overtures to the Writers' Union, rehabilitating those who had been forced underground, imprisoned or sent into exile by his predecessors. Addressing the writers, he said: "I am determined that you shall no longer feel strangers in your own country." It wasn't long before Hafez falsified his own claims.

He went on to establish a Soviet-like regime where state bureacracy became completely dependent on the hierarchy of the party.

Behind the veil of the secular Baath

Hafez surrounded himself mainly with Alawites and family members. His younger brother, Rifaat, controlled the most important military companies. His son-in-law, Adnan Makhlouf, was his second-in-command as Commander of the Presidential Guard.

However, Assad understood the importance of retaining some sort of authority position for Sunni figures. Sunni figures were only trusted after proving to be "as loyal to the homeland as they are to their mothers", as he once said, according to former Syrian General Fouad Kallas.

Although Sunnis held high positions in the Air Force, General Intelligence, and army, none had power separate from Assad or the Alawite-dominated security establishment.

The 1973 war

Hafez came to power at times when Syria was isolated. He sought to build his local and pan-Arab legitimacy through planning a war on Israel and winning back Arab lands. His main concern was finding a war ally, ready to supply him with weapons.

The Soviets were drained from Abdel Nasser's disasterous war. However, Hafez did not seek to gain the trust of the Soviets by adopting socialist policies. Instead, Hafez presented Syria as a geostrategic country that could provide a stable presence for the Soviets in the Middle East.

The Soviets were given access to Syrian naval bases - giving them a role in the peace process - and helped curtail Washington's influence in the region.

In return, Hafez's army received the war resources needed to combat Israel. The new relationship bore fruit. Between 1971 and 1973, Assad met several times with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.

In 1973, the long-awaited war against Israel started on two fronts - Egypt and Syria. After a promising start for the Arab forces and some major battles in the Syrian Golan Heights, then-Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat pursued a ceasefire without infroming his Syrian counterparts - leaving the Baathist army fighting on its own. 
     The Syrian president capitalised on his army's victories, while still obsessing about the Golan Heights

Eventually, Hafez had to accept the ceasefire. The perceived heroism shown on the battlefield was celebrated. The Syrian president capitalised on his army's victories, while still obsessing about the Golan Heights lost earlier to Israel.

The 'Islamist' upheaval

Hafez's ostensibly stable regime also saw five years of popular upheaval between 1976 and 1982, led by the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, including several assassination attempts targeting Hafez and his inner circle.

The upheaval, or what the regime refer to as "the long campaign of terror", was a combination of violent attacks on military personnel and civilians, as well as civil mobilisation, strikes, and protests.

The roots of the conflict go back to the early days of Baathist rule, when the Brotherhood was outlawed in 1964 and violently crushed across Syria, mainly in Hama. But the grassroots nature of the Brotherhood allowed it to become the strongest underground opposition to the regime.

The regime's brutality, on the other hand, served to galvanise the Brotherhood and expand its support base among Syrians.

The upheaval was finally halted by the bloody massacre in Hama in 1982, in which thousands of armed fighters, members of Islamic parties and ordinary city residents were killed by the Syrian army.

Due to the arbitrary nature of the bombing, the vast majority of the people killed were innocent civilians.

'Curse your soul, oh Hafez'

As soon as the Syrians burst out into the streets in Daraa, Homs, Hama, Deir ez-Zour and elsewhere four years ago, they directed their fulminations at the one name they had always feared to utter: "Curse your soul, oh Hafez."

Before the revolution, Syrians were scared to mention his name in anything but praise. Children were shushed when they spelled it. Families were afraid the regime's intelligence had infiltrated their living rooms.

Hafez, through his well-established network of intelligence agents and his cult-of-identity posters across the country, was perceived as omnipresent.

Despite the rush of blood of the collective curse in public, the Syrian uprising taught the Syrians how well-entrenched Baathists remain in the state. More accurately, the uprising taught them the distinction between the people and the state.