Syria: The Lost Bequest of Hafez Assad

Like father like son: despite his brutality, Hafez Assad’s portrait still hangs in Damascus. Shawn Baldwin / The New York Times-Corbis

Bashar, son of Hafez Assad, has a son by the name of Hafez. But as the defiance and bloodletting in Syria would seem to suggest, Bashar needn’t worry about training his son for future rulership. The house that Hafez Assad built, some four decades ago, is not destined to last.

Dynasties are, of course, made, not born. The far-flung Ottoman Empire, one of the greatest Eurasian powers, emerged out of the labor and talent of Osman, an obscure early-14th-century chieftain, a warrior among many on the borderlands of the Byzantine Empire. So beguiling was the advance of this Ottoman dominion that a legend of Osman’s greatness would be spun by later generations: it was claimed that he was related to Noah through 52 generations. The present ennobles the past, and greatness is invariably in proportion to distance from the men—and the first settings—of great undertakings.

The great North African historian Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406), perhaps the world’s first sociologist, left behind some firm notions about dynasties: they rise, they beget kingdoms, then they decay, like all “created things.” Ibn Khaldun was rather specific: glory and prestige are gained and lost within four successive generations. The “builder of a family’s glory knows what it cost him to do the work, and he keeps the qualities that created his glory and made it last.” The son who inherits his mantle had contact with his father and will have learned some lessons from him. “However, he is inferior to him in this respect, inasmuch as a person who learns things through study is inferior to a person who knows them from practical application.” The third generation imitates the ancestors. The fourth loses it all, as its members begin to think that this glory is their due, given them by virtue of their descent, and not something that “resulted from group effort and individual qualities.”

Arabs are firm believers in nasab, inherited merit passed on from father to son, a nobility of the blood. No wonder that Hafez Assad was ambivalent about his beginnings. In 1980, before a gathering of learned notables, the ruler, then a decade in power, recounted the adversity of his childhood. He recalled that at one point in his boyhood he had to quit school temporarily because his father couldn’t scrape together the modest tuition. “But we are not commoners. On the contrary, my father was a half aga.” The title “aga,” a modest one in Ottoman parlance, signified a chief, a man of some standing or means. On another occasion, in the same year, speaking to a peasant syndicate, Hafez Assad would tell them he was in truth one of them. “I am first and last a peasant and the son of a peasant. To lie amid the spikes of grain on the threshing floor is, in my eyes, worth all the palaces in this world.”

He had pined to leave that poverty; he had come down from his mountain village to the port town of Latakia, on the Mediterranean, to get a secondary-school education; he had made it to the military academy, and the uniform had given him all that was now his. But he was then in the midst of a vicious sectarian war against the Muslim Brotherhood, with their power in the souks and the mosques of Hama and Aleppo and Damascus. For the Sunni artisans in the warrens of these old cities, the presidency of a peasant—and an Alawite peasant at that, hailing from an esoteric mountain sect beyond the pale of Islam—was a violation of the natural order of things. Syria took pride in its place in Islam. Damascus was the seat of the first Arab kingdom, the first stop the desert warriors from the Hejaz made when they came out of the Arabian Peninsula. In the telling, the Prophet Muhammad favored this realm. He had seen Damascus from the hills above it, and the fabled Ghouta, the gardens and orchards that once circled this city. The prophet, bewitched by his view of Damascus, it is proudly recounted by the Damascenes, had refused to enter the city; it was paradise, he said, and he feared he would be denied paradise in the afterlife were he to enter it in his lifetime.

The Ottomans had conquered the territories of Bilad al-Sham (Greater Syria would be the closest rendering of this geography) in the early years of the 16th century—lands that stretched from the borders of Anatolia to Egypt, from the Iraqi desert to the Mediterranean. They divided it into three provinces: Beirut, Aleppo, and Damascus. Imperial power ebbed and flowed, and the cities were ruled by notables—political and religious elites, landholders who lived in urban surroundings and dominated the lives of the peasants and sharecroppers. Feudalism was the word that described that order. The countryside was neglected—and despised, so consuming was the hauteur of the urban elites. The thought of a peasant from the mountains ruling Damascus, the gathering point of the pilgrimage to the Holy Cities, would have been heresy at the time.

France would acquire a mandate over the territories of Syria (and Lebanon) in the aftermath of the Great War. The French ruled a turbulent, unhappy country for a quarter century. Urban/Sunni Syria never really took to the French. France was poor, and had been a protector of the Christians of the Levant. But for all its brevity, this French interlude helped shape post-independence Syria and indirectly gave rise to the rule of Hafez Assad. France recruited heavily among the minorities—the Druze, the Alawis, the Ismailis—for its colonial levies, the Troupes Spéciales du Levant. The Sunni townsmen disdained and avoided military service, thought it the work of lessers. For the Alawis in their secluded, impoverished mountains, the Jabal Ansariya, in the northwest, military service was salvation. Born in 1930, Hafez Assad took that route out of poverty. Schooling in the town of Latakia had spared him a life of toil and destitution. He would graduate from the military academy in 1955—a decade after independence and a time of intense turbulence in Syrian politics.

The country’s first coup d’état had come in 1949, a mere three years after independence, and the conspiracies would not cease in the years to come. The old order was coming apart; those feudal families of ease and pedigree and property had squabbled among themselves, and had given parliamentary politics a bad name. Ideology was battering the world of the notables. Communists, believers in Greater Syrian nationalism, Muslim Brotherhood adherents, peasant jacqueries, had made certain that the old order would be overwhelmed. One political party outdid the others: the Baath. It had been conceived in the interwar years in Paris’s Latin Quarter by two talented young men from Damascus: the Greek Orthodox Michel Aflaq and Salah al-Din al-Bitar, a Sunni Muslim. They had come back to their country loaded with readings and ambition. They became schoolteachers, and the fuse they lit up, the young students they drew into the net, would determine the political course of Syria—and of neighboring Iraq, for that matter. This was the party that widened the horizons of Hafez Assad, gave him the political language and the ideology that carried him to the summit of political power. (It didn’t work out so well for the two founders. Aflaq was expelled from his own party in 1966; Bitar was struck down in Paris by the security forces of the Syrian regime in 1980.)

In this republic of conspirators and coup makers, Hafez Assad was to emerge as the supreme practitioner of the art. There were three Baathist coups—in 1963, 1966, and 1970. He was a minor player in the first, a partner in the second, and the victor in the third against his own erstwhile allies. Indeed, he rose to power, via that third coup, as a leader of a “corrective movement” against the excess and radicalism of the second Baath regime. It was winner take all. The president he overthrew was dispatched to prison, to be released in 1992, sent to Paris on a stretcher, and to die of cancer. As for his former military partner, a fellow Alawite, captivity lasted a year longer, and the man would die in prison.

Violence was at the ready in Hafez Assad’s republic. But he was not a sadist (that trait characterized his younger brother and chief enforcer, Rifaat). His violence was selective and methodical. There was always his cunning—a trait that came from his minoritarian background. There was stealth and steel in him. Interlocutors were often left guessing as to his intentions and commitments. Henry Kissinger, who parried with (and studied) the most accomplished in statecraft, negotiated with Assad in the aftermath of the October War of 1973. He came back with high praise for the man’s intellect and tenacity: “Assad never lost his aplomb. He negotiated daringly and tenaciously like a riverboat gambler to make sure that he exacted the last sliver of available concessions. I once told him that I had seen negotiators who deliberately moved themselves to the edge of a precipice to show that they had no further margin of maneuver. I had even known negotiators who put one foot over the edge, in effect threatening their own suicide. He was the only one who would actually jump off the precipice, hoping that on his way down he could break his fall by grabbing a tree he knew to be there. Assad beamed.”

Syrians who feared his tyranny credited Hafez Assad with giving the country stability and a place among the nations. In the highest of praise, they said he had changed Syria from a plaything in the region to a player. He could never surmount the blame that the Golan Heights were lost to Israel in the Six-Day War on his watch, when he was defense minister. Unable to recover the Golan, he did the next best thing: he all but came into possession of Lebanon, practically erasing the border between the two countries. He went into Lebanon in 1976 at the request of the Christian Maronites, to give them sustenance against the Palestinians and the leftist militias. He changed sides innumerable times, and left to the Lebanese the shell of their old sovereignty. He ruled Lebanon by remote control; Lebanese leaders who opposed him—be they Muslims or Christians, clerics or politicians—had a habit of falling to assassins and car bombs. Everyone knew that the trail of these murders led to Damascus, but the outside world had wearied of the Lebanese, and Hafez Assad, the arsonist, had a knack for presenting himself to powers beyond as a capable fireman.

His name would forever be sullied by a barbarism in Hama, an intensely religious town in the central plains, with an Alawite hinterland. Hama was the stronghold of the Muslim Brotherhood. It had had earlier troubles with the secular Baathists, and opposed their agrarian “reforms” and the powers the Baath gave to hitherto quiescent peasants. In February 1982, those earlier skirmishes between Hama and the security forces would be overwhelmed by a cruelty the country had not seen before. A good deal of the Old City was reduced to rubble; thousands were killed. The grim work was done by the ruler’s brother, Rifaat, who took the Stalinist purges as a model to emulate. No one is sure how many perished in Hama—the low estimates are 10,000, and there are claims that the numbers could be four times these estimates. He never looked back, he had driven home the message that his regime was there to stay. He took his people out of the political world. He offered them what he saw as a reasonable bargain: they could have safety and be left alone so long as they led apolitical lives. He once gave away the crux of his worldview to a Baath Party functionary. People have “primarily economic demands,” Assad said—they aspire to a plot of land, a car, a house. Those demands could be satisfied “in one way or another.” But there was a small minority, 200 individuals at most, who seriously engaged in politics and would oppose him no matter what. “It is for them that the Mezzeh prison was originally intended.” (The Mezzeh, on the outskirts of Damascus, was one of the dreaded prisons, but there were others, such as a desert prison in Palmyra—the kingdom of death and madness, a political prisoner said of it.)

Hafez Assad was visited by personal tragedy in 1994: the death in a car accident of his oldest son, Bassel. He had been grooming him for succession. He never recovered from the grief. In the years left to him, he settled on his son Bashar, the eye doctor, as his successor. He bent the Constitution and the leadership to his will. He died in 2000, and his hapless son, 34 years of age, was anointed as his successor. Syrians hoped for the best, thought that perhaps this gangly youth, with a stint in London behind him, would grant them the freedoms his father had denied them. There was a Damascus Spring in the offing, it was said. The new ruler permitted the importation of Western cigarettes; jazz clubs and art galleries made their appearance. Bashar offered his people an olive branch: he married well, a London-born upper-bourgeois young woman from a Sunni family of Homs, Asma al-Akhras. The young couple presented themselves well. But the Damascus Spring was snuffed out. The civic forums were shut down, dissidents were rounded up and dispatched to prisons. The young inheritor was his father’s son.

A year ago, when the political hurricane known as the Arab Spring hit the region, Bashar al-Assad proclaimed his country’s immunity to the troubles. He was young, the rulers challenged by their people were old, he was anti-American and anti-Israeli, hence the immunity of his regime. He was at one with his people, he said. Then a group of boys in mid-March, in the forlorn southern town of Daraa, went out and scribbled anti-regime graffiti on the walls. They were picked up and tortured. It was as though the custodians of this dictatorship knew that their order hung by a thread. The system rested on fear, and that barrier was crossed. He put his medical training to use. He described the protesters as germs. Four decades of a drab tyranny had not robbed the Syrians of their humor. The Syrian germs require a new doctor, one banner proclaimed. Bashar had squandered his father’s bequest.

Fouad Ajami is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and co-chair of Hoover’s Working Group on Islamism and the International Order.