The Assads: An iron-fisted dynasty
One powerful, tight-knit family has controlled Syria for four decades.
> Al Jazeera staff
Last Modified: 11 Dec 2011 09:56
For four decades, the Assad family has ruled Syria, and while the popularity
of the family among some sections in the country is undeniable, its run in
power has not been without turmoil.
Hafez al-Assad, a military man, rose through the ranks and became Syria's
president in 1971 after a bloodless coup which saw a military takeover of
the dominant Baath party. By all accounts, Assad tightened the state's
dictatorial grip on the population, focusing on strengthening the country's
military and intelligence forces.
A staunch nationalist, he is lauded by loyalists for modernising and
industrialising Syria, strengthening not only its military but also its
However, Hafez al-Assad's legacy cannot be discussed without mention of the
1982 Hama massacre, in which the Muslim Brotherhood party was targeted for a
spate of assassinations of high-profile Baathists.
The massacre, carried out allegedly under the supervision of Hafez's younger
brother, Rifaat, involved a bombing campaign as well as door-to-door
operations, which, by some accounts, resulted in nearly 40,000 deaths.
According to a Syrian Human Rights Committee
> report, while the Hama raid
was the most deadly assault, it was not the first of its kind:
Of these massacres was the massacre on Jisr Alshaghoor, which took place on
the 10th of March 1980. Some sources said that mortars bombed the city and
97 people were shot dead, after being taken from their homes, and 30 houses
were demolished there. The massacres of Sarmadah which saw 40 citizens
killed, and the massacre of the village Kinsafrah, which took place at the
same time as the massacre of Jisr Alshaghoor.... Few months later, the
massacre of Palmyra prison was committed on the 26th of June 1980, when
around 1,000 detainees were killed in their cells.... And the massacre at
the Sunday market where 42 citizens were killed and 150 were injured. Also
the massacre of Al-Raqah, that killed tens of citizens who were held captive
in a secondary school and burnt to death.
In the year following the massacre, Hafez al-Assad fell ill with cardiac
problems. He appointed a temporary ruling committee to run the country while
he recovered, but excluded Rifaat from this group.
This caused a rift between the brothers, which resulted in Rifaat ultimately
being exiled from the country twice, even though at times he was given
temporary posts, once as vice-president of security affairs in 1984 and then
as vice-president in 1998.
Hafez's second choice
Meanwhile, Hafez al-Assad was grooming Basil, the eldest of this four sons,
to take over the presidency.
Basil, a major in the Syrian army, was a dominant personality who was
reported to have disapproved of his sister's choice for a husband. Bushra
al-Assad was being courted by Assef Shawkat, a man 10 years her senior - too
old and too poor for Basil's liking.
He felt it was improper for his sister to marry Shawkat, so he had him
jailed several times.
But Basil's death in a car accident in Damascus in 1994 at the age of 33
(after his death, Shawkat and Bushra eloped) threw the issue of succession
into a tailspin.
Bashar, the second eldest, was considered bookish, more interested in
medical school and specialising in becoming an ophthalmologist than running
the country. Majd, the youngest of the four Assad boys, was not a suitable
candidate as he was rumoured to have suffered from drug addiction and
The next natural choice seemed to be Maher, who was in the military and by
all accounts seemed ambitious.
However, Maher's uneven temper, coupled with his youth, saw him sidelined in
favour of Bashar, who never seemed to display much in terms of political
acumen or ambition (Majd died at the age of 43 in 2009 from an undisclosed
Nonetheless, after Basil's death, Bashar was brought back from the UK and
put through a course of preparation in order to take over from his father.
He was steadily awarded a series of military promotions and was given a high
public profile by being presented as the face of an anti-corruption
This "allowed Bashar to be seen as someone on the right side of a true 'hot
button' issue for most ordinary Syrians,"
e=gbs_selected_pages&cad=3#v=onepage&q=never&f=false> writes Flynt Leverett
in his book, Inheriting Syria - Bashar's Trial by Fire.
The Syrian constitution had to be amended to allow 34-year-old Bashar to
become president - the minimum age for presidency prior to that had been 40,
the age at which Hafez had taken office.
Like father, like sons
Images of tanks rolling into what appear to be often unarmed protesters and
reports of towns under siege have drawn parallels between how the Assad
brothers (Bashar and Maher) are responding to the uprising to how their
father, Hafez and uncle, Rifaat, dealt with the the Muslim Brotherhood party
in the early 80s.
Indeed, the actions of the younger Assad brothers appear to closely mirror
those of the elder Assad siblings 30 years ago.
The Assad family's response to the months of constant and sustained protest
in Syria starting in March 2011 has garnered international criticism.
The European Union in May announced
> sanctions against 13 Syrian officials, and the list includes Maher as well
as several cousins and other relatives.
Indeed, Maher's leadership of the Presidential Guard's 4th Armoured Division
is seen as the
tml> driving force behind the violent crackdowns against the protesters.
In June, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan
said he hads pressed Bashar to change course on his government's response to
the protests, saying that the state's brutality was "unacceptable" and
constituted an "atrocity."
"The savagery right now... think about it, the images they are playing in
the heads of the women they kill is so ugly, these images are hard to eat,
hard to swallow," Erdogan told the Turkish Anatolia news agency.
Bashar has kept a relatively low profile during the months of unrest,
speaking in public only a handful of times, when he's blamed the uprising on
foreign elements and compared the protesters to "germs."
In December 2011, Assad
denied culpability for his government's crackdown on protests, saying he had
never given an order for security forces of whom he was commander-in-chief
"to kill or be brutal".
"They're not my forces," Assad told the US's ABC television network when
asked about the crackdown.
"They are military forces [who] belong to the government. I don't own them.
I'm president. I don't own the country. No government in the world kills its
people, unless it is led by a crazy person."
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Received on Sun Dec 11 2011 - 15:53:35 EST