In the mid-1940s, Hafez Assad became one of the earliest non-Sunni Muslim leaders of Syria's general student union; in the 1950s, he became one of the country's first air fighters; in his late thirties, he became defence minister; in 1970, by the age of 40 he ascended to the presidency. He acquired power through a coup that ended a decade long political struggle between various socialist and nationalist forces, the most powerful of which was the Baath (Resurrection) party. For most Syrians, this did not matter much; the country's experience with liberal democracy (in the early 1940s) was short and marked with economic upheavals and chaos. Most Syrians longed for stability.
Assad delivered it. Often, the price was the devastation of entire villages as was the case when, in the early 1980s, he crushed Islamist groups that had challenged his regime. Despite that, Hafez Assad stroked a chord with broad segments of the Syrian society. His background positioned him as a man of achievements, able to get things done. His first decade in power witnessed a surge in national confidence and a sense of social cohesion. He was a charismatic leader and a savvy politician who knew how to connect with his people and how to manipulate mass media. And he was ruthless; existing or potential enemies were exiled or terminated.
The image of "the Strong man in Damascus", as many in Arab and Western media came to call him, resonated with large groups of Syrians. For many in the region, Hafez Assad evoked few historical figures who, centuries ago, had dominated parts of the Levant: the loner, who had risen from a marginalised social group (in his case, the Islamic sect of the Alawites), without any claim to richness or prestige, and who, relying on steely nerves, Spartan work ethic, and fiery ambition had arrived at the helm of power. He lacked the natural appeal of Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, but his stoicism, ruthlessness, and cunningness were, for many, a perfect match with a region whose culture was shaped by pragmatic mercantilism and problematic and often bloody interactions between a myriad of religious communities.
Assad benefited from the weakness of his opponents. The forces that remained from Syria's 1940s democratic experiment suffered the classic ills that have always afflicted Arab liberals: condescension towards the lower middle classes and an infatuation with Europe that make them come across to their own societies as at best Westernised, at worst alien, "not of us".
His opponents within the Baath party were either isolated in the ivory towers of academia or ideology, or in factions of the military that were less influential than the ones that had coalesced round him. Few months after he had ascended to the presidency, Hafez Assad ruled supreme in one of the Arab world's most strategic countries, and for centuries, a centre of Arab culture.
Hafez Assad saw himself as an Arab nationalist playing a decisive role in a generational struggle to assert and secure Arab rights. Like many Arab leaders before and after him, he blurred the personal with the public. He saw his taking full control as saving Syria from chaos and from others' treacherous schemes or utter incompetence. He saw his ruthlessness as a must to deter internal enemies and ensure stability.
He expected the people to understand that they must sacrifice many rights, because they should trust that he knows what is required to steer the ship in dangerous waters. And if that meant weakening the state's institutions, then so be it. For him, his leadership embodied the governance system that Syria needed. Hafez Assad was no Louis who believed that "he was the state"; but he saw himself as the father, leader, visionary, and wise man whom the people should obey.
The majority did. The 1970s and 1980s was a period in which the Arab world was pulled between two feelings. The first was sadness. By the mid-1970s, the dreams that Arab nationalism (whether the Nasserite or Baathist versions) had given rise to, were crumbling. Many in the region clung to the notion that “we need a new generation of strong men who learnt the lessons of the 1950s and 1960s”, and who could resuscitate the shattered aspirations. This was particularly true in Syria, a country that was created (in the early twentieth century) on the idea that an overarching Arabness is needed to transcend the sectarianism that had always plagued the eastern Mediterranean.
The second feeling was apprehension. In the mid-1970s, Lebanon descended into civil war. Egypt seemed to be pulling away from the Arab world, looking for a new positioning as a solid ally of the West and especially of the US. Arab politics' centre of gravity was slowly but steadily moving from the Levant and Egypt towards the Gulf. And the state's ability to continue playing the role of the provider was becoming clearly unsustainable. Large segments of the Syrian middle classes were anxious.
The perception of the need for a strong man, a saviour, was powerful. Not surprisingly, the saviour proved to be a mere mortal, whose power structure gradually fell to corruption, concentration of power, incompetence, and a culture of intimidation that trampled over, not only people's political and human rights, but also their dignity. But this was not the real disaster of Hafez Assad's legacy.
Like many of the Arab world’s strongmen in the last half century, Hafez Assad gradually lost touch with the ideas that had inspired his project and upon which his appeal had grown. By the mid to late 1980s, and especially as he deeply involved Syria into the intricacies of the Lebanese civil war, Assad affected a transformation in the Syrian power structure. He began to allocate key positions, particularly in the intelligence and security apparatus, to members of his extended family, close friends, and carefully selected individuals from the sect to which he belonged. His regime continued to feature Sunni Muslims, Christians, and Druze. But real power was clearly kept in his increasingly close familial, Alawite circle.
By the mid-1990s, the Assad regime had moved far away from its secular Arab nationalist origins and, in the eyes of many, became a militaristic, Alawite elite coalescing round an authoritarian leader. This transcended nepotism and concentration of power. It negated the primary feature of Syria’s modern history.
For over four centuries, since the Ottomans annexed the Levant in 1517, Syria was the bulwark of Sunni Islamism in the eastern Mediterranean. In the same way that the Maronites and the Druze dominated Mount Lebanon, the Shias scattered in the region’s southern valleys, the Sunnis had come to politically, socially, and culturally shape the relatively large urban and agrarian area surrounding Damascus.
In the first half of the twentieth century, cosmopolitanism shrouded sectarianism. A thriving trading culture and the existence of scores of merchant families from Christian, Druze, Armenian, Jewish, Persian, and Greek origins made Damascus and Aleppo cosmopolitan. But this pluralistic scene floated above a dominant Sunni Islamic bedrock.
Hafez Assad’s transformation of the Syrian power structure meant that for the first time, in centuries, Syria was being ruled by a non-Sunni elite, with a conspicuous sectarian look and feel. Three factors averted wide social activism against this new reality and lent the regime some staying power.
The first was the 1990s’ Arab-Israeli peace negotiations. Through the mediation of the US’s Clinton Administration, Hafez Assad negotiated a peace treaty with Israel. But unlike several Arab leaders, he was never willing to retract his red lines. Repeatedly, he walked away from negotiations, preferring to “leave the issue for the future generations to settle it.” It is impossible to know his real convictions and incentives. But that stance helped him perpetrate his positioning in Syria (and in various parts of the Arab world) as the last champion of Arab nationalism.
The second factor was Hafez Assad himself. Irrespective of his record, even his enemies acknowledge the man’s gravitas. Longevity helped. By the late 1990s, almost three quarters of all Syrians had never seen any president but him. And the rest could hardly remember the various presidents and prime ministers who barely exercised any power in 1960s’ Syria. The country’s political and economic ills were growing; but the presence of the strong man of Damascus glued Syria together.
The third factor was fear. Hafez Assad’s Syria was a police state par excellence. Any sign, or suspicion, of rebellion carried a heavy cost.
As he left the scene, and as his son and successor, Bashar Assad, ascended to power, the regime became deprived of any vestiges of legitimacy, and detached from any connections to the old Arab nationalist heritage. Some Syrian and international observers speculated that the London-trained doctor would depart from his father’s path; would introduce political reforms; and would steer Syria towards a trajectory that would, gradually and slowly, lead towards democracy.
This betrayed a misunderstanding of Bashar Assad’s inheritance. His authority hinged on the loyalty of the key circles of powers that had come to define Hafez Assad’s regime in the 1990s. These circles had grown into political, social, and economic power centres with vast interests in the country, and beyond. And some had assertive sectarian worldviews. Maintaining his authority meant that Bashar Assad had to sustain, protect, and continuously prove his loyalty to that power structure. Whether he liked it or not, Bashar Assad was beholden to his inheritance.
Economics helped him. The 2000s’ economic tide lifted the Syrian ship. Foreign direct investments, especially from the Gulf, created tens of thousands of jobs in Damascus and Aleppo, and triggered a conspicuous consumerist wave. The money cycle accelerated. And scores of families, especially in the country’s mercantile upper middle class, found lucrative financial opportunities, in an economic system that the Assad family was becoming increasingly its prime player. New circles of power became, indirectly, associates of the regime. Politically, however, by the late 2000s, the regime became nothing more than a cabal of economic principals dominating several webs of financial interests in a strategically important country.
The wave of the 2011 Arab uprisings reached Syria, as it did other Arab countries, through the demands of secular nationalist youths who wanted political reforms and (some) economic equality. But those seculars were quickly overwhelmed by the rise of tens of thousands of fervent warriors, willing to sacrifice their lives to get rid of Bashar Assad and his regime. Those were not fighting for democracy and political and human rights. Unlike the secular youths who had triggered the first phase of the uprising, those religious warriors saw the Assad regime as an Alawite elite that has ravaged a Sunni Islamic country.
Bashar Assad relished that change in the nature of the uprising. He wanted to convince the Syrian middle classes, and observers worldwide, that his opponents are violent jihadist groups who constitute a peril not only to his regime but to the entire region.
For some, this strategy has worked. In this view, Bashar Assad has managed to garner support from several international corners (most notably from Iran’s Shia Islamic Republic). Others see the strategy as a colossal mistake, for it meant that the struggle has become irrevocably religious, and in such a positioning, his regime will be seen as nothing but an Alawite one.
In fact, Bashar Assad had no choice but to dig deeper in the hole that his father had begun. He could not have acquiesced to the protestors’ demands; his inner circle would have marginalised, or removed him totally from the scene. And he could not have resuscitated the old Arab nationalist legacy. The power structure he presides over, the lack of legitimacy, the sense of fear that was cultivated for decades and that had created many silent enemies, and above all, the sectarianism that his father had installed as a defining feature of the regime, all obliged Bashar to either quit, or continue on the same path he was put on when he was summoned from London to succeed his father.
Bashar Assad proved willing to sacrifice large parts of his country, and tens of thousands of his people, to perpetuate his regime. But this is not the prime reason why he will ultimately fail.
The Syrian middle classes, in or outside the country, fear and detest the violent jihadists wreaking havoc in their country. But whether they see it or not, this threat is transitory. As was the case in several parts of the Arab world in the last half century, violent Islamism in Syria will be defeated, or at least contained.
However, the regime’s irrevocable confirmation that it represents a specific sectarian (Alawite or Shia) identity that is different from the one (Sunni Islamism) that the vast majority of Syrians associate with, is neither transitory nor containable. This cleavage of representation, of identity, has now been laid extremely clear and has been cemented by the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives.
Geopolitical dynamics have transformed Syria into yet another theatre of the region-wide Sunni-Shia confrontation. Iran’s backing of the Assad regime and the financial and logistical support that different Sunni Islamic countries give to the myriad of Sunni rebel groups fighting him, have prolonged the war.
Syria is being devastated. Thousands lose their lives every month. And, so far over three millions have been displaced. The Arab world is losing the heritage of one of its most beautiful and culturally richest countries. All of this distracts observers from the quandary that the Syrian regime had put itself into. Syria’s evolution into yet another theatre of the Sunni-Shia confrontation has gained Bashar Assad more months, or perhaps few years, on top of the ruins surrounding Damascus. But he will not be able to extract his regime from its quandary.
There is a single unescapable outcome of the representation and identity problem that Hafez Assad has created and that Bashar Assad has dug himself deeper into: the regime will fall. Only then will Syria emerge from the sad story of Hafez Assad’s legacy.
The writer is the author of the international bestseller Egypt on the Brink, the writer and presenter of several major BBC documentary series on the Arab world and Islam, and the political counsellor of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development for the Arab world