Bashar Assad’s eleven unbroken years as president of Syria have been an exercise of aggrandizement through crime, culminating now in murderous onslaughts against his own people. This should come as no surprise. He has always shown himself completely indifferent to normal human considerations. His subjects have gained nothing from his unconditional support for Iran in its sustained campaign against the United States, or from his hostile policies towards Lebanon and Israel. Only a few short weeks ago he was pretending to the Wall Street Journal that, in contrast to the rest of the Arab Middle East, Syria was stable because his regime “[has] to be very closely linked to the beliefs of the people.”
This from a man who rigs elections to give himself a vote just a couple of points below 100 percent. The tragedy of the Arab and Muslim world is that men of such character are able to have power.
Furious demonstrations are taking place all over the country as people try to take control of their lives. Bashar is fighting to preserve his dictatorship, and perhaps his life. Coups and murder used to be quite the customary procedure for changing the presidency in Syria. According to reports that almost certainly understate the toll, security forces have already shot dead upwards of 300 people. The number of those arrested is unknown.
The protests against Bashar are also against his father, Hafez Assad, and further against the strange republican dynasty they set up and the whole order that goes with it. After a coup in 1970, Hafez Assad held power for 30 years, and his memory still inspires fear and loathing. He remains an outstanding example of a ruler for whom criminal violence is the natural instrument of government. By birth, he was an Alawi; that is, he belonged to a minority sect that forms maybe 10 percent of the Syrian population. Not accepted as orthodox by other Shiites, Alawis were excluded by the majority Sunnis, who have always taken their own superiority in every field for granted.
Hafez Assad transformed the downtrodden Alawi minority into ruthless overlords of Sunnis, Kurds, Druze, and everyone else. The procedure was simple. He appointed Alawis he could trust to head the military and police apparatus, and he made sure that the Baath party had a monopoly of politics. Modeled on pre-war Nazism and Communism, Baathism provides the structure of the one-party state, and it also gives a false secular veneer to Alawi supremacy. There are of course capable Syrian intellectuals, exiles, and dissidents, but as yet none in a position to expose the Baath as the historic relic of European totalitarianism that it is.
The Muslim Brotherhood is a worldwide Sunni organization, and its Syrian branch dates back to the mid-1940s. The Muslim Brothers always resisted Alawi domination, and in 1982 staged a dramatic revolt that serves as a precedent for today. Estimates of Sunnis then massacred by Hafez Assad’s security forces range from 20,000 to 50,000. Law was what Hafez Assad said it was. For nearly half a century, a special court has been operating the Emergency Law completely outside any legal system.
Freedom of speech and association has been forbidden, and the media kept under control. The stability Hafez Assad imposed was the stability of the graveyard, but it sealed his reputation as a strongman not to be trifled with. Western powers have preferred accommodation to confrontation, even when he invaded Israel (losing the Golan Heights as a result) and then Lebanon. Persuading the mullahs of Iran that Alawis are really bona fide Shiites, he enrolled Syria as a vassal of the Islamic Republic in its drive to regional power.
Succeeding his father as president, Bashar inherited the working principle that violence is not only cost-free but positively rewarding, and therefore crime has no moral dimension. Bashar and Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad share a common front and boost the Shiite crescent; together they threaten Lebanon and Israel by subsidizing and arming Hezbollah, the Shiite terrorist group in Lebanon that now has more military power than many states. Assassinations of Lebanese personalities, including Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, were crimes in all likelihood carried out on Bashar’s orders to empower Hezbollah; the continued withholding of the United Nations report on these murders is typical of the special indulgence Bashar receives. About a dozen terror organizations, including Hamas and al-Qaeda, have headquarters or training grounds in and around Damascus, and by these means Syria has proxies attacking Israel or American forces across the border in Iraq. Only the strike in 2007 by Israel prevented Syria from developing a nuclear program in defiance of international regulations.
Outwardly the members of the Assad family keep firm hold of the nation’s spoils and privileges, though rumor has it that they quarrel among themselves like the gangsters they are. Maher, a younger brother of Bashar, commands the Republican Guard that defends the regime. Assef Shawkat, Bashar’s brother-in-law, is the head of military security and intelligence. A first cousin, Rami Makhlouf, has become one of the world’s richest men, with a fortune in telecommunications, oil, banking, and much else. A French television company once calculated that he earns in a day the equivalent of 700,000 of his countrymen. He is such a symbol of corruption that crowds are now shouting, “Makhlouf, you thief!”
Bashar’s initial response to the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt smugly implied that he was too popular for anything of this kind to affect him. But at the end of March, Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi made a speech on Al-Jazeera television calling for revolution in Syria. Spokesman of the Muslim Brotherhood, Qaradawi is widely considered the foremost Sunni authority. The intention is evidently to have revenge on the Alawis by restoring Sunni supremacy.
The incitement succeeded. At first in dribs and drabs and then in mobs, protesters gathered in villages and towns, in Deraa, Banias, Latakia, and Damascus, chanting “God, Syria, and freedom.” A hesitant Bashar set in motion reform, sacking his cabinet (a token gesture in a dictatorship), lifting the hated Emergency Law, and hoping to appeal to large numbers of Kurds by granting them citizenship. Abruptly switching to the alternative of repression, he accused the demonstrators of belonging to “armed criminal gangs,” conspiring in behalf of a foreign power, and being Sunni extremists into the bargain. The confrontation grew angrier and more personal. When demonstrators began to call for regime change, Bashar ordered the security forces to fire on them with live ammunition. “The traitor kills his people!” is now the popular cry. There can be no going back. Foreign journalists are not allowed in to witness events; the frontier with Jordan is closed as the crisis gathers. Bashar is gambling that crime on a large enough scale will restore the sullen oppression that passes here for stability.
Those who know Syria hesitate to predict what happens next. There could be chaos, anarchy, even disintegration. A Muslim Brotherhood dictatorship in Syria would probably act no differently from the Alawi-Baathist dictatorship, and might even be worse in the event that the United States really proves unable to defend its interests against militant Islamism and the regional balance of forces is upset. How to bring about justice and freedom and peace without bloodbaths and war remains as great a puzzle as ever.