Syria: Autopsy of a Regime

By Nadia Aissaoui and Ziad Majed

More than a year has passed since the start of the Syrian revolution demanding freedom, dignity and the departure of the Assad family. Over ten thousand dead, a hundred thousand injured and more than 40 thousand refugees fled to Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordon as well as about a hundred and fifty thousand citizens who were arrested, twenty thousand of them are still in detention. All this in addition to damages to property and infrastructure and the systematic destruction of many regions.

The original article in French can be read here. An Arabic text is also available here.

Tens of reports have been published by various human rights organisations including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the United Nations Council for Human Rights, and Médecins Sans Frontières documenting verified cases and eye witness accounts. All these, as well as films and interviews conducted with doctors, activists, and defected soldiers ascertain that atrocities and violations are being carried out in Syria which can be classified as crimes against humanity.

On the ground, the demonstrations have continued and their numbers have increased to exceed an average of 600 demonstrations every Friday and have reached new areas in Damascus and Aleppo. Also in the last few weeks, the demonstrations spread to al Raqa and al Hasakeh in the North Eastern part of the country. Meanwhile, the number of defections from the army has risen as well as people volunteering to join what is known as the “Free Syrian Army”, leading to a doubling of military operations and clashes between this army and the pro-regime forces in Damascus Suburbs (“Reef Damascus”) as well as in Daraa, Homs, Idlib, and Deir Ezzor.

None of the (international and regional) initiatives or mediations efforts so far has succeeded in reaching a solution or settlement even if it is similar to the Yemeni one (i.e. hand over authority and power to the vice-president or to a military council to lead a transition period until elections are held and a new government is formed)…..

Therefore, the situation in Syria remains in a state of deadlock due to the divisions and confusion in decisions and approaches towards the situation. The regime is trying to benefit from this deadlock, hoping for a decisive security solution that will, from then on, suppress all forms of revolution in the cities and limit the demonstrations to a few rural areas, and crush the “Free Army” groups standing against it, in order to force outside players to negotiate with it and impose its continuity. The evolution of the revolution and its ongoing ability to gain greater momentum every week does not appear to show that the regime is succeeding in its security approach, even though it has now regained control of most of the areas which it had lost previously in Homs, Damascus Suburbs, and Jabal Zawyeh (in the North West).

Film: This is not an advertisement for a film. This is exactly what is happening in Syria.

In addition, some of the opinions and reactions to what is happening seem unable to comprehend many issues, more specifically, unable to try to think outside prebuilt attitudes that are naive and are based on a belief in conspiracy theories, or repetition of foolish phrases that can now be easily anticipated and expected, and raising questions about issues irrelevant to Syria to avoid taking a stand and condemning the regime’s crimes.

The following paragraphs discuss the “obvious facts” that are forgotten or deliberately ignored by some when it comes to Syria, the Syrian revolution, and the questions raised about the revolution and the regime.

How long has the Assad family been in power?

It is helpful to always remind readers that Syria is a republic (and not a kingdom), which has been ruled by a single family for 42 years. In this regards it is the only state in the Arab region and internationally, second to North Korea, that has been ruled by a father who passed down the rule to his son. Hafez al Assad assumed power following a coup in 1970 (when he was a defence minister in the Baath government) and ruled Syria until his death in 2000, when the constitution was modified to set the minimum age for the president to 34 years (it was 40 previously) to allow his son Bashar to nominate himself and bequeath the presidency to him. It has been 12 years since the son assumed power. However, the family rule is not limited to al Assad the father and his son. There is also Maher, Bashar’s brother, the head of the Fourth Army Brigade (the army’s best equipped and trained) and one of the leaders of the Presidential Guards. There is also Zoulhima Chaliche and Hafez Makhlouf, the paternal and maternal cousins, respectively, of the president who are responsible for the State Security apparatuses. There is also Asif Shawkat, the president’s brother in law and a senior Intelligence official. There is Atif Najib, the president’s maternal cousin who was responsible for Daraa governorate where the first massacres were committed and children were tortured, at the beginning of the Syrian revolution a year ago. There is also Rami Makhlouf, Bashar’s maternal cousin, the owner of the most important economic and financial privileges and agencies in the country. There is also General Mohammed Makhlouf, the president’s maternal uncle, and one of the architects of regime’s ongoing repression operations.

Therefore the family controls the backbones of politics, State Security, and economy. It manages the country and its people in partnership with officials from the Baath Party as well as some merchants and prominent businessmen.

What are the most prominent features of this rule?

Since its first coup in Syria in 1963, the Baath Party has enforced emergency law and this law has been in place for 48 years. The law prohibits demonstrations and gatherings, and establishment of political initiatives as well as restricting public and private freedoms and giving full rein to the State Security and military courts in any case classified as being associated with the security of the State. According to the constitution used for 30 years during the father’s rule and 11 years of the son’s rule, the Baath Party is the “leader of the State and society”. The party organises students in scouts and unions, and women as well as farmers, labourer, teachers, and athletes in associations and syndicates, and joining the party is a precondition for nomination to most senior pubic positions. The rule is therefore inspired by the experiences of Eastern Europe before the fall of the Berlin wall, in addition being a family rule similar to North Korea, and adopting an economic policy directed by government through its public sectors which continues to be inflated year after year. The regime used the minority issue in Syria to lay a foundation for support for it by depending on relatives and appointing a large number of officials from the region and minority which the Assads descend from. As a result, the close circle of senior military and State Security officials around the president became mostly occupied by Alawites. This closed circle in partnership with politicians and financiers from all sects ruled the country. In this regards, the regime is not Alawite in nature as propagated in many media outlets, but is a familial State Security based regime whose main pillars belong to the Alawite community and who tries to convince Alawites that it is the guarantor of their safety and their protector from marginalisation and persecution and that it is in power to represent the Alawites.

After 2000 and Bashar’s ascend to power, the “young” president kept the State Security and intelligence and political bases for the regime and, on the other hand, adopted a privatization economic policy which benefited his relatives and aids as well as some businessmen and investors especially in the cities of Damascus and Aleppo. Trade relationships with China, and then Turkey were established, though the later declined since the start of the revolution. The regime attracted investments from Qatar and the Gulf States starting in 2004, before they also stopped in 2011. On the issue of oil, a large portion of its revenues is managed directly by the president, by-passing the government and parliament, a tradition established by the father under the pretext of the “strategic interests” of Syria.


What is the Assad totalitarianism? 

No Syrian city or town lacks a statue of Hafez al Assad. Since the start of the uprising, the revolutionaries have smashed hundreds of statues. Many organisations, schools, libraries, roads and public spaces are named “al Assad”. Photos of president al Assad, the father, together with his son Bassel (who died in a car accident in 1994) and his son Bashar, the president, are displayed in most Syrian streets and inside offices in public institutions and departments. Even Sunni Islamic schools established by the father in the second half of the eighties of last century after his war with the Muslim Brotherhood and his attempt, after eradicating them, to invest in the religious field in order to control it, were named by him as “Hafez al Assad schools for teaching the Quran”. All these are in addition to al Assad’s speeches and the “famous quotes” attributed to him and his son which form an “educational” material fed to citizens via media outlets and camps, as well as “National Education” classes and the Baath Party principles taught at school. More significantly, today, Syria itself is described by the regime supporters as “al Assad’s Syria”, and a fierce war is carried out between the opposition and the regime over the use of “Freedom” and “al Assad” in their slogans. While regime supporters call for “Allah, Syria and Bashar only” the opposition shout “Allah, Syria and Freedom only”. As the regime supporters chant “Al Assad our leader forever”, the opposition reply with “Freedom forever no matter what you do Assad”.

Hama, Tadmour, the Golan Heights, Palestine and Lebanon as addressed by Syrian Regime

Israel occupied the Golan Heights in 1967. Hafez al Assad was, back then, the defence minister. Syria tried unsuccessfully in 1973 (i.e. after al Assad became president) to regain its occupied lands during the war (the only Arab-Israeli war where the Arabs took the initiative) in which Egypt also tried to regain Sinai. Israel continued to occupy the Golan Heights and the two sides reached a ceasefire and disengagement of forces agreement, a ceasefire which has not been broken since 1974. In fact, following this ceasefire the Golan Heights have become the quietest amongst all border regions separating the Arab States and Israel. However the Syrian regime has substituted for the absence of any form of military resistance to liberate its lands with political rhetoric and statements which never failed to include mention of “resistance” and “confronting the enemy and its conspiracies”. The regime also employed this rhetoric and statements to accuse anybody in Syria who opposes the regime as being a participant in the Israeli conspiracy and to justify all its repression again its Syrian opponents as necessary to unify the front to face the occupation.

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