11 September, 2017
Six and half years ago, in the early months of 2011, a wave of protests spread across the Middle East and North Africa against dictators or elected governments from Tunisia to Iran, calling for better governance or the ouster of dictators who had been incumbent for decades. One such country was Syria, where the Ba’ath party (meaning ‘Renaissance’ in Arabic) was ruling with the Assad family at its head. Hafez al-Assad, a member of the minority Alawite sect, rose to power as the President of Syria in 1971, a position he held till his death in 2000. Bashar al-Assad, who was made the heir apparent of the senior Assad in 1994 following his elder brother’s death and apparently had few political ambitions, was elected President of the Republic. As he turns 52, it is his role in the Syrian crisis and crushing of dissent that is criticized widely.
Prior to entering the political scenario, Bashar al-Assad had studied medicine, working as an army doctor, and had pursued further education in Britain. Soon after he became President, he relaxed a few restrictions in his country, but Syria still remained a one party state, until 2012. Press and political freedom was still limited, and dissent was crushed. All the above were ideal conditions for a revolution and when the Arab Spring blossomed, Syria was no exception. Starting from the 15th of March, cities like Damascus, Aleppo, Homs and Dera’a saw protests, which then turned to armed uprisings. Quite unlike most dictators or heads-of-state who abdicated (like Hosni Mubarak of Egypt) or fled the country (like Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen), Assad clung on to power despite the odds being against him initially.
Demographically, Syria has a majority of Sunni Arab Muslims, with significant minorities like the Alawite sect, Christians, Kurds, Circassians, etc. The rebels, mainly Sunni Arabs, were funded by the oil-rich Sunni-ruled states like Saudi Arabia, and the USA, which funded them for strategic purposes. Assad’s response to the uprisings was strong, with war crimes committed against civilians as well. Barrel bombs, besieging rebel towns to the point of starvation and cluster bombs were a few of the Assad regime’s controversial methods, while maintaining a secret police, called the Mukhabarat. The last straw was when the Assad government was accused of using chemical weapons.
Under the Assad family and the Ba’ath party, Syria has been a liberal country, with freedom to practise any religion, with no restrictions on food, drink or clothes quite unlike its neighbouring countries on both sides of the Persian Gulf. The rebel factions slowly saw the influence of hard-line Islamist militant ideologies, including the likes of al-Qaeda and from neighbouring Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant. Since the start of the uprising that had taken the form of a civil war by now, Assad had continually branded the opposition factions as terrorists. Furthermore in 2015, Russia intervened militarily on the behalf of the Syrian government’s side, thus bolstering their efforts against the opposition. As the moderate opposition lost its influence and as the more orthodox hard-line Islamist found a better footing, Assad found it even easier to prove his point, while silencing the moderate secular opposition.
It has been said frequently, in obvious jest, that there exists an “Assad curse”, in which most leaders who have demanded the ouster of Assad, have themselves been elected out of office (Sarkozy, Obama, Morsi, etc.). In the present context, it is apparent that Assad’s decision to stick to power has paid off, and with a fractured opposition, the possibility of the formation of a stable government, should Assad abdicate, is miniscule. And with the pernicious ideologies that the influential factions possess, it is evident that in the long run, a secular government under Assad would be better for world peace. One can only hope that Dr. Bashar ben-Hafez al-Assad gains wisdom as he turns 52, and becomes the ideal leader that Syrians would want him to be.