The al-Assad family
As the Arab Spring spread across North Africa into the Gulf and beyond, the toughest nut to crack was always going to be Syria.
While there is an unfortunate tendency for family dictatorship in the whole Arab world, it has reached its zenith in the 45-year rule of the ruthless political dynasty that is the Assads. They have run Syria since 1966, when Hafez al-Assad, a general in the air force and apparatchik of the Syrian Baath Party, seized power in a coup d’état. The Assads are part of a powerful Shi’a minority in Syria, called the Alawites, which has monopolized key positions in the military and state security apparatus. The majority Sunni and other minority populations have always been restive under the yoke of the Alawites, who have used control of state power to enrich themselves. Today, the family franchise is held by Hafez’s son Bashar who, despite a carefully cultivated image as a ‘reformer’, has proved himself to be the same old, same old. Reforms have been promised but bodies have been delivered.
The Assad dictatorship has maintained itself by a brutal form of rule that routinely uses torture and murder to silence dissent. The high-water mark in repression was the 1982 Hama massacre, when between 15,000 and 40,000 people lost their lives in the suppression of a revolt led by the opposition Muslim Brotherhood.
In foreign policy the Assadists specialize in meddling in the affairs of their neighbours, particularly the Lebanese and Palestinians. For decades the Assad family has regarded Lebanon as its fiefdom. It has manipulated political events through support of Hizbullah and been involved in the assassination of political opponents, including Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in May 2007. The Baathist dictatorship has maintained a rhetorically ‘rejectionist’ position towards Israel, which has gained them radical credentials on the Arab Street, but little has actually been done to support the Palestinian cause.
The Assads hold more than just the presidency of Syria. Bashar’s brother Maher is head of the Presidential Guard, whose tanks and snipers rolled into Daraa in April to crush all protesters who stood in their way. Then there are cousins Andan and Muhammad, who are heads of Damascus-based militias. And of course brother-in-law General Assef Shawqat, who is head of military intelligence. You get the idea – the means of repression are a family affair.
Despite various campaigns against corruption and for economic reform, the Syrian economy is characterized by a high level of cronyism. To get a business contract you need to have a contact in the Alawite élite. The officially espoused Baathist socialism is actually a kind of state capitalism where the political class translates its power into very comfortable lives. But this wealth – in the midst of great poverty and hardship – remains an underlying cause of the dissatisfaction and desperate bravery of the Syrian people. Short-term prospects for the current revolt appear weak. Unlike in Egypt, which had a relatively autonomous military, the Assad family can deploy their military force at will. An overstretched UN and NATO are unlikely to do much beyond impotent clucking as regime snipers turn Syrian streets into a killing field. After all, Syria does not have serious oil reserves. But the resignations of hundreds of Baath Party members and even tame legislators mean that, in the long term, the Syrian state and its family rulers will face a legitimacy crisis of staggering proportions.