This series was written by an author who wishes to remain anonymous
Part 3 – The Decade of Bashar Al-Asad
In order to understand the on-going uprising in Syria, it is crucial to examine the historical forces that have shaped the country and its people. In Part 1 of this series, we looked at the development of the Syrian state after World Wars I and II. Part 2 analyzed the emergence of Ba’athism in Syria and the rise of former Syrian President Hafez Al-Asad. In Part 3 of this series, we discuss the hopes and disappointments associated with Syria’s current President, Bashar Al-Asad.
The False Hope of Bashar Al-Asad
With the sudden death of Hafez Al-Asad in 2000, the question of succession was rife with uncertainty. Hafez’s eldest son, Basil, who was also the chief of presidential security, had been groomed as his successor until his sudden death in a car accident in 1994. Maher, Hafez’s youngest son and current head of both the Presidential Guard and the much-feared Fourth Division of the Syrian Army, was tapped as a possible successor, but was ultimately passed over because of his emotional instability and tendency towards violence.
Although minimally involved in politics, Hafez’s middle son, Bashar was eventually made his successor. Bashar had originally pursued a career in ophthalmology, which he abandoned after being selected as his father’s heir. To prepare himself for his future role as Syria’s leader, Bashar enrolled in a military academy in the city of Homs and quickly became a colonel. Upon the death of his father, a presidential election was immediately held and Bashar “won” an easy victory as the only candidate to run for the position. Because he was only 35 years old at the time, an amendment was passed to the constitution in a matter of hours, decreasing the minimum age for president from 40 to 34.
Because of his youth and limited political experience, Bashar was touted as a reformist who would bring change to Syria. His marriage in November 2000 to Syrian-British investment banker Asma Fawaz Al-Akhras only increased these hopes. To the public, Bashar and Asma presented themselves as young, modern, and liberal – an image of Arab leadership that was refreshing to a population used to a very archaic and conservative ruling regime.
As one of his first acts as President, Bashar ordered the closure of the notorious Mezzeh prison, which dated back to the Crusades and was used to house political prisoners. 600 prisoners were released as part of the closure. Soon thereafter what came to be known as the “Damascus Spring” began. Private forums and salons started to emerge and vigorous debates on social and political issues took place among Syrians and between different political groups.
As the months passed, it became clear that the hoped for political and social reforms would never materialize. Some blamed this on the old vanguard of Syrian elite who surrounded Bashar and purportedly prevented him from changing the statute quo. Others, however, blamed Bashar himself, seeing him as more interested in maintaining his power than reforming the country’s political and economic systems. While introducing the internet and mobile phones to Syria, albeit to a limited extent, Bashar’s regime also continued the systematic repression, torture, arbitrary detentions, disappearances and corruption that had characterized his father’s rule. Then, in the Fall of 2001, Bashar’s regime began to crack down on the small window of political and social liberty created by the Damascus Spring. The government backlash become even more intense in 2005 when opposition groups issued the Damascus Declaration, a document signed by a number of oppositional figure that harshly criticized the autocratic and totalitarian structure of the state and called for immediate comprehensive change.
While recalcitrant on political and social issues, Bashar’s regime did seek to liberalize the country’s economy. For decades, the Syrian economy had been centralized and strictly controlled by the state. After Bashar came to office, private banks, business, and a stock exchange were developed, and foreign firms and investments were encouraged to enter the Syrian market. However, the positive impact of economic liberalization was mainly felt in major urban centers, such as Damascus and Aleppo, and benefited only a small group of well-to-do Syrians. As the government slashed subsidizes on essential goods and industries, income inequality increased over the course of the decade with many Syrians, particularly in the eastern part of the country, experiencing starvation.
Yet, in large part due to the Bush Administration’s hostile attitude towards the Al-Asad regime, Bashar remained popular both domestically and in the region. While the United States attempted to pressure Syria to break ties with Hezbollah and Hamas, designated Syria as an “Axis of Evil,” and accused the regime of meddling in its neighbors’ affairs, Bashar’s image as a strong-man, willing to stand up against America’s regional infiltration, grew. Bashar also exploited the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to play up his strong-man persona. The Second Intifada, which began shortly after Bashar came to power, provided fodder for public condemnation of Israeli atrocities in the Palestinian Territories.
Bashar’s credentials received an even greater boost from the 2006 Lebanon War. Because of Syria’s long-standing support of Hezbollah, the group’s victory over the Israeli armed forces bolstered Bashar’s reputation as a proponent of resistance. Ever the savvy politician, Bashar seized upon the opportunity to give a speech, blasting the Egyptian, Jordanian, and Saudi governments for succumbing to Western interests and tacitly supporting the Israeli onslaught on Lebanon.
The story behind the scenes was, however, quite different, as the United States and Syria collaborated on matters of extraordinary rendition and outsourcing of torture operations. Behind closed doors, the Syrians also maintained a different relationship with the Israelis and were involved in productive peace negotiations that were cut off in December 2008 when Israel conducted a massive military attack against the Gaza Strip
Notably, even as the current unrest in Syria escalates, Bashar remains very popular with much of the population. Many Syrians consider him to be an individual with good intentions who understands the need for change but who is under pressures from his family and elite members of the regime to maintain the status quo. This view is, however, shifting with each passing week as the government engages in even harsher and more violent crackdowns against the protestors. In these circumstances, Bashar’s image as an alleged reformer and a supporter of resistance cannot be maintained.
Part IV of this series shall examine the events that marked the early days of Syria’s 2011 uprising.