41 years since the Assads seized power
Hafez al-Assad.
November 13th, 2011
06:00 AM ET

41 years since the Assads seized power

Editor's Note: Robert M. Danin is Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is a former Director for the Levant and Israeli-Palestinian Affairs at the National Security Council. This article is reprinted with permission of the Council on Foreign Relations. The views expressed in this article are solely those of Robert Danin.

By Robert M. Danin

Sunday, November 13, marks the 41st anniversary of Hafez al-Assad’s seizure of power in Syria. Since then, Syria has known only one name at the top: Assad. MEM looks back at Assad’s rise and consolidation of power—a story that sheds light on the current unrest in Syria.

Prior to the coup that brought Hafez al-Assad to power, Syrian politics was marked by rampant instability, sectarian turmoil, and frequent coups d’etat. After Syria gained independence from French rule in 1946, the urban Sunni dominated the government. The military was designated as the place for minorities and the uneducated. The Sunnis reserved the top military positions for themselves, and then jostled among one another for supremacy. This became the locus of real power. Between 1949 and 1963, these senior officers engaged in countless military coups–there were three alone in 1949. However, each change of government came after damaging power struggles, the result being the weakening of Sunni ranks.

This opened the door to the Alawites, one of the minorities that had staffed the lower ranks. The Alawites—a small minority within Syria and a branch of Shia Islam—made their play in the 1960s. Between 1963 and 1966, sectarian battles pitting minorities against Sunnis raged within the military and the Baath party that had taken power in 1963.

In February 1966, the Sunni leadership plotted a bloody purge of thirty minority officers within the military. Learning of this plan, a group of mainly Alawi officers took the offensive and successfully carried out their own violent coup, purging the top brass of Sunni officers and clearing out rival officers belonging to other religious groups from the military.

This purge and consequent domination by the Alawis did not bring about stability, however. For the next four years, Hafez al-Assad, at the time an air force commander and defense minister, battled Salah Jadid, a Baath party general, for supremacy. Only when Assad successfully carried out a bloodless coup on November 13, 1970 did the rivalries end. It was Syria’s tenth military coup in seventeen years.

Assad managed to bring stability to a country that had not enjoyed it for a quarter century. He used the secular Baath party as a cover for installing the Alawite minority into important positions throughout the special forces, intelligence and armored corps. Unrest was not tolerated. When riots broke out, they were swiftly ended. The most brutal example of this came when Muslim extremists rose up against Assad in 1982 in the city of Hama. Assad responded with a scorched earth policy. The Syrian military leveled half the city, slaughtering anywhere from ten to forty thousand innocent civilians. Rather than try to hide it, Assad used it as a lesson to others that any challenges to his reign would not be tolerated. And Syrians, while horrified by the brutal nature of his rule, appreciated the relative tranquility that the country had not known following independence.

After three decades of ruling though emergency decree, Hafez al-Assad passed away peacefully in 2000. Upon his death, his son, current president Bashar al-Assad took over the reins. Bashar had not been Hafez’s first choice; the Syrian leader had been grooming his eldest son, Basil, to succeed him. But Basil died in a car accident in 1994, and only then did Hafez look to his younger son as his “heir designate.”

Many hoped that Bashar would fulfill pledges to become a true reformer. Many also thought that because Bashar was a U.K. educated ophthalmologist, not a soldier, married to a British-born Sunni woman, that he would adopt a more liberal, non-sectarian approach. But he never really loosened his father’s iron-fisted grip. As Human Rights Watch reported in 2010, Bashar failed to improve Syria’s human rights record in the decade he ruled. Its report, “A Wasted Decade: Human Rights in Syria during Bashar al-Assad’s First Ten Years in Power,” systematically describes Bashar’s brutal approach, concluding that he had “done virtually nothing to improve his country’s human rights record” and cited Syria’s human rights situation as one of the worst in the world.

The Assad family hold on power is facing its biggest challenge since Hafez seized power 41 years ago. Many respected Hafez because while brutal, he brought stability to Syria—some believe he would have handled the current situation much more deftly. Still, with both he and the stability he brought now gone, Syrian tolerance for brutality is evaporating. The looming question is whether the Assads will make it to their 42nd anniversary in power.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Robert Danin.

Post by:
Topics: History • Syria

soundoff (13 Responses)
  1. 100% ETHIO STRONGER!

    Now days, I don't understand why some people would like to be a Government, if they are not serving the best interests of the people whom they are Govern. And also, at the end, they ended up in the Rat Hole as a dust bin.

    Government supposed to be an employee of the People to serve them according to their wish and to safeguard their Country.

    On the other hand, being a Government is like living in a cage. So, if they think they are smart, why they don't choose to be famous Business person, Scientist like Dr. Einstein,...at their end, people will celebrate them, even the consequences will be happiness.

    November 13, 2011 at 11:36 am | Reply
  2. DR Saad- Calgary- Alberta- IRANIANS KILLERS ENTERED IRAQ- URGENT

    ليطلع الشعب العراقي وكل القوى الوطنيه وفصائل المقاومه العراقيه على الدور الذي يلعبه الايراني " علي زندي " الملقب بالاديب وزير التعليم العالي والقيادي في حزب الدعوه في تنفيذ المخطط الايراني بتصفية الاساتذه والعلماء وضباط المخابرات والجيش

    وردتنا معلومات دقيقه ومؤكده من مصدر يعمل في مكتب وزير التعليم العالي مفادها ما يلي :

    خليه تابعه لما يسمى " عصائب اهل الحق " ستنشط في بغداد – مدينة الثوره تدار هذه الخليه من قبل مدير مكتب وزير التعليم العالي والبحث العلمي ( علي الاديب ) ويشرف عليها بشكل مباشر مدير مكتبه المقدم ( ماجد الغراوي ) .. اسمه الحقيقي ( علي اكبر اصفهاني ) وهو من سكنة محافظة كربلاء تم تسفيره في زمن النظام الوطني .. والده كان يرتبط بمخابرات الشاه قبل ان يستولي " الخميني " على السلطه وبنفس الوقت كان ينسق مع الحلقه الضيقه المقربه من الخميني قبل اشهر قليله من قيام ما يسمى ( الثوره الاسلاميه ) وبعد سقوط الشاه ارتبط بالمخابرات الايرانيه ( شعبة النجف وكربلاء وسامراء ) قبل ان تستحدث المخابرات الايرانيه كوزاره بأسم " الاطلاعات " تم كشفه من قبل رجال المخابرات العراقيه الابطال واكتفت الحكومه في حينها بتسفيره الى ايران ..

    اما ابنه موضوع معلوماتنا المدعو ( ماجد ) فهو ضابط في الاطلاعات الايرانيه وهو معين بامر الاطلاعات كمدير لمكتب وزير التعليم العالي وهو من قاد حملة " اجتثاث " الاساتذه في محافظة صلاح الدين وله الدور البارز في حملة الاعتقالات الاخيره ..

    الخليه المرتبطه بهذا المجرم الايراني مكلفه بالمهام التاليه :
    1- استلام المعلومات من مدير مكتب الاديب عن الاساتذه والطلاب في كل من مجمع ( كليات باب المعظم ) والجامعه المستنصريه من الذين يعتبروهم بعثيين والاساتذه من الطائفه ( السنيه ) لغرض تصفيتهم واختطافهم وتسليمهم للاطلاعات الايرانيه المتواجدين في وزارة التعليم العالي وباسماء وهميه على انهم عراقيون وموظفين في الوزاره ..

    2- القيام بعمليات اغتيال تشمل ( ضباط المخابرات السابقين / ضباط الجيش السابق / الشرطه ) وغالبا ما تجري عمليات الاغتيال على طريق محمد القاسم في المنطقه المحصوره بين الجامعه المستنصريه ومعارض السيارات في منطقة " النهضه " ..

    3- المعلومات تفيد ان الخليه لها تنسيق مع عناصر المرور في مقر ما يسمى بشركة ( الضلال ) التابعه لمديرية المرور العامه ..

    اسماء عناصر الخليه

    ــــــــــــــــــــــــــــــــــ
    أ‌- رحمن شبوط
    ب‌- علي وادي علي
    ت‌- مالك جبار
    ث‌- محمد علي مندي
    ج‌- احمد عوده
    ح‌- كرار حسين
    خ‌- طه سلمان
    د‌- طه فرهود عمران
    ذ‌- عقيل عيدان
    ر‌- سرمد كريم
    ز‌- هاني راضي
    س‌- علي فيصل غازي
    ش‌- عبد الله هاشم
    ص‌- قاسم عباس فاضل

    الخليه لهم اوكار في مدينة الثوره وفي العناوين التاليه :

    • الجوادر – محله 552 – زقاق23 – دار 27 ( بيت شبوط ) .
    • الجواد – محله 529 – زقاق12 – دار15 ( بيت عيدان ) .
    • الجوادر – محله 555 – زقاق 43 – دار 1 على 3 – ( بيت الشيخ ) .

    تعليقنا //

    ـــــــــــــــــــ
    المدعو / علي زندي / شقيقه عضو في مجلس الشورى الايراني وهو الرجل الثاني بعد المالكي في قيادة حزب الدعوه واسناد وزارة التعليم العالي لهذا الايراني المجرم الحاقد على كل ما هو عراقي وعربي جاء بناءا على اوامر من مكتب الخامنئي .

    نقول للمالكي " الكذاب" الذي يكثر من اللقاءات هذه الايام ويتحدث عن العلم والعلماء وهو الذي يقتل الاستاذه والعلماء ويسير خلف جنائزهم ويمارس جلاوزته اقسى انواع التعذيب بحق الاستاذه والعلماء في المعتقلات .. لذلك نحذر وبشده اساتذة الجامعه من موجة الاغتيالات التي ستنفذها مليشيات على زندي ومليشيات المالكي واجهزته القمعيه ولنا عوده اخرى بمعلومات مفصله عن الخطه الايرانيه التي ينفذها علي زندي .

    November 13, 2011 at 12:06 pm | Reply
    • Onesmallvoice

      Good grief, DR Saad, if you can't post in English then at least post in French so I can read the above since I never learned any Farsi! The only foreign killers who entered Iraq are the Americans and their British cohorts along with a handful of those from the "coalition of the willing" and nobody from the Iranian side!!!

      November 13, 2011 at 1:37 pm | Reply
      • karim

        You do not even know this is not Farsi and it is Arabic. Go educate yourself and then comment here and do not make yourself a fool. :)
        الايراني is Arabic for Iranian

        ایرانی is Farsi for Iranian
        It is like French and English. Two different language. Next time look for something like " ال " before names. if you see a lots of that then it is Arabic.
        It is like Le Figaro and Figaro. :)

        November 17, 2011 at 6:19 pm |
      • karim

        Also you can use Google translate to see what is it. I think this is very important information. I believe Iranian intelligent agency is very active in Iraq and Sepah ghods is also there and killing innocent people.

        November 17, 2011 at 6:24 pm |
  3. j. von hettlingen

    Many in the region dread the consequences of a vacuum left behind by Bashar al Assad. Syria's autocratic dynasty had brought the country stability after a dictatorial regime shaped by years of unstable military rule. Unlike Egypt's military, which had kept its distance from the executive and now plays the guardian role in the post-Mubarak era, Syria's military has always been indoctrinated by the al Assads. As young officer and defense minister, Hafiz knew the advantage of a strong and loyal army. The military had always been the apple of his eye, and this passion was passed onto his son Maher, who is now head of the notorious armed forces known for their brutality.

    November 13, 2011 at 12:39 pm | Reply
  4. Toppolina

    Actually in the 50's the coups were done by Kurdish military like Hosny al Zaeem and Adib al Shishakli. Syria is a melting of many religions and faiths and they all lived in peace (except the Alawis who were at the bottom), If Mr. Darin considers killing over 70 thousands Syrians during the Hafez Assad reign calm and prosperity, then so much for peace and freedom

    November 14, 2011 at 12:31 pm | Reply
  5. GOPisGreedOverPeople

    Just think. When the GOP regain power, they will start a war with Iran (totally unfunded of course). Then they will draft all the poor people to fight(die) in the war (just like the GOP wants) and give "no bid" contracts to the rich people. Killing two birds with one stone!!! Then we can use Iran's oil to pay for the war. And when the war is over, Iran will sell us cheap oil!!! Just like Iraq........Oh wait........Never mind.

    November 14, 2011 at 12:37 pm | Reply
  6. DR SAAD- CALGARY- ALBERTA

    IRAN ........I = IDIOTS, R- RACISTS, A= A MAN SOCIETY , N= NERDS..........SO DON'T WAIT FOR THE ATTACK OF THE NERDS , GET RED OF IRAN NOW BEFORE IT IS TOO LATE

    November 20, 2011 at 1:21 am | Reply
  7. DR SAAD- CALGARY- ALBERTA

    SYRIA , S= SADISTIC SOCIETY OF KILLING THUGS AND SHIIA NERDS.
    Y= Y NOT
    R= RACIST SHIIA KILLERS
    I = IDIOT GOVERNMENT BACKED BY TERRORISTS LIKE IRAN AND HEZBOLLAH AND IRAQ WHO ARE HELPED BY USA!
    A = ASAD , AHMAD NEJAD, A JALABI AL KALB, AL MAHDI ARMY, AL QODOS ARMY, AL SESTANI AL KALB, ALL THOSE ARE TERRORISTS

    November 20, 2011 at 1:25 am | Reply
  8. DR SAAD- CALGARY- ALBERTA

    IRAN NOW PUSHED MORE THAN 12,000 SECRET ARMY TO IRAQ TO START KILLING THE IRAQ CIVILIANS MOST SUNNI AND CHRISTIANS AND ALSO TO PASS AND HELP SYRIAN EVIL GOVERNMENT TO KILL MORE CIVILIANS, IRAQ AND IRAN BOTH SHIIA THUGS HELPING SYRIA AND HEZBOLLAH THE ARMS AND LEGS OF EVIL IRAN IN THE REGION WHILE USA SITTING WATCHING AND LEAVING IRAQ, WE MUST ELECT THE REPUBLICAN TO KICK SOME IRANIAN/ SYRIAN AND IRAQIS ASS.

    November 20, 2011 at 1:28 am | Reply
  9. DR SAAD- CALGARY- ALBERTA

    WATCH THE IRANIANS IN USA AND CANADA MOST ARE SPIES , SEND MONEY TO HEZBOLLAH THE TERRORISTS AND ALSO SUPPORTING IRAN WE MUST WATCH THEM AND ASK OUR GOVERNMENT NOT TO ALLOW THEM TO ENTER OUR COUNTRY

    November 20, 2011 at 1:29 am | Reply
  10. Alboy5

    I have petted many dogs. They were not foaming at the mouth. Abiblojob and Fareed Zakaria Iranian sympathizer are mad dogs I would not pet.

    March 18, 2012 at 6:42 pm | Reply

Post a comment


 

CNN welcomes a lively and courteous discussion as long as you follow the Rules of Conduct set forth in our Terms of Service. Comments are not pre-screened before they post. You agree that anything you post may be used, along with your name and profile picture, in accordance with our Privacy Policy and the license you have granted pursuant to our Terms of Service.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 4,582 other followers