With war-torn Lebanon in the west, the collapsed Iraq in the east and with the two arch-enemies Iran and Israel on either side, Syria is at the crossroads of several of the Middle East’s most acute conflicts. Despite turbulent conditions, the country under the leadership of the Asad family has been remarkably politically stable. But the external and internal pressure is increasing. Bashar al-Asad has heavy storm clouds in sight.
- How has the Asad family secured their grip on power?
- What happened to the promises of political reform under Bashar al-Asad?
- How do external conditions affect politics in Syria?
- Why were embassies burned in Damascus during the caricature fight?
2: Internal power relations
Syria’s strongman between 1970 and 2000 was Hafiz al-Asad. He brought stability to a country that in the 1950s and 1960s was characterized by frequent regime changes. A short-lived union with Egypt from 1958 was dissolved by the military in 1961, and in 1963 the Ba’ath party seized power. Although the party has formally ruled Syria uninterruptedly since, it was hit by internal coups in 1966 and 1970. As defense minister from 1966, Hafiz al-Asad established a personal power base in the army. When he came to blows with the party leadership in 1970, he used the military apparatus to override his political rivals.
Hafiz al-Asad continued to rule Syria with reference to the Ba’ath party’s goal of strengthening Arab unity , fighting imperialism and introducing socialism . However, Asad was less revolutionary than his predecessors and often prioritized Syria’s national interests over the party’s ideological views. He also reduced the Ba’ath party’s autonomy by introducing a joint command of the party, the military and the bureaucracy and replaced internal elections to leadership positions with its own hand-picked leaders. In this way he counteracted the emergence of parallel power structures and filled the state apparatus with loyal supporters.
Hafiz al-Asad gave key positions in the state to men of his own professional and ethnic-religious background. In practice, this meant military officers and members of Syria’s a lawi minority (about 12% of bef.), Who practice a peculiar form of Shia Islam. Throughout history, the minority has traditionally held an inferior position in Syria, but the Alawites were heavily represented in the army and in the Ba’ath party, which became bastions of power in the 1960s. Under Hafiz al-Asad’s rule, Alawites from the Matawirah tribe – and especially Asad’s own Numaylatillah clan – gained complete control of the power apparatus.
According to harvardshoes, the consolidation of power in general and the dominance of Alawite in particular led to popular dissatisfaction with Hafiz al-Asad’s regime. The political reality did not agree well with the Ba’ath party’s slogan of “unity, freedom and socialism”. The Sunni Muslim Islamist movement The Muslim Brotherhood measurable criticism of those in power. In 1982, Hafiz al-Asad deployed his army against Islamist insurgents in the city of Hama; 5,000 to 10,000 people were killed – a clear warning to Asad’s opponents not to challenge his rule.
The political climate under Asad’s rule was strongly influenced by the conflict with Israel. Syria was at war with the Jewish state in 1948, 1967, 1973 and 1982, and unlike Egypt and Jordan, has never signed a peace agreement with Israel. The consequence was an everydayization of the state of war in politics and social life under al-Asad. Since the Ba’ath party took power in 1963, Syria has been governed by military law .
The state of emergency gives the regime the right to carry out “preventive arrests” and put political opponents before military courts. With reference to the emergency laws, the president can also pass laws without the approval of parliament. In other words, the executive dominates complete legislative and judicial authority in Syria.
3: From father to son
Bashar al-Asad took over the presidency from his father in the year 2000. Usually, power is not inherited from father to son in republics, but in Syria, Hafiz al-Asad had created a person-oriented political system. It was therefore no easy task for Bashar to fill his father’s shoes. The 40-year-old president had little political experience, was a trained ophthalmologist and was first sent to war school when big brother Basil died in a car accident in 1994. Skeptics doubted that he could survive in Syria’s tough political landscape. Seven years later, however, there are many indications that he has succeeded. In close cooperation with his younger brother, Maher al-Asad, and a brother-in-law, Asif Shawkat, Bashar al-Asad seems to have tightened his grip on the Syrian regime.
To strengthen his popularity after taking power, Bashar advocated economic and political reform. In his first speech to the nation, he criticized “ingrained ideas” in the regime and called for modernization. His early political practices also gave the opposition more leeway. Bashar opened up to moderate political criticism of the regime and allowed civil society to organize. Shortly after taking power, one could read appeals from artists and intellectuals to lift the state of emergency and strengthen civil rights in the country. Opposition groups called for a strengthening of the People’s Assembly, the abolition of the Ba’ath party’s privileged position in politics and the introduction of free elections.