Unless you have been deliberately avoiding all forms of news media since December 2010, there is a good chance you will have heard of the Arab Spring. It is potentially one of the most momentous series of events to occur across the Middle East since the break-up of the Ottoman Empire. For the most part, it has fizzled out, resulting in regime changes in three countries but relatively little in most Arab states. However, it is still very much a part of Syria, with the death count currently at 33,000 and rising. So, as historians, we must ask ourselves: what are the foundations behind today’s instabilities?
The rise of the Assad regime has similar origins to that of Sadam Hussein in Iraq; both are based on the Ba’athist military coup of 1966. In the consolidation, Hafez al-Assad, the former commander of the Syrian air force, was made Minister of Defence. He established a power base in the Syrian military and in 1970 used this influence to dispose of the then leader Salah Jadid, with disagreement over the role played by the Soviet Union a deciding factor. Over the course of the next 30 years, Assad garnered support by creating a cult of personality in addition to passing populist motions. In 1973 he went so far as to change the Syrian constitution in order to give equal status to women and allow non-Muslims to run for presidency, although this was rescinded later under pressure from the Muslim Brotherhood.
This was merely the progressive mask of a leader who brutally suppressed any opposition to his regime. Any political dissenters were quickly arrested, tortured and killed; most notably, at the Hama Massacre of 1982, of which the Syrian Human Rights committee estimate Assad’s forces killed 40,000 Muslim Brotherhood dissenters. By the time of his death in office on 10th June 2000, he was one of the most controversial leaders of the late 20th century. He was succeeded by his son, Bashar al-Assad, who had been groomed for leadership in the previous six years.
Unlike his father, Bashar was not initially interested in leadership. He was not the oldest of Hafez al-Assad’s children, and instead of following a career in politics he graduated as a doctor in 1988 and went to work at the Western Eye Hospital in London in 1992. It was only after the death of his elder brother Bassel in a car accident that he was recalled to Syria to learn the crafts of state-work from his father. When he came into power in June of 2000, the people of Syria looked to him as the harbinger of a new era, bringing greater political freedom and changing his father’s record on human rights violations. However, this was not to be the case. Assad’s apparent favouring of the Alawite minority in cabinet offices and unopposed presidential campaigns are key factors behind the current civil war. Now it only remains to be seen what the future holds for the dictator who appears to have garbed himself in his father’s bloodstained shoes.