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Militant Islam Monitor > Articles > Bashar al-Assad Reprising The Violence Of His Father

Bashar al-Assad Reprising The Violence Of His Father

March 6, 2012

A Tale of Two Assads: Lion and Cub

By Daniel Pinner


Bashar is still far short of what his father Hafez achieved thirty years ago this month in Hama; but he is making valiant efforts to catch up. It is sobering to think that Rabin almost gave up the Golan Heights to Syria.

Thirty years ago this month, the decades-long conflict between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Syrian Army reached its climax. The city of Hama, the third-largest city in Syria, had long been a stronghold of the Muslim Brotherhood which, as Sunnis, had historically regarded the Alawites as heretics, little better than Jews or Christians.

When the Alawite Hafez al-Assad took control of Syria in 1970 and his Alawite cronies instituted a brutal dictatorship, the Sunni majority was viciously repressed, and the Muslim Brotherhood the only organisation that dared to challenge Alawite tyranny became the heroes of the general population.

As the 3rd February 1982 began, President Hafez al-Assad dispatched the army to eliminate all resistance to his rule. The Muslim Brotherhood fought back, and by sunrise, four and a half hours later, some 70 government forces had been killed. The opposition forces proclaimed Hama a "liberated city", and urged Sunnis throughout Syria to revolt against the Alawite infidels.

President Assad charged his younger brother Rifaat with responsibility for quelling the insurgency; the fighting continued for some three weeks, and by February 27, Hama was reduced to charred, smoking rubble. The Syrian Army had killed some 30,000 to 40,000 citizens mostly civilians and expelled a further 100,000. An additional 15,000 have not been accounted for until today.

Yet Assad's brutality hardly cost him any credibility. The USA continued to pressurise Israel to withdraw from the Golan and hand it over to Syrian sovereignty, and when Yitzhak Rabin became prime minister of Israel in 1992, he tried desperately to convince Assad to take the Golan Heights back as part of a peace deal between the two countries; only the assassination of Rabin in 1995 prevented Israeli withdrawal from the Golan.

Bashar al-Assad captured the hearts of the West. He was young not quite 35 years old when he became president; he was an academic who spoke at least two European languages qualified as a physician in Damascus University; he had begun postgraduate training in ophthalmology in London... he even knew how to use the Internet.
For several years, Hafez al-Assad had been grooming his eldest son Basil as his successor to the presidency. But in January 1994, Basil killed himself when he crashed his car, so Assad the father turned his attentions to his younger son, Bashar. When Hafez died on 10th June 2000, Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father as president-for-life of Syria.

Describing the Assad dynasty, Arab political commentators coined the ironic word jumlikka an amalgam of jumhuriyya ("republic") and mamlikka ("kingdom"). Syria defined itself as al-Jumhuriyya al-Arabiyah as-Suriyyah the Syrian Arab Republic; in practice, the reigning Assad family ruled it like a kingdom

Bashar al-Assad captured the hearts of the West. He was young not quite 35 years old when he became president; indeed, the Majlis ash-Sha'ab (the People's Council, as the Syrian government is called) immediately voted to lower the minimum age for presidential candidates from 40 to 34 so that he could take office. He was an academic who spoke at least two European languages French and English; he had qualified as a physician in Damascus University; he had begun postgraduate training in ophthalmology in London; and as the ultimate proof that he was progressive, he even knew how to use the Internet.

Consequently, the West blithely ignored his brutal repression of his own people, and continued to pressure Israel to cede the Golan to Syria for the sake of peace. And indeed, until less than a year ago, Assad the son was still almost universally regarded as the great hope for peace in the Middle East.

It is remarkable that of all the regimes which have toppled in the last year in the "Arab Spring" (which would more accurately be called the Islamic Spring), Assad's regime has proven to be the most resilient and the one whose opponents the West has been most reluctant to help.

Somehow, in spite of being one of the most viciously oppressive regimes in the Middle East (and for that accolade they are really up against some pretty stiff opposition), both Assads the father and son managed to retain the goodwill of the West.

It is sobering to reflect how close Israel came to giving up the Golan to Hafez al-Assad back in the early to late 1990's when Rabin was prime minister. Rabin was assassinated when his tenure still had almost another year to run, and he was determined to finalise a treaty with Syria. In June 1994, Rabin warned that the Syrians had missiles which made the Iraqi Scuds fired at Israel during the Persian Gulf War of 1991 "look like children's play". And he then threatened that if there would be no peace treaty with Syria, there "would be total war within three to five years".

And he then added that a peace treaty would inevitably mean total Israeli withdrawal from the Golan.

The same week, Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin, cautioned that the two sides had only "a matter of months" to reach an agreement.

Had Rabin had that extra year, he would very likely have succeeded in withdrawing from the Golan.

And more recently, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has agreed to the principle of withdrawing from the Golan, if the Syrian regime would just distance itself from Iran and Hizbullah. Had Bashar al-Assad's regime held stable for just one more year, and had he agreed to a few cosmetic changes, then we could well have seen the Syrian military already deployed on the Golan, the tanks and artillery of either Assad's tyrannical regime or those of its as-yet-unknown successor covering the entire north of Israel.

Once the unrest in Syria is resolved one way or another, the pressure will be on Israel again to cede the Golan; maybe not immediately, maybe a year or even a decade later; but one day, Israel will inevitably find herself once again coerced to withdraw.

The only possible outcomes of the current Syrian unrest are an Assad victory (less likely) or a Sunni Muslim Brotherhood victory (more likely).

If Assad's forces win, then Israel's previous offers to cede the Golan to his regime will likely be reactivated; and if the Muslim Brotherhood wins, then the West will be ever more determined to appease the potentially aggressive regime. In either event, the pressure will be on Israel to "strengthen the moderates" in Syria (regardless of the regime) by ceding the Golan.

We can but hope that future Israeli leaders will internalise and remember the current events in Syria, and will understand that the sole result of withdrawal will be to bring hostile forces closer to Israel. The lesson of current events in both Syria and Egypt is that withdrawal can bring at best a temporary lull in hostility.

No one knows how many Syrian citizens have been killed by the Syrian army since the first sporadic demonstrations began in Syria on 26 January 2011. At the time of writing, the UN (www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=41303&Cr=Syria&Cr1=) estimates the death toll as "more than 5,400". The UN webpage continues: "In addition, tens of thousands, including children, have been arrested, with more than 18,000 reportedly still arbitrarily held in detention. Thousands more are reported missing amid the crisis, which has sent 25,000 people to neighbouring and other countries to seek refuge and displaced more than 70,000 within the country".

Syrian Human Rights Watch (http://www.hrw.org/news/2012/02/04/un-russia-china-vetoes-betray-syrian-people ) puts the figure of "more than 5,400" dead into context: "The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights reported 5,400 dead in December [2011], but as the country descends into chaos, her office stopped counting for lack of accurate figures".

Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2011%E2%80%932012_Syrian_uprising ) cites "up to 8,000 people" killed so far. What is certain is that the death toll is rising by scores and sometimes hundreds every day.

Even according to the highest estimates, Bashar is still far short of what his father Hafez achieved thirty years ago this month in Hama; but he is making valiant efforts to catch up.

In English, we might use the expression "the apple doesn't fall far from the tree". An Arabic equivalent would be: man shaba abu, ma ta'lam he who resembles his father, don't bring any claims against him.

But there is another Arabic aphorism that is more apposite to the two Assads: ha-el shib'l ibn dhaq al-Assad this cub is the son of that lion. Regardless of how academically gifted, urbane, and supposedly Westernised any Arab leader may be, the cub always remains the son of the Assad the lion.

This applies to the son who succeeds his father. And it applies just as immutably to one regime which succeeds another: whatever cub regime replaces the jumlikka of the Assad dynasty will still be the son of the lion regime which currently rules.

And this will be crucial for Israel (and the entire Western world) to remember after the Islamic Spring will have advanced into its summer.


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