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Asads' Sectarian Tyranny
The Destruction and Dismemberment of the Homeland
This article is sourced from Chapter Nine of my book "Oil and God. Sustainable Energy will Defeat Wahhabi Terror"

On March 8, 1963, Hafiz Asad, a 33-year old decommissioned air-force Captain, joined two other Alawite decommissioned officers, Muhammad Umran and Salah Jdeid, and three active-duty pro-Egypt’s President Nasser Colonels, Rashid Quttaini, Muhammad al-Sufi, and Ziad al-Hariri, in a military putsch that deposed Syria’s democratically elected parliament, president, and coalition cabinet.


On that day, legitimate representative governance in Syria was extinguished. President Nazim al-Qudsi was arrested and kept in the hospital of the infamous Mazzeh Prison in Damascus for seven months before he was released in late November 1963. In mid-December 1963, the coup leadership allowed Dr. Qudsi to leave Syria. He left for Beirut, Lebanon, never to return to Syria again. He died in Amman, Jordan on February 6, 1998.


By 1970, following bloody confrontations among the 1963 coup organizers that eliminated the Nasserite elements, Hafiz Asad managed to eliminate the Ba’th Party’s founding fathers and its national leadership, and his own Alawite army comrades. Most prominent among his targets was fellow Alawite, Salah Jdeid. Between 1966 and 1970, Jdeid was Syria’s strongman. Upon seizing power in 1970, Asad jailed Jdeid in the notorious Mazzeh Prison in Damascus without trial.[1] He kept him there until shortly before his death in 1993. Umran was assassinated in 1972 during exile in Lebanon under mysterious circumstances, rumored to have been accomplished at the instigation of Hafiz’ brother, Rif’at.[2] 


Hafiz Asad consolidated his authority in March 1971. He became president in an uncontested, farcical referendum with near 100 percent of the votes cast in his favor. Four more referendum theatrics of near 100 percent approvals of the votes cast made Asad president until his death in 2000. To allow Hafiz’s 34-year old son, Bashar, to inherit the throne, a constitutional amendment to lower the minimum age eligibility from forty to 34 years was forced upon the rubber-stamp parliament by Asad’s army surrogates. The son, true to the father’s legacy, organized an uncontested referendum that made him president with, again, near 100 percent approval of the votes cast. A repeat referendum and a contrived election with full marks are the son’s claim to legitimacy. Realistically, the father and the son may count on around a third of Syria’s eligible votes, a far cry from those fabricated embarrassing performances.[3]


An obsession with referendums and near 100 percent approvals must be a sign of personality disorder. Today, after eight years of revolution, two million dead and injured, two million homes destroyed, and two thirds of the estimated 22 million-population displaced internally, in refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Europe, Asad Jr. could count on around 20 percent of the votes, if un-rigged. March 8, 1963, started a process of failures that culminated fifty-years later in the destruction and dismemberment of what was once a rather well-to-do country.


The Asad regime destroyed Syria’s democratic institutions. In 1963, Syria had a robust political life conducted by ten political parties of different philosophies, ethnic and religious compositions, agendas and platforms.[4] The parties promoted their programs freely. They shared power democratically in a coalition government. Immediately following the 1963 coup, the political parties were dissolved, their leaders scattered in and outside the country, and democracy died. The pre-1963 democratic structures were replaced by the Ba’th Party, a huge mass of hangers-on and opportunists.


The Asad regime decapitated Syria’s democratic political organizations. The heavy hand of the intelligence services eliminated regime opponents. Most anti-regime activists were killed or became refugees in foreign countries. Stories of torture by the captives who were lucky enough to be released put the fear of God in would be dissenters.


As the March 2011 revolution erupted, troops fired live ammunition at unarmed demonstrators. Fearing that killing unarmed civilians might raise the ire of Western public opinion, Asad Jr. Islamicized the confrontation by claiming that his troops were killing the likes of al-Qaeda, al-Nusra, and the so-called Islamic State jihadists in a cynical move to elicit cheers and aid from both the East and the West. In a grand act of blackmail legitimacy, Asad Jr. released more than 2,000 hardened jihadists from jail during the second half of 2011. He deliberately spread Islamist warlords throughout Syria.[5] He turned Syria into a battle field for competing interests for local, regional, and international powers: The United States, Israel, Russia, Iran, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Shi’ite mercenaries from Pakistan and Afghanistan, GCC member states, Turkey, and Syrian anti-Assad groups. Troops from Iran, Russia, Turkey, and the United States have occupied parts of Syria.


The Family

The Asad family is small. Hafiz Asad had five brothers and five children. Hafiz was not well-educated. He had a high school degree (1951), followed in 1952 by three years at the Homs military academy and the air force academy in Aleppo. He spent less than a year of pilot training (1958/1959) in the former Soviet Union. Aside from technical and basic Russian, he spoke no foreign languages and rarely travelled out of Syria. He was reckless. He was punished by an air-force inquiry panel because he overshot the Nayrab Airbase runway near Aleppo and crash-landed his Mercer Airplane on its belly (late 1956). After admitting that before taking off, “he knew his brakes were defective, he was reprimanded, fined and given a suspended jail sentence”[6] 


His eldest son, Basil, died in a car accident in 1994. Another son, Majd, died in 2009. Bushra, the first child and the only daughter, left Syria with her five children to Dubai[7] shortly after her husband, Asef Shawqat, deputy defense minister, was killed in a bomb blast in Damascus on July 18, 2012.[8] In defiance of her family, Bushra married Asef in 1995, after her brother Basil’s death (1994).[9] Basil had jailed Asef in 1993 to keep him away from his sister, according to security sources and to US diplomatic cables published by Wikileaks.[10]


Hafiz was cruel.[11] His youngest surviving child, Maher, has a reputation for being violent and emotionally unstable.[12] Diplomats say Maher shot and wounded Asef, his brother-in-law, in 1999.[13] As commander of the Republican Guard and the army's best-equipped division, his cruelty is unmatched. In 2005, Maher and Shawkat were both mentioned in a preliminary report by UN investigators as one of the people who might have planned the assassination of the former Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri.


Within a few months after the 1963 coup, Hafiz and coup comrades orchestrated a wholesale retirement of the majority of Sunni officers. Even cadets in military schools were dismissed and replaced by Alawite high school graduates. Since that time, trusted Alawite officers known for their loyalty to the Asad family, fill the ranks of the armed forces and the security machine. Every important army unit in and around the capital Damascus is commanded and manned by trusted Alawite officers. No Sunni is in a sensitive security post. Sunnis can be generals, but not in the tanks brigades, artillery regiments or the intelligence units in or near the capital city. Sunnis may hold top administrative positions, from the prime minister to cabinet ministers, but not in the security units.


The cult of personality around the Asad dynasty is everywhere; huge portraits of father and son are at major city intersections and public buildings. Projects are named after the two men—Lake Asad, Asad City, Asad Library, Asad Stadium, Asad this, Asad that... The government-controlled media exalts the president’s every action as a great achievement for Syria, for the Arab cause, even for the world. Zealots preach that Asad is inspired by God.  Criticism of the regime means jail, torture, or death. Even refraining from praising Asad’s every policy could lead to loss of a job and harassment by the regime’s security torturers.


The Regime’s Legitimacy Ideology 

Conscious of being rejected by most of Syria’s 75 percent Sunni population for belonging to a  heterodox sect, the two Asads embraced the Ba’th Party’s slogan of Arab unity and socialism. The 2012 Constitution, like the 1973 Constitution, enshrined Arab unity in the preamble[14] and socialism in Article 14.[15]


Despite these lofty aims, fifty years later, neither Arab unity nor socialism was achieved. The Arab nation is more divided in 2019 than in many centuries. Even the two branches of the one and same Ba’th Party that ruled Iraq (under Saddam Hussein) and Syria were the bitterest of enemies. Syria was the only Arab Sunni-majority country to have sided with Persian Shi’ite Iran against Ba’thist Arab Iraq in the long Iran/Iraq war (1980-1988).


As for socialism, it is a contradiction in terms, in such a lawless police state where rampant corruption is the glue that keeps the regime together, and which has frayed the fabric of Syria’s society. Lawless by necessity and design, religious minority rule converges on dictatorship, sectarianism, and corruption. Lacking majority support, the dictator entices other minorities, along with a small proportion among the majority—typically, the merchant class—to form a narrow ruling group. The dictator rewards the ruling group with impunity to violate the law. Huge disparities in wealth, income, and political power between the ruling group and the downtrodden majority breed an economic and political stratified society akin to a system of apartheid. Corruption is the glue that keeps such ruling groups together. If the glue is dissolved, the whole structure collapses. Ultimately, the pressure cooker explodes. There will be a revolt.

The Change in Syria’s Power Structure in the Twentieth Century

For centuries, Syria’s wealthy urban families and notables enjoyed a privileged position under the highly stratified society of Ottoman rule (1517–1918). The French mandate (1920–1946) changed all that. Syria’s urban elite wanted to govern an independent Syria after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War. For this reason, they supported Sharif Hussein bin Ali’s revolt against the Ottoman Empire in 1916. However, France and Britain had secretly agreed in the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement to govern Iraq and natural Syria, which includes today’s Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Jordan.

On September 30, 1918, Faisal, son of Sharif Hussein, entered Damascus as a part of General Allenby’s Allied forces.[16] On March 8, 1920, Syrian National Congress declared Faisal King of the Arab Kingdom of Syria. On July 24, 1920, France occupied Damascus and removed King Faisal.[17] On August 23, 1921, Faisal was made by Britain as King of Iraq.

Syria’s embittered urban elite led the nationalist resistance against French rule. So, France had to rely on Syria’s ethnic and religious minorities. The French recruited infantry and cavalry units composed exclusively of Alawites, Christians, Circassians, Druze, Isma’ilis, and Kurds.[18] France divided Syria into five semi-autonomous regions—Aleppo, Alexandretta (France transferred it to Turkey on July 13, 1939), Damascus, Druze Mountain, and Latakia.


After the nationalists forced France out of Syria in 1946, Damascus’ early governments were mainly composed of the urban notables. The new leaders resented a Syrian army composed of ethnic and religious minorities, left behind by the French. Between 1946 and 1948, they reduced the size of the army from 7,500 men to 2,500 men.[19] Army commanders reciprocated the resentment. The army became politicized, leading to the military coups that followed. During the next fifteen years, young Alawites, most of whom could not afford a university education, sought careers in the military. The military academies offered free education and board.


Serious change in Syria’s power pyramid was started in earnest during the union between Egypt and Syria (February 1, 1958 – September 28, 1961) under the presidency of Gamal Abdul Nasser. During this relatively short period of time, the Nasser government pursued a socialist agenda that destroyed the base of the centuries-old power structure in Syria (and Egypt as well). In 1958, Nasser nationalized factories and promulgated the Land Reform Act, which redistributed/ expropriated feudalists’ land, ostensibly, to improve the living conditions of non-farm workers and the peasantry after centuries of neglect by the ruling elites of feudalists, capitalists, and urban notables of the Ottoman era.


The leaders of the 1963 military coup maintained Nasser’s land reform and industrial nationalization policies. The new strategies were self-serving. They made the sons and relatives of the new ruling military and intelligence officers and Ba’th Party mangers wealthy.


Machiavellianism in Damascus:

The Asads’ regime has been built on three pillars:

- Brutal sectarian security forces

- Rhetorical theatrics against Israel

- Exploitation of Sunni Islam to control the Home Front and Frighten the West,


Brutal sectarian security forces

Syria’s president enjoys absolute powers, enshrined in the constitution of 1973 during Hafiz Asad’s tenure and in the 2012 constitution of his son’s regime. He appoints his deputies (Article 91.1), the prime minister, the government ministers and their deputies (Article 97), civilian and military employees. He also has the authority to end their services (Article 106). He promulgates laws that the parliament has passed, but he has the right to veto any law. Parliament can, theoretically, overrule his veto by a two-thirds majority (Article 100). The president, however, may then dissolve the assembly (Article 111). When parliament is not in session, or in cases of extreme need or when national interest so demands, the president can exercise legislative powers by himself. Amending the constitution requires a three-fourths majority in parliament and the approval of the president (Article 150.4).


Although Syria’s constitution contains all of the clauses and appearances of a modern democratic document, it is simply a yellow sheet of paper of little value. Emergency Law, imposed since 1963, nullifies every constitutional protection, whether it is Article 33.1, which guarantees personal freedoms, dignity, and security of citizens, or Article 42.2, which establishes the right of every citizen to freely and openly express their views in writing or orally or by all other means of expression, or Article 43, in which the state guarantees freedom of the press, printing and publishing, or Article 53.2, which stipulates that no one may be tortured or treated in a humiliating manner.


There is no separation of governmental powers. The parliament and the judiciary are rubber stamp entities. Parliamentary committees cannot question government policy on security, defense, military budget, oil accounting, foreign affairs, corruption, or sectarianism in officialdom. The prospect of the regime’s security dungeons terrifies the most hardened of parliamentarians and the most fearless of judges. Anyone under the slightest suspicion may end his life at the hands of sadistic torturers. A steady diet of exaggerated and invented victories provides psychic rewards to regime’s operatives.


Torture Dungeons: Multiple security services operate independently of one another: General Intelligence, Political Intelligence, Military Intelligence, Air Force Intelligence, and the National Security Bureau of the Ba’th Party. They all report directly to the president. They overlap without coordination, and operate outside the law. They watch every move and encourage people to spy on everyone, even their own families. Stories abound of political opponents being arrested, never to be heard from again. Innocent family members of dissidents are routinely taken away as hostages. Female relatives are tortured, often raped on camera to force the dissident into submission. Such practices in Syria’s conservative society are absolutely terrifying.


Parents became fearful of their own school-aged children who might inadvertently divulge anti-Asad conversations heard at home. Friends would not trust each other for fear that a cynical ear might be listening. Thus, when the March 18, 2011 revolution erupted, there was no organized opposition, no political parties or non-regime community leaders in place to lead the uprising. According to Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies (RUSI), approximately 1,500 different rebel groups appeared on the scene, showing there was no centralized movement.[20]


The cruelty of the Asad regime is legendary. Amnesty International documented 38 types of torture used against detainees; including, electrical shocks, pulling out fingernails, burning genitalia, forcing objects into the rectum, beatings while the victim is suspended from the ceiling and on the soles of the feet, alternately dousing victims with freezing water and beating them in extremely cold rooms, hyperextending the spine, bending the body into the frame of a wheel and whipping exposed body parts, using a backward-bending chair to asphyxiate the victim or fracture the spine, and stripping prisoners naked for public view.[21]

Massacres in Palmyra and Hama
On June 26, 1980, Hafiz Asad escaped an assassination attempt in Damascus. The next day, two units of Hafiz’s brother Rif’at’s Defense Companies committed a massacre in the Palmyra Prison. They destroyed 500 helpless inmates with machine gun fire and hand grenades. Patrick Seale described the massacre: “In Palmyra, deep in the desert, where Muslim Brothers were being held ... about sixty men were driven to the desert prison, split up into six or seven squads and let loose on the prison dormitories with orders to kill anyone inside. Some five hundred inmates died in cells echoing to the fearful din of automatic weapons, exploding grenades, and dying shrieks of ‘God is great.’”[22]

The brutality with which the regime dealt with its enemies in the defenseless city of Hama in western Syria in February 1982 was beastly. A three-week orgy of bombardment and destruction from the air and the ground demolished this city of around 200,000 residents. Patrick Seale wrote of the Hama carnage: “The battle for Hama raged for three grim weeks ... Hama was besieged by some 12,000 men … Many civilians were slaughtered in the prolonged mopping up, whole districts razed ... Scores of mosques, churches and other ancient monuments were damaged and looted ... Just how many lives were lost in Hama must remain a matter of conjecture, with government sympathizers estimating a mere 3,000 and critics as many as 20,000 and more.”[23]Rif’at Defense Companies destroyed three-quarters of the city and an estimated 20,000 were killed, but Rif’at boasted that the death toll was actually 36,000.[24]


Rhetorical Theatrics Against Israel

Like exploitation of Sunni Islam, the Asads have turned the conflict with Israel into an instrument of control. The confrontation with Israel culminated in the disastrous defeats of 1967 and 1973 wars. Subsequent armed confrontations with Israel were disastrous as well. On June 9 and June 10, 1982, sixty-four Syrian MIGs were shot down by Israel’s air force over Lebanon.


Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights since 1967 turned the Arab-Israeli conflict into a core issue in Syria’s domestic and foreign politics. To stay in power, the regime promotes the confrontation as Syria’s and the Arab world’s supreme challenge. The two Asads claim that they are the leading defender of Palestinian rights, Arab honor, and Syria’s sovereignty. The conflict with Israel is constructed to be their benchmark against which patriotism is measured. To the regime, the Arab-Israeli conflict is a magic wand that vanquishes all domestic opposition.


The conflict with Israel is the regime’s excuse to eliminate its enemies. Opponents are thrown in prison on charges like, “treason in the middle of the battle” or “weakening the national spirit.” A daily diet of nationalistic rhetoric helps rally the masses behind the regime’s agenda of the moment. The long list of restrictions in the name of the confrontation with Israel is in reality a means to secure the regime and maintain the privileged status and wealth of the ruling group and their relatives. Free press is banned. Advocates of reform are imprisoned without trial.


The conflict justifies allocating a substantial proportion of the country’s scarce resources to a huge standing army to protect the regime, at the expense of desperately needed investment in infrastructure, health, and education. As for military spending, not even the parliament can ask questions. The “impending” confrontation with Israel justifies lack of transparency or accountability in state finances. It also means prison and torture for whoever questions, let alone criticizes, any of the regime’s sanctioned national discourse propaganda.


Exploitation of Sunni Islam to Control the Home Front and Frighten the West

The Ba’th Party’s holy trinity is Arab unity, freedom, and socialism. There is no mention of religion in the Ba’th constitution.[25] Since the Asad clan belongs to the Alawite minority sect, appeasement of the Sunni majority works in the regime’s favor. Instead of wading in the muddy waters of Shari’a reform or secularization, as called for in the Ba’th Party constitution, the regime has chosen to be neither secular nor sincere in its Islam.


For the past five decades, the regime has played the Islamist card skillfully in a strategy of blackmail legitimacy, allowing the Islamist threat to remain alive to threaten Western interests, but too weak to pose a serious threat to the Asad clan. Islamists are regularly rounded up. Since 1980, membership in the Muslim Brotherhood has been punishable by death.

The Damascus Sunni palace ulama surround Asad with a religious protective halo. Syria’s Grand Mufti, Ahmad Kuftaro, the highest Sunni Islamic authority (1964-2004) and his successor, Ahmad Hassoun, found it rewarding to make a career out of imploring the Sunni masses to obey the Asad presidents blindly in order to accord with the Verse 4:59.[26] Sunni palace ulama also promote the regime’s agenda. In December 2016, the imam of the Grand Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, Sheikh Ma’moun Rahme, exhorted the country during a televised Friday prayer to join the Fifth Corps, a military force formed on November 22, 2016,[27] which is commanded by Russian officers.[28]

Blackmail legitimacy was an effective weapon against the 2011 revolution. By releasing hardened Islamists from prisons, the regime allowed jihadists to hijack the revolution and Islamitize it. This had the intended effect of scaring the world into choosing between tyranny in Damascus or the barbarism and criminality of the so-called Islamic State.  

Under the two Asads, Syria has become more Islamic than it was in 1963 when the democratically elected parliament and government were toppled by the Asad coup. Nonetheless, the regime and its apologists constantly propagate that theirs is a secular regime.



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[1] Patrick Seale, Assad, the Struggle for the Middle East, P. 164.

[2] Ibid, P. 184.

[3] 90% of the 10% Alawi population (9%) + 2/3 of the other 15% of minorities (10%) + 20% of the 75% Sunni population (15%) = 34%.

[4] Peoples Party, National Party, Arab Socialist Ba’th Party, Muslim Brotherhood, Arab Liberation Movement, Socialist Cooperation Party, Syrian Social Nationalist Party, Syrian Communist Party, Kurdistan Democratic Party, Assyrian Democratic Organization.

 Im[5] Richard Spencer, “Four Jihadists, One Prison: All Released by Assad and All Now Dead,” The Telegraph, (May 11, 2016).


[6] Patrick Seale, PP. 52 & 53.

[7] “Assad’s Sister Defect Amid ‘Disputes’ Between Ruling Alawites,” Al-Arabiya, (September 18, 2012).


[8] The blast hit the headquarters of the National Security Bureau during a meeting of cabinet ministers and senior security officials.

John Hall, “Brother-in-law of Syrian President Killed in Bomb Blast as Rebels Close in on Assad Regime,” The Independent, (July 18, 2012).


[9] “Assad Loses Assef Shawkat, Syria’s Shadowy Enforcer,” Al-Arabia, (July 18, 2012).


[10] Abdulrahman al-Rashed, “Visit of Assad’s sister to Dubai,” Arab News, (September 26, 2012).


[11] Sean O’Grady, “A Dangerous Dynasty: House of Assad, review: 'Confronts the viewer with their crimes, but tries to understand',” The Independent, (October 10, 2018).


[12] “Bashar al-Assad's Inner Circle,” BBC, (June 30,2012).


[13] Nour Ali and Esther Addley, “At Home with the Assads: Syria's Ruthless Ruling Family,” The Guardian, (October 11, 2011).


[14] In the Preamble: “The Syrian Arab Republic embodies this belonging in its national and pan-Arab project and the work to support Arab cooperation in order to promote integration and achieve the unity of the Arab nation.” Voltairenet.org, “Constitution of the Syrian Arab Republic – 2012.”


[15] Article 14: “Natural resources, facilities, institutions and public utilities shall be publicly owned, and the state shall invest and oversee their management for the benefit of all people, and the citizens’ duty is to protect them.”


[16] “Turks abandon Damascus as Allies approach,” History, (September 30, 1918).


[17] Vowing not to allow France occupy Damascus without resistance, army chief, Yousef al-Azmeh, led a small lightly armed unit of volunteers and soldiers from Syria’s nascent army against the far bigger and well equipped French army. Azmeh and his men stood their ground on July 23, 1920, at the village of Maysaloon, on the outskirts of Damascus. Azmeh was killed. His martyrdom has become a notable event in Syria’s struggle for independence.

[18] Philip Khoury, Syria and the French Mandate. P. 81.

[19] Ibid, P. 629.

[20] Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI), Understanding Iran’s Role in the Syrian Conflict, (August 2016), P. 33.

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[21] GlobalSecurity.org, “Syria Intelligence & Security Agencies.”


[22] Patrick Seale, Assad, the Struggle for the Middle East, P. 329.

[23] Ibid, PP. 333-334.

[24] Adrian Bloomfield, “Maher Assad: Profile of the Syrian President's Feared Brother,” The Telegraph, (June 9, 2011).


[25] The Ba’th Party. “The Constitution of the Ba’th Arab Socialist Party,” (published on August 31, 2015)


[26] Obey God and the Prophet and those in authority amongst you.

[27] Abdulrahman al-Masri, “Analysis: The Fifth Corps and the State of the Syrian Army,” Syria Deeply, (January 11, 2017).


[28] “Russia Says General Killed in Syria Held Senior Post in Assad's
Army,” Reuters, (September 27, 2017).

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