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Analysis: What if Hafez al-Assad was still alive?

Many claim that much of the Syrian uprising is about Hafez al-Assad, Syria’s ruthless dictator, who died 14 years ago

Published: Updated:

As the world marks the 14th anniversary of former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad’s passing, many questions are raised as to what could have happened in Syria - where a revolution against his son Bashar erupted into civil war in 2011 - had he lived on.

Would Hafez have been able to better manage the crisis which has left at least 150,000 people dead and resulted in the flight of millions of Syrian refugees?

Infographic: Who was Hafez al-Assad?
Infographic: Who was Hafez al-Assad?

“If he was still alive, the revolution would have never happened. We would be still isolated, like North Korea, little would be known about this country,” Mohanad Fayad, a Syrian activist based in Raqqa province, now under the full control of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), said. He believes that if Hafez al-Assad, the incumbent’s father, was alive today, things would have been quite different.

Fourteen years ago, Hafez al-Assad, Syria’s ruthless dictator, died. A decade later, the Syrian revolution started, diminishing the regime’s control over much of Syria, in spite of the ruthless crackdown on demonstrators and defectors.

In addition to Bashar’s neoliberal economic policies and their detrimental consequences on the rural regions, as well as the regional Arab Spring domino effect, many claim that much of the revolution is about the father’s brutal legacy, namely his infamous crackdown on the Muslem Brotherhood-led uprising in 1982. The cities and provinces where his crackdown took place, like Hama, Homs, Jisr al-Shoghour and Banyas, were at the forefront of the revolution and the later military defections.

Jisr al-Shoghour, where Hafez brutally crushed a Muslim Brotherhood rebellion, witnessed the first battle between defectors and his son’s army. Activists from these 1982 scarred regions, who participated in the 2011 revolution, carried these memories, though they were not even born when the uprising occurred. Survivors transferred their collective memories of what had happened onto the next generation.

Mohammad Safy was born in Hama a decade after the 1982 uprising and crackdown. The bloody crackdown skipped a generation in his family, as none of his uncles remain. “The oldest was my grandfather, and then came the grandchildren,” he remembers. Over the years, his grandfather, who spent eight years in Assad’s notorious prisons, told the grandchildren tales of the crackdown, the murder of his sons and family, how entire neighborhoods were destroyed, including ancient ones. These were ingrained in Mohammad’s memory and brought much tension into his relationship with the state’s institutions; he felt the “sectarian” tensions and discrimination. “I felt alienated every time I entered a government building,” he told Al Arabiya News.

When the revolution started, it was “magical,” Safy said. Thepeople of Hama increasingly poured into the streets, he added. According to Safy, the 800 thousand strong population of this historical city did not require much persuasion to join the revolt early, as if “they were all waiting for that moment.”

Among the most significant signs of the father’s enduring legacy is the revolution’s main slogan, chanted and scrawled in graffiti in every Syrian city and town: “We curse your soul, Hafez.”

Born into a poor family of Alawites, a minority Islamic sect, Assad joined the Syrian wing of the Baath Party in 1946 as a student activist. While exiled to Egypt between 1959-61, Assad and other military officers formed a committee to resurrect the flagging Syrian Baath Party. After the Baathists took power in 1963, Assad took control of the air force. In 1966, after taking part in a coup that overthrew sent the party’s founders into exile, he became minister of defense.

In November 1970, Assad seized control, arresting other members of the government. He became prime minister and was elected president in 1971.

The question now is; would Syrians have revolted against him if he was still alive? Safy thinks not. Fouad Ajami noted in his book on Syria’s revolution that Rifaat Assad, Hafez’s brother who led the crackdown in 1982, said that the regime was ready to kill a million Syrians in order to defend “the revolution.” The Assads refer to the Baathist coup in March 8, 1963, as “the revolution,” while Hafez’s coup against President Nureddine Attasi and his deputy, Salah Jdid, is officially called and celebrated as the “corrective movement.”

Alaa Shurbaji, a Syrian teacher from Daraya where Assad’s army cracked down on dissent in 1982, believes the revolution would have never reached this point if Hafez al-Assad was alive. “He was known for his shrewd and savvy politics. The revolution started in Deraa after the head of security, Bashar’s cousin Atef Naguib, tortured children. If Hafez was running the show, he would have executed him in a public square, or at least tried him in court. He did the same thing with his brother Refaat - kicked him out of the country to save his power.” Hafez had accused Refaat of preparing to topple him.

Fayad agrees, adding that “the country’s seclusion from the world during Hafez’s reign led people to feel a mix of fear, of dissent against him, and that his departure would plunge the country into unknown chaos”.

But Hafez is still “alive,” Hassan Jana, a Syrian activist, says. “His security branches, repression, grievances and the family rule remain.” Bashar inherited power but “changed nothing,” he added, this revolution is against his father.