All in the family: Building the Assad dynasty in Syria

Hafez al-Assad was obsessed with keeping the Syrian presidency within the family

Dr. Halla Diyab

Published: Updated:

This article is the second of a three-part series on Syria’s coups.

Hafez al-Assad succeeded in breaking the chain of incessant military coups, and Syria has not witnessed a military coup since his takeover. For three decades, Hafez al-Assad created a façade for Syria as a military state abiding by socialist rules with a nationalist identity. Hafez al-Assad was a sharp politician and he knew the rules of the military game very well. He realized that a military coup, rather than a people’s revolution, was the real threat to his regime.

Syrians were yearning for political stability and economic development after the endless tirade of coups since independence. Hafez al-Assad focused on domestic prosperity and economic independence to gain the support of the Syrian population. He overcame the sectarian barrier of an Alawite minority ruling a Sunni majority by engineering the Aalwites’s image into people who practiced Sunni Islam and yet maintained the state’s socialist secularism. Hafez publically prayed in Sunni mosques led by Sunni imams and shared with the Syrian nation the Eid and Ramadan celebrations. He strove to gain the domestic support of Sunni Syrians, especially the working class, the farmers and the laborers. Assad’s life did not have the lavish trappings which other Arab leaders had.

The rise of the police state in Syria was the right fit for Hafez al-Assad’s growing hunger for totalitarian leadership

Dr. Halla Diyab

However, Hafez was increasingly empowering the Aalwites to hold high-ranking positions in the Syrian government, especially in the military, in order to maintain his grip on power and therefore minimize the risk of any military coup. He relied on his family by appointing his brother Rifaat al-Assad a member of the country’s National Ba’ath Party leadership, and then second vice president in March of 1984. His younger brother Jamil served in the parliament, and was commander of a minor militia.

Duping the nation

Assad duped the Syrian nation with the military facade: obligatory military service, military educational system, military school uniform, compulsory military “fatwah” subjects in the educational curriculum, the legacy of the strong national Syrian army in which the national resources were invested and influential army personnel with domestic privileges. However, the Syrian military’s influence was gradually restricted to international security and foreign alliances, mainly with the Palestinian cause, the Lebanese war, the borders with Iraq and the fight against what Assad called “Western imperialism.” However, Hafez al-Assad fostered the illusion that the Syrian National Army was protecting the independence of Syria from unseen enemies. Assad gradually departed from his military persona to encourage a narcissistic cult of personality. The death of Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1970 created a vacuum of leadership in the Arab world and Hafez al-Assad strove to fill it by promoting his own ideas based on Nasser’s Pan Arab nationalism. Reviving Nasser’s legacy and the cult of personality soon become a presidential fashion among Arab leaders; Qaddafi in Libya, Saddam Hussain in Iraq, Sadat in Egypt and then Mubarak. Unlike other Arab leaders, Hafez al-Assad was transforming into a vital regional player in Middle East politics and the peace process. The causes of Palestine, the Lebanese conflict and the Golan Heights issue were all crucial to feed Hafez al-Assad’s Arab leadership legacy. He viewed these causes as an opportunity to transform from the president of a country to a regional Arab leader. Gradually and due to influence and deals, Hafez decreased the power of the Syrian army domestically, and strengthened the influence and the power of the security services, or “mukhabrat.” By doing that, Hafez transformed Syria from a military state into a police state.

Police state

The rise of the police state in Syria was the right fit for Hafez al-Assad’s growing hunger for totalitarian leadership. The relationship between Syrian citizens and the Syrian army was replaced by national loyalty to Hafez al-Assad. The Syrians pledged their allegiance to Hafez who maintained the independence of Syria, the dignity of the Syrian citizens and the protection of Syrian sovereignty. Hafez gradually secured the loyalty of Syrians, and the only domestic rising threat in the horizon were the Islamists. With the 1980s Hama massacre, Hafez set the bars for any potential uprising and the police state helped him to maintain his control to crush any Islamic revolt. The security services, “mukhabrat,” dominated the power scene in Syria through spying on civilians, monitoring mosques, arbitrary detentions without trial and recruiting civilians as undercover informants. Hafez fed the security services’ power over the army, the police and other government agencies in Syria to maintain his legacy as the idealized nationalist and worshipful leading father of Syria. Hafez deflated the heroic achievements of the Syrian army and instead worked on his eternal achievements. Syrian public places and streets were jammed with Hafez’s statues, posters, photos, and quotes. The security services, “mukhabrat,” started to grow into a fearful monster who kept an eye on maintaining the eternal image of Hafez.

Yet, Hafez kept the façade of Syria as a military-oriented state by celebrating the national Day of the Army, “Yawm al-Jaish,” and the public demonstration of the historical chivalry of Syrian leaders like Salah ad-Din, whose tomb in Damascus was one of the nation’s landmarks. Hafez also centralized the prominent Baathist Adnan al-Malki’s statue in central Damascus, and named a strategic suburb after him. Hafez fuelled the celebrity-like glamour of military personalities, for example that of Mustafa Tlass, a Syrian senior military officer and Syria’s Minister of Defense (from 1972 to 2004). Tlass was one of Assad’s men who pioneered a breakthrough military personality; a steel façade with a soft and poetic charm, something which was unique among rigid military officers yet appealing to the Syrian masses. Tlass who publically appeared in full military uniform loaded with military medals, emerged as a man of colorful poetic language and a patron of Syrian culture, art and literature. He wrote poetry and published books before starting his own publishing house. Hafez viewed in Tlass as a perfect public propaganda image for the feasibility of the military-state that would fit the charming aspects of Syrian society and its modern artistic civilization.

Grooming Bassel al-Assad

In 1980s, with the departure of Rifaat al-Assad from Syria after Hama’s controversy, Hafez was getting older and his health was deteriorating, making him worried about his successor. Yet, Hafez was still holding on to the vision that the military is the best format for the continuity of the Assad leadership in Syria. His eldest son Bassel al-Assad fitted the image which Hafez had in his mind for a future leader of Syria. Unlike his too- academic brother, Bashar, his hot-tempered brother Maher, and his ill brother Majd, Bassel had the qualities of his father and was groomed to be his successor. With a PhD in military sciences, Bassel not only had the academic qualification, but also the military training which qualified him to be commissioned in the armed forces. He became a major and then commander of a battalion in the Syrian Republican Guard. Bassel fitted the public image which Hafez had increasingly sculpted for him; the “Golden Knight” with chivalry horse-riding competency and the young Syrian military hero who frequently appeared in full military uniform at official events. Bassel was the symbolic resurrection of the Syrian government’s allegiance to the army.

In 1991, the pledge to Hafez al-Assad’s presidency was renewed by Syrians and Hafez gradually started to fall for the heroic image he later sculpted for Bassel. Hafez allowed Bassel’s photos to be publically displayed in Syrian streets. But, the rising military heroic image of Bassel did not weaken the power of the secret services as Hafez appointed Bassel the head of presidential security to maintain the military milieu of the police state. He also identified with Bassel’s heroic image by publicly being referred to as "Abu Basil" (Father of Bassel). Hafez’s obsession to keep the Syrian presidency within the family aggravated the influential Alawite military leaders who supported Assad during his reign, such as General Ali Haydar of the 14th Special Forces Division who Hafez later arrested and imprisoned in August 1994.

Hafez set the scene for Bassel’s succession accommodating his young passion for modern technologies and progressive vision for the future of the state. Unlike his father, who barred internet and fax, Bassel pioneered the Syrian Computer Society in 1989 with a promising era of change in the history of Syria. But Bassel’s death in a car-crash in 1994 broke the heart of Hafez al-Assad and shattered his plans for the future of Syria. Hafez announced the death of Bassel with grief and sorrow on national Syrian TV, lamenting Bassel not only as a lost son but as a lost national hero.

In his first public appearance during Bassel’s military funeral, Hafez al-Assad was surrounded by Syrian army personnel in their full military uniform. Bassel’s televised funeral saw the spotlight fall on three of Assad’s men, who would later play important roles in Syria’s military history; Assef Shawkat, Maher al-Assad and Bashar al-Assad.


Dr. Halla Diyab is an award winning screen-writer, producer, broadcaster, a published author and an activist. She has a Ph.D. in English and American Studies from the University of Leicester. She carried out research in New Orleans, USA while working on her thesis “The Examination of Marginality and Minorities in the Drama and Film of Tennessee Wil-liams”. She holds an MA in Gender and Women Studies from the University of Warwick. She has written a number of scripts for TV dramas countering religious extremism and international terrorism resulting in her being awarded Best Syrian Drama Script Award 2010 and the Artists Achievement Award 2011. She is a regular commentator in the Brit-ish and international media and has recently appeared on Channel 4 News, BBC Newsnight, BBC This Week, CNN, Sky News, Channel 5 News, ITV Central, Al Jazeera English, and BBC Radio 4, to name a few. She is a public speaker who spoke at the House of Commons, the Spectator Debate, Uniting for Peace and London’s Frontline Club. She has worked in Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Syria and is an expert on the Middle East and Islamic culture. As a highly successful drama writer, she has been dubbed ‘one of the most influential women in Syria’ in 2011. She also produces documentary films for UK and international channels. She is also the Founder & Director of Liberty Media Productions which focuses on cross-cultural issues between Britain and the Middle East. She can be found on Twitter: @drhalladiyab

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