The Al-Assad clan in Syria: a family affair and a regional issue

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The Assad family before 1994

In the Middle East and in the Arab world in general, the concept of leadership is drastically different from what is the current norm in the West. Many Arabs (a term associated with those who share the language and culture) are captivated by the figure of a strong and charismatic leader who does not give in or compromise. They seem to genuinely prefer a leader and a governing hierarchy, instead of a democratic regime in line with western standards. The matter has little to do with politics and a lot to do with culture, mentality, the contextual history of the region and its social components, which include clans and tribes.

Background information is vital to understanding how and why, over the last 50 years, most Arab nations have been governed by regimes that were based on individual figures – often with strong authoritarian features. The emergence of the Arab Spring openly and dramatically defied this system, but following the initial euphoric success, it soon revealed how deeply rooted the system was in Arab societies and how that system could maintain a certain degree of stability by using an iron fist.

A typical example is the Syrian regime, which has been under the leadership of the Alawite Al-Assad family since 1971. The military and political career of the late Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad is essential to how this family rose in politics and reached top positions within the State, how it managed and maintained the power, and how it forged political and social alliances. He served as President from 1971 until 2000, when he was succeeded by his son and current President, Bashar Al-Assad.

The Alawite Sect

Over the years, many studies have examined the origins of the Shiite Islam sect, first known as “Nusayris” and then as “Alawites” (during the French mandate for Syria and Lebanon in the last century), without successfully reaching a unanimous conclusion. What is certain, however, is that it is a branch of the Twelver school of Shia Islam, the largest branch of Shia Islam, which originated with Imam Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, in the seventh century AD. The sect detached itself from the main school of thought in the 9th century. The Alawite sect was long rejected across the Islamic world by the Shiite sect too, until Iran, the main doctrinal base for Shiites, ruled that the Alawite community be considered part of the Shiite creed The Iranian stance merely stemmed from political motives that aspired to expand the Shiite Crescent project in the Middle East.

Before moving to Latakia, on the Syrian coastline, the Alawite sect established itself in two great cities of the region: Baghdad in Iraq and Aleppo in Syria. While the Alawite presence in Baghdad decreased following the Mongol invasion in 1258 AD, its presence in Latakia (the country’s major port) increased throughout the century, and it became  a key city for the community. The Alawite sect is composed of several important tribes (Qabail), such as the Al-Kalabiyya tribe in Al-Qardaha, located in the hills surrounding Latakia, and the Ar-Rashawina, Al-Matawira and Al-Qarahila tribes that live in the governorate of Latakia. Furthermore, Alawites are organized in ‘Ashair or family clans, and the most important family clan in the last 50 years has undoubtedly been that of Al-Assad.

Al-Assad: Building and maintaining power

The history of the Al-Assad clan traces back to the legendary tale of “Suleiman the Beast” – a nickname due to his physical prowess – at the end of the 19th century. He was the grandfather of Hafez al-Assad. According to historians, Suleiman’s full name was “Suleiman al-Bahrazi” from Bahraz, his city of origin in the Iraqi province of Diyala.

According to  research published on Orient-News in 2014, Bashar al-Assad’s great-grandfather Suleiman was of Jewish descent; he infiltrated the Alawite community in the hope of seizing power in Syria. This rumor was never fully denied or confirmed. What appears to have been proven is that the Al-Assad family does not originally come from any region in Syria or from any areas with an Alawite majority.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Hafez Al-Assad succeeded in bringing his family and the Alawite minority sect to power in Syria.

During the French mandate after 1920, the Syrian territory was divided into several states that included Jabal Alawites (The Mountain of Alawites, Jabal al-‘Alawiyin), with France portraying itself as the protector of minorities. When the Special Forces of the Levant were formed under the command of French officers in 1921, representatives of the minorities, including Alawites, seized the opportunity and joined this force that offered them a rare job opportunity. During this period, the Alawite minority, under the leadership of Suleiman and his son Ali, laid the foundation for a fiduciary relationship with France. Alawites would support France’s presence in Syria in return for Paris’s protection. From being a simple farmer, Ali became a leader in his community, and as of 1927, his family was no longer known as the family of “the Beast”, becoming instead the family of “The Lion” (“Al-Assad” in Arabic). Three years later, his son Hafez was born.

The strategic use of military power

In 1951, when young Hafez joined the Syrian Air Force Academy in Homs, the “lion of Damascus” started planning a strategy to seize power and fulfil his ancestors’ dreams. He understood the strategic value of military power as a tool to maintain political stability. This became, and still is, a distinctive trait of the Al-Assad’s regime.

In 1957, high-ranking Alawite officers including Hafez Al-Assad rose to leadership positions in the Military Committee of the Baath party and leveraged alliances and political cover for the coup that brought him to power in 1970. Al-Assad’s political and military formula, which kept him in power for 30 years and was inherited by his son Bashar, is based on three main points: a government that was supported by fearsome secret police and secret services, the acceptance of every religious creed in Syria, and a solid system of regional and international alliances.

When the Baath party seized power in Syria with a coup in 1966, Hafez al-Assad, who was a member of the party, took over the position of Minister of Defense and started building his consensus base by strengthening the Alawite presence in the ranks of the armed forces and intelligence services. Three years later in 1970, he seized power in a military coup. In 1976, and with the approval of the US, his military forces occupied large swathes of sovereign Lebanese territory under the pretense of putting an end to the ongoing civil war. In reality, Al-Assad himself admitted that he intended to annex the Libyan territory that he considered “Syrian”. After 1980, when Hafez survived a murder attempt by the Muslim Brotherhood, the Syrian President tightened the grip on his opponents and accused religious figures of being a threat.

An effective foreign policy

In foreign policy, Hafez Al-Assad will be remembered as the Arab leader who was better able to safeguard his interests in regional and international alliances. After the Iranian revolution, he sealed a strong alliance with Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran through his Shiite proxies in Lebanon. While enjoying the support of the Soviet Union, Al-Assad had good relations with the United States and the Kingdoms in the Gulf, including Saudi Arabia. He even launched peace talks with Israel. As a member of a minority (the Alawites represent around 11% of the population), he cleverly avoided embracing a sectarian stance in Syria.

On the contrary, he secularized society and entrusted Alawites with powerful assignments while keeping a balance with other minorities and with the Sunni majority. In this regard, Hafez supported the construction of many Quranic schools and secured the support of Sunni men of religion by appointing them to relevant positions. He adopted the same approach with Sunni and Christian entrepreneurs and traders in Damascus and Aleppo. Meanwhile, he played shifting regional and international alliances to safeguard his regime’s sovereignty. Since the 2011 uprising – and unlike his father – Bashar Al-Assad has instead granted Iran a wide maneuvering space over the Syrian territory.

Stopping the wind of change

When Bashar took over after his father’s death in 2000, the Syrian people sensed a wind of change and reform. Bashar, who as late as 1994 lived in London specializing in ophthalmology, was perceived as the man of change and, at the beginning, enjoyed vast popular support. The Syrian regime, however, did not evolve.

Two hard blows undermined its perceived indissoluble status: the “Cedars revolution” in 2005, which led to the withdrawal of the Syrian troops that had been occupying Lebanon for 30 years, and the “Arab Spring in 2011. In this shifting framework, Bashar was unable to maintain the status quo – as his father had managed to do under different circumstances.

He did prove, however, to be able to keep his regime alive by playing two main cards: the lack of an alternative political figure amidst a fear that extremists could rise to power (a discourse often mentioned by Bashar to reinforce the western support to his regime), and the external support  from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah.