They represent a ruling family that has formed the longest, most stable political legacy in the Arab world. But despite being part of the same lineage, the two Assads have starkly different styles in leadership and policy.
For Hafez Assad, he used the umbrella of pan-Arab nationalism to end the fractious ethnic fighting within Syria and ushered in an era of diplomacy, secularism and unification.
“Hafez al-Assad was really truly one of the last of a generation of pan-Arab nationalist leaders. He defined the contemporary history of Syria,” Edward Djerejian, former U.S. ambassador to Syria, told the NewsHour in 2000 after Assad’s death.
“I think one of his achievements was to really build a regional political role for Syria, to have Syria considered and acted upon as a major player not only in the Arab-Israeli conflict in terms of issues of war and peace, but in terms of the Middle East peace process … he did much to amplify Syria’s regional role, and also brought stability within Syria for the 30 years he was in power.”
In his five years at the helm of the Syrian state, Bashar Assad was known first as a reformer, allowing some political and democratic changes, but in recent years has been more marked by contradictions and derided for a lack of direction.
Legacy of unification
Out of the chaos of civil unrest and cycles of bloody coups that characterized years of postcolonial Syrian politics, emerged Hafez Assad.
He rose through the ranks of radical Baathists, a socialist party that aimed to build a pan-Syrian state that stretched from Lebanon through Iraq and south to Egypt. But as these radicals took power, divisions between the extremist civilian leaders and more moderate military chiefs grew starker. As the country’s defense minister from 1966 to 1971, Assad had refused to aid Syria’s militarists in their military campaign to aid Palestinians fighting to topple the king in Jordan. Because of his unwillingness to deploy more forces, Syrian tanks were soundly defeated. But it was the civilian leadership that took most of the blame and it was this debacle that led to the coup that brought Assad Sr. to power.
The military coup that resulted from the defeat saw Assad overthrow the former president and take helm of the government to overwhelming political support. In 1971, he was elected president and immediately began a period of political mobilization and unification under the auspices of secular Islam and Syria’s National Progressive Front party.
In 1973 under Assad’s leadership, Syria established a constitution incorporating Islamic jurisprudence as a main source of legislation. Syrian Islamists, unhappy with the new constitution’s exclusion of language declaring Islam the state’s official religion, staged a series of riots in the Sunni cities Hamah and Homs, according to Murhaf Jouejati, professor of Middle East Studies at George Washington University.
To appease his constituents, Assad compromised, instead instituting a policy that the country maintains today.
“In place of declaring Syria an Islamic state, Assad put in the provision that the president must be Muslim,” Jouejati said. “This maintained the secular state, but pacified the Islamic faction.”
Under Baath party doctrine, Assad carefully crafted a set of policies that, while maintaining the socialist and secular doctrine, reached out to ethnic minorities and regional alliances. This approach to governance was a radical departure from Syrian history and the history of many of the country’s Arab neighbors, for whom Islam was the state religion and tribal agendas dominated national politics.
But Assad also consolidated power through a targeted but ruthless campaign of intimidation, political oppression and the use of an emboldened secret police.
It was this combination of reaching out and crushing political opponents that allowed Assad to weather the kind of storm that had toppled so many of the previous Syrian governments — a failed war against Israel. The 1973 Yom Kippur War was a surprise attack by Egypt and Syria and a mammoth failure for both nations. For Assad, it was his most difficult test and his political acumen and ability to suppress opponents that allowed his still-new government to survive.
Although he began his rule as a staunch foe of Israel, Assad’s evolution into a pan-Arab pragmatist toward the bordering nation came to be a hallmark of his stabilizing reign. A longtime opponent of Israel and the United States, Assad showed an ability to seize the moment and change course when needed.
In 1991, he sided with the U.S.-led coalition to oust Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait and in 2000 he nearly negotiated an Israeli withdrawal from the contested Golan Heights.
“He was our most formidable adversary since the death of Abu Nasser, the man who symbolized the Arab opposition to peace with Israelis and then accepted the notion of peace — and went 95 percent of the way, did not complete the remaining 5 percent,” Itamar Rabinovich, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, said following his death.
Transference of power
Assad Sr.’s health had begun deteriorating in the 1980s and by the mid-1990s he was battling heart problems, lymphoma and kidney failure. He focused on clearing the bureaucratic and political obstacles to his sons, first for his elder son Basil and later, after Basil died in a car wreck in 1994, for Bashar.
According the June 12, 2000 edition of Cairo’s Al-Wafd newspaper, it was an open secret that Assad devoted the last years of his life to removing potential political challengers to the presidency for his Western-educated ophthalmologist son, Bashar. Assad demoted his brother Rifat Assad and the Syrian army’s chief of staff Hikmat Shihabi, among others, out of political contention.
Following the death of his brother, Bashar was recalled from London where he was practicing medicine and enrolled in the Syrian military academy. He quickly ascended to colonel by 1999 as his father worked to prepare the younger Assad to lead. Despite the fact that few in Syria knew Bashar, when Hafez Assad died in 2000, the general public tended to view the new leader optimistically.
“This image of a reformer, of a man of the world familiar with Western ways and views, made it easier for many, inside and outside Syria, to accept Bashar as his father’s heir. Bashar continued to bask in optimistic Western expectations even after he took office. The smooth transition of power upon his father’s death contributed to his aura,” author Eyal Zisser wrote of Syria’s political scene in 2000 in The Middle East Quarterly.
However, some political thinkers in the Arab world met the news of Bashar’s ascension with derision. Citing his lack of exposure, experience and stature among Syrian power brokers, regional figures expressed skepticism over his ability to continue his father’s legacy, according to the BBC.
Experts in the West saw a difficult road ahead for the younger Assad when he rose to power.
“He is going to face a daunting challenge, because he has a variety of regional as well as domestic challenges,” Hisham Melham, the American-based correspondent for the Lebanese newspaper Al-Safir, said at the time. “The economy is in dire straits, he has to reform that, he has to open Syria to foreign investment, he has to provide for greater openness to a younger yearning Syrian generation.”
Bashar Assad’s era of uncertainty
By all accounts, Bashar Assad began his presidency with intentions of democratizing the country with transformative political reforms.
“I hope you will allow me to emphasize to you a fact I feel that the man you have known and loved some of his merits and exchanged trust and love with him will not change at all once he assumes his post. He came out of the people and lived with them and shall remain one of them,” Assad said as he assumed the presidency. “The man who has become a president is the same man who was a doctor and an officer and first and foremost is a citizen.”
Following his father’s death in the summer of 2000, Bashar encouraged Syria’s intellectual leaders to congregate in forums in cities throughout the country to plan democratic reforms. Even independent newspapers sprung up to challenge the state media machines, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.
Dubbed the Damascus Spring, this movement was abandoned after 18 months, when Bashar reversed his support, ordering the forums disbanded and some critics imprisoned. Regional experts attribute the change in policy not to Bashar himself, but to the old guard of Syria’s government, fearful of the instability quick reforms could bring, according to The Middle East Review.
But even as he abandoned many of the political and societal reforms and maintained a police state, the new president continued to push for much-needed reforms to the struggling Syrian economy. In April of 2001, Bashar succeeded in convincing Baath party leaders to support legislation creating private banking in Syria. The move was a major step for a nation entering its third decade of tight socialist-government control the nation’s economy.
But even these moves have faltered as Bashar’s presidency has evolved. Since 2001, Assad has publicly contradicted himself on the idea, telling Syrian newspaper Tishrin that the banks pose a threat to the country’s economy.
But beyond the borders of Syria, the younger Assad has faced regional and international challenges over Syria’s role in Lebanon and other matters.
In December of 2000, Syria denied importing Iraqi oil through a pipeline, a serious violation of U.N. sanctions, instead saying the pipeline was being tested, CNN reports. The United States and other Western nations blasted Syria for the moves, although the United Nations could not confirm the transfers and no action was taken against the Damascus government.
Hopes that Bashar Assad may be able to achieve the final steps necessary for a peace deal with Israel also evaporated as the Palestinian intifada continued and Syria renewed its support of Hezbollah and allowed other terrorist organizations to operate out of their territory.
Summarizing the first three years of Bashar Assad’s reign as the equivalent to an absence of power, author Eyal Zisser, writing in the winter 2003 edition of The Middle East Quarterly, concluded the regional and political future of Syria rides on the shoulders of the former doctor.
“The selection of a young and inexperienced leader who lacks public trust may be inconsequential in a country that benefits from political stability and long-standing democratic traditions. But Syria is a country suffering from severe social and economic problems that require immediate and unequivocal solutions. More important, Syria plays a crucial regional role and may even decide the fate of the region — for better or worse, for peace or war. The vacuum created at the top of the ruling pyramid in Damascus presents problems, not just for Syria but for the region as a whole.”
Although less brutal and severe as the rule of his father, the younger Assad’s efforts have been plagued by regional instability, internal conflict with the old guard and a struggle to maintain the Assad dominance of Syria.