The Regime Responds

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Marcela Gaviria

NARRATOR: In Syria, there is no Arab Spring. Here, there have been no concessions. As many as 20,000 people have been killed in the fight to depose President Bashar al Assad, with no end in sight.

The story of what’s happened in Syria began here 18 months ago, as change swept across the Arab world. In a small farming town south of Damascus, a group of young school boys sprayed messages on these walls.

[Graffiti, subtitles: "Freedom, freedom and freedom, only" "Down with the corrupt Assad"]

AUSAMA MONAJED, Syrian Opposition: They were copying what they’ve been listening to in Al Jazeera and other TV channels covering the Egyptian uprising and the Tunisian uprising.

NARRATOR: The boys were rounded up by the government’s secret police, the Mukhabarat. Their fathers went to see the police chief, a cousin of Bashar al Assad, and begged him to release their children.

AUSAMA MONAJED: He refused. And he said, “Forget that you have these kids. Go and make other ones.”

MURHAF JOUEJATI, Middle East Scholar: And if they were not men enough to make children, then, “Bring us your wives, and we will make children for you.”

NARRATOR: Images of one boy circulated on YouTube.

AMR AL AZM, Syrian Analyst: Several of the children had their fingernails pulled out. They were beaten. And there are even reports of rape being committed against these children. And in a close-knit tribal society like that, there was only one thing they could do.

ANTHONY SHADID (1968-2012), Journalist: That very instance of repression, of torture, seemed to galvanize the town itself. Here were the children of the town being mistreated by a government that was distant, that had neglected Daraa. And almost from that moment, the uprising seemed to gain momentum.

NARRATOR: At first, in rural towns like Homs, Latakia and Hama, workers and farmers were timid in their demands.

AMR AL AZM: People were asking for dignity. They were asking for housing, subsidized heating fuel. “We want jobs. We want cheap bread.”

ANTHONY SHADID: The government was taken by surprise. Just weeks before, President Bashar al Assad had predicted that Syria was somehow immune to what’s been called the “Arab spring.” Obviously, that was not the case. And when the uprising did erupt, there was a wave of repression, a wave of crackdowns.

MURHAF JOUEJATI: It is only when the authorities turned brutal on them, deadly, that they began to chant that they want a change of regime.

PROTESTERS: [subtitles] Time to leave, Bashar!

NARRATOR: Outside Damascus, the calls for President Assad’s resignation spread.

AFRA JALABI, Syrian Activist: People in Daraa started calling out for Homs. Homs started calling out for Idlib. And so the more there were killings, the more solidarity that was created among the Syrians. The regime was trying to—to crush the protest movement, but in fact, what they were doing is that they were spreading it even more.

PROTESTERS: [subtitles] To hell with you, Bashar, and anyone who supports you! I’m tired of looking at you. You’d better get out, Bashar!

NARRATOR: But Bashar al Assad was convinced he had wide enough support.

JOSHUA LANDIS, Syrian Analyst: There’s still a lot of Syrians who are very loyal to the regime and frightened of the countryside getting too much power and taking over and perhaps being too fundamentalist and other things for them.

NARRATOR: In Damascus and Aleppo, government workers and regime supporters were sent into the streets to rally for the President.

SUPPORTERS: [subtitles] We want Bashar! God, Syria and Bashar!

ANDREW TABLER, Author, In the Lion’s Den: There are many people that do very well by the Assad regime, minorities in Syria, Alawites, Ismaelis, Druze, members of the Sunni bourgeoisie in Damascus, in Aleppo. So they serve as the backbone of the regime.

NARRATOR: It had been a month since the uprising began when President Assad came before parliament. Syria’s business and political elites showed that they were behind him.

AMR AL AZM: He walked in, and it was all very jovial. There was a lot of clapping and cheering every time he spoke. At one point, one of the members of parliament stands up and says, “Sire, you are such a brilliant leader that you should not just be the leader of Syria, you should be the leader of the world.”

MURHAF JOUEJATI: The expectation—not only the popular expectation but the expectation of those circles of power—were that Bashar al Assad was going to stand there and introduce a package of reforms that, hopefully, would allay these grievances and would meet with the popular demands. Instead, he stands up there to accuse this entire uprising of being a foreign conspiracy.

[March 30, 2011]

Pres. BASHAR AL ASSAD: [subtitles] They [conspirators] falsified pictures, made up misleading information, and they forged everything.

AMR AL AZM: There was no sense of remorse. That’s what shocked people. There seemed to be a complete detachment, as if, “Everything’s going to be OK. My people love me. And look, my car is being mobbed as I leave the parliament.”

NARRATOR: The Assad family belong to a minority Shia Muslim sect, the Alawites, that for decades have controlled Syria’s military and security forces. They were not about to let their power slip away.

JOSHUA LANDIS: They have their backs against the wall. The Alawites, who are about two million people, feel that when they lose, and if they lose, they’re going to be cast out. It’ll be like the Sunnis in Iraq, who were cleaned out of every major government agency.

[ Who are Syria's Alawites?]

RANDA SLIM, Middle East Institute: Over time, Bashar al Assad was successful in convincing the majority of the Alawites that his political survival is synonymous with their physical survival. And they have started seeing this fight in existential terms.

ROBERT MALLEY, International Crisis Group: It’s very understandable why Alawites would believe today that if they were to lose, they would lose more than the privileges that the regime has had, they would lose everything.

[ More of this interview]

NARRATOR: The Alawites’ improbable rise to power in Syria was set in motion by Bashar’s father, Hafez al Assad. His path to power was through the military, which was dominated by Alawites. A rising star in Syria’s socialist Ba’ath Party, at age 40 he engineered a coup to seize the presidency.

ANTHONY SHADID: Hafez al Assad rose to power from the bottom up. He had to fight the battles that came with the coup d’etats, that came with trying to corral the different forces of the country into his camp.

AMR AL AZM: He knew he had to gain support of the other minorities, the Druze, the Christians, the Shi’ites. So he said, “I’m a minority entity. You want to be with me because my interests are your interests.”

NARRATOR: Hafez al Assad secured his power by putting trusted family members in high government posts.

JOSHUA LANDIS, Editor, Syria Comment: The brother is in charge of security, the cousins of the banking system, in-laws in security, as well, military. So the reality is, this is a family business.

NARRATOR: Like Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Assad’s Ba’ath Party repressed any ethnic or religious challenges.

DAVID LESCH, Assad Biographer: The Ba’ath Party promised to get rid of sectarianism. He demanded—and for the most part, the Syrian population was receptive to this Faustian bargain—that the Syrian people would accept less freedom and liberty in return for stability.

NARRATOR: He took in millions in Soviet military aid and formed an alliance with Iran, which still endures.

DAVID LESCH: The relationship with Iran is very unusual. You know, Syria is a secular state ruled by a secular Arab nationalist party, the Ba’ath Party. Iran is an Islamic Republic. So they don’t seem to be a marriage made in heaven, but it’s a symbiotic relationship that’s based on strategic necessity.

ROBERT MALLEY, International Crisis Group: It’s not a particularly natural alliance, if you will. But for reasons of common enmity towards Iraq, towards Israel and other regions, they did form this alliance that has been the strongest, the most enduring in the region.

NARRATOR: But back in the early 1980s, while Assad was building an alliance with the new Shi’ite theocracy in Iran, he was facing resistance from fundamentalist Sunnis at home.

DAVID LESCH: There was a very aggressive Islamic fundamentalist opposition to the Syrian regime. And there were attacks against the regime. It was essentially almost a civil war.

NARRATOR: The Assad regime’s response was to attack the stronghold of Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood, the town of Hama.

ANDREW TABLER, Author, In the Lion’s Den: In 1982, the Syrian regime launched one of the worst massacres in the history of the Middle East. The regime used artillery to level large parts of the town. Between 10,000 and 30,000 people were killed or were disappeared.

JOSHUA LANDIS: That was a very stark moment in which the Alawite-dominated regime, the Ba’ath Party, made it clear to Syria that it would not brook any opposition.

DAVID LESCH: It was a ruthless, obviously, a Machiavellian way to deal with a problem. But it did deal with the problem from the perspective of the Syrian regime because until recently, you really haven’t had any serious Islamist opposition to Hafez al Assad, or his son when he came to power in 2000.

NARRATOR: Bashar was never supposed to be heir apparent. But his older brother, Basil, was killed in a car accident in 1994, and Bashar was ordered to come home from his medical studies in London to be prepped for the day he would take office.

AMR AL AZM, Syrian Analyst: We all knew he was going to take over. We all knew that Hafez al Assad was on his last legs, if you want. You know, he was close to death. It was very clear that he was very ill. And the question was always, how well groomed has Bashar been?

NARRATOR: He was inaugurated in July 2000. The young doctor, with his fashionable British-born Syrian wife, a former banker at JP Morgan, promised reform.

ANDREW TABLER: People were giddy with the idea of reform early on in Bashar’s reign. He opened up the country to the Internet. He lifted exit permits, which were required for Syrians to travel, and he allowed more trade in the country.

JOSHUA LANDIS, Editor, Syria Comment: He said, “We can open up. We’re going to have some private newspapers, private press, Internet.” And he believed that he could win the hearts and minds of the people through modernization and let a lot more light in.

MURHAF JOUEJATI, Syrian National Council: He had allowed what became to be known as the “Damascus spring.” He promised reforms, and he promised political reforms. And so people began to talk about ideas. How is Syria going to meet the future? Which path is it going to take? And so there was an era in which there was an open debate, and a healthy one.

JOSHUA LANDIS: He was genuinely popular amongst the young people, who hadn’t lived through his father and who saw him as a potential reformer. And he kept on telling them that life is going to get better. And they could see fairly dramatic changes, at least for the wealthy.

NARRATOR: It didn’t last. Hundreds of activists and intellectuals were arrested.

MURHAF JOUEJATI: The political establishment, the Ba’ath Party, decided that if this free political debate was going to continue, they were going to lose their heads. And so it was the return of authoritarianism.

NARRATOR: The Damascus spring was over.

Six years later, another spring. When news of the successful revolts in Tunisia and Egypt spread, the long-oppressed Sunni majority believed their time had finally come. In largely peaceful demonstrations across the country, Syrians defied their president, in spite of increasingly brutal attacks by the police.

The center of resistance was the town of Hama, where Bashar’s father had famously crushed a Sunni rebellion almost 30 years earlier.

AMR AL AZM: The regime has a playbook. If you’re faced with a crisis, go back to the playbook and see what we did the last time we got through a crisis. So the last time they got through a similar crisis was Hama. So you have a protest. You have an uprising. You suppress it. The playbook does not say negotiate with the protesters, so there’s no negotiation.

ANTHONY SHADID (1968-2012), The New York Times: One very high-ranking Turkish official told me that what’s going on inside the leadership is that Bashar’s mother herself is telling him that these are the same events, that they remind her of what happened in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, and her advice to him is that he has to act like his father. He has to be strong, he has to be decisive, and he has to crush this element of rebellion against him.

NARRATOR: Bashar sent in tanks, armored vehicles and snipers.

DAVID LESCH, Assad Biographer: This is how the Assads, both father and son, deal with domestic threats. They retreat into their Alawite fortress, and there’s this convulsive reaction to put down any sort of domestic threats, and to put them down ruthlessly.

NARRATOR: But even then, some in the leadership questioned whether Bashar was tough enough.

AMR AL AZM: In some quarters, there was talk of the fact that, “Your father was much harsher. He would have used more force. He would have rooted all this out right from day one. You were too lenient on them.”

RANDA SLIM, Syrian Analyst: There were calls at the time inside the Alawite community of saying, “We don’t want Bashar, we want Maher,” who is Bashar’s brother. He’s the leader of the Republican Guard, of the 4th Division, which is the most ruthless. And I think that’s the time then when the decision has been made by Bashar and by the people around him that they need to up their game in terms of meeting the rebel movement.

[ Mapping the violence]

NARRATOR: This February, to show his resolve, Bashar al Assad moved on the country’s third largest city, Homs.

MURHAF JOUEJATI: Homs has been an epicenter of opposition to Assad. And so he wanted to send a lesson to the rest of Syria that he can turn their cities into rubble if they oppose him.

NARRATOR: Homs endured 30 straight days of shelling. Most of the artillery was trained on the predominantly Sunni neighborhood of Baba Amr.

AMR AL AZM: You look at Baba Amr today, and it—it looks like a Stalingrad. You know, it’s just entire—you know, streets are just flattened.

RANDA SLIM: Until Baba Amr, there was a belief inside the opposition ranks that the non-violence movement that worked in Tunisia, that worked in Egypt, could still work in Syria. Baba Amr was the beginning of the shift. After that, people were starting to call for jihad, jihad.

AMR AL AZM: There’s been a shift, not just in terms what the opposition was willing and able to do, but also in terms of what the regime was willing to do now. And we see then a continuing escalation.

NARRATOR: In May, 109 people, including dozens of children, were brutally massacred in a Sunni village in Houla, the work of Alawite paramilitaries.

AMR AL AZM: This was the first massacre to come to light as it was happening, and a lot of people were saying, “Oh, well, this is the one that’s going to bring the international community to support us, you know, because now they’ve crossed the red line.” And unfortunately for Syria, even a massacre like Houla did not bring enough of a response beyond the usual round of condemnations and sanctions.

NARRATOR: But President Assad blamed the massacre on outsiders. He rejected U.N. efforts to intervene.

NEWSCASTER: Breaking news out of the capital. The defense minister has been killed in—

NEWSCASTER: A bomb ripped through the heart of President Assad’s inner circle.

NEWSCASTER: –explosion that may have changed Syria’s future.

NARRATOR: In July, a brazen bomb attack in the center of Damascus killed a group of Assad’s most trusted military advisers.

AMR AL AZM: That was a very severe blow for the regime. They lost some of their most experienced coordinators of the campaign being run against the opposition.

MURHAF JOUEJATI: That is the minister of defense. That is the national security adviser. And that is, first and foremost, his brother-in-law, the chief of military intelligence. And here the beast has lost his eyes. And here the regime went berserk.

NARRATOR: The battle for Syria became the battle for Aleppo. The Free Syrian Army had made a fateful decision to pull their forces from other areas to try to take control of the country’s biggest city and business center.

FIGHTER: [subtitles] God is great!

NARRATOR: President Assad responded.

MURHAF JOUEJATI: The regime now is bombarding civilian neighborhoods with artillery, with tank fire, and now with helicopter gunships and with fighter-bombers, using MiG-21 and MiG-23 interceptors to shoot at civilian neighborhoods, to shoot randomly at apartment buildings. And in the past few days in Aleppo, these MiGs have shot at people who were waiting in a bread line. This is how desperate I think the regime has gotten.

NARRATOR: For now, the battle for Aleppo seems at a stalemate. But other players are attempting to tilt the balance. Syria’s longtime ally, Iran, is providing weapons and training to the Alawite paramilitary forces.

[ Syria's civilian death toll]

AUSAMA MONAJED, Syrian Opposition: The Iranians are gaining influence in Syria now by the day—I mean, watching this happening, like what they did in Iraq in a very sophisticated, very smart way. They used to provide strategic advice to the Assad regime. Nowadays, they are even leading operations.

NARRATOR: Opposing Iran is Saudi Arabia, which is backing the Sunni rebels.

RANDA SLIM: The rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Tehran has started long before the Syrian uprising. And now with the Syrian uprising, the Saudi government saw this as an opportunity to deal a mortal blow to Iran, and they have carved that niche in this conflict by sending weapons and money to the rebels. But as long as they have the Iranian support, I think this regime can continue to fight for some time.

JOSHUA LANDIS: The potential for it to turn into a very dark and tough sectarian fight, the way it did in Lebanon and Iraq, is very high. And the regime has made it very clear that, “We’re not going anywhere and we’re going to fight to the end. And if you want to take us on, you have to be prepared to sacrifice everything, and you may not win.” It’s hard to see where this ends.

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