May 31, 2012

The Syrian Rebellion

How a people conquered fear to challenge a despot of unspeakable cruelty.

Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt of the new Hoover Press book The Syrian Rebellion by Fouad Ajami.

Yalla Erhal Ya Bashar” (“Come on Bashar, Leave”), the crowds had taken to chanting. More poignantly, in Hama, the young people carried placards that read, “Like Father, Like Son.” Back when he had come into power, Bashar al-Assad had made a good first impression, if only because he was different from his intimidating, stern father Hafez al-Assad. His father had been a peasant boy, born in the Alawi mountains and married into his own community; he had come into the coastal city of Latakia, and he had plotted his way to the summit of political power. So many of Hafez al-Assad’s peers and rivals had fallen to assassins’ bullets or perished in Syria’s cruel prisons, dispatched there by Assad himself.

In contrast, Bashar had been the entitled prince, schooled in the best academies in Damascus and with a stint of time in London behind him. He had known no hardship. In the manner of a society eager for deliverance, it was hoped that he would open up the big prison that Syria had become under his father.

Outsiders prophesied good tidings for Bashar. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who had gone to the Old Man’s funeral in 2000 and met the son, came back with a favorable report: he was a “reformer,” she said, bent on modernizing his country. French President Jacques Chirac took it upon himself to induct the young ruler into the respectable order of nations. Bashar married well, which was his first olive branch to his country. His wife was a Sunni, the London-born daughter of a cardiologist, Fawwaz al-Akhras, who lived in self-imposed exile in London and spoke discreetly of the sins of the old regime. The bride had worked for J. P. Morgan in London and was on her way to pursue a Harvard MBA when she met and then married Bashar. There was talk of a “Damascus Spring” at the beginning of his reign.

Small gestures mattered. Bashar made his way to restaurants now and then without heavy security. He was head of the Syria Computer Society and promised openness in a country where the ownership of fax machines was restricted. Western cigarettes, banned by his father, were now available. There was a boom in tourism and a respectable flow of investments from the Gulf states. Art galleries and five-star hotels changed the drab atmosphere.

There was talk of a "Damascus Spring" at the beginning of Bashar's reign.

He released from captivity several hundred political prisoners, and his people could be forgiven the classic hope that if only the “good tsar” knew, if only his palace guard would let him rule according to his wishes, the realm would be repaired and the oppression lifted. But the realm was what it was, the political universe had been closed up. Power had made a seamless transition—from the Baath Party to the Alawis, and then to the House of Assad—from the sect to the family. The young man who was said to thrill to the music of Phil Collins was cut of the old cloth. He, too, like his father, could brook no dissent.

Syrians had puzzled over their ruler’s place in the constellation of power: Was he, like his father before him, master of the realm, or a puppet, his strings pulled by mightier powers? To rule Syria effectively, the man at the helm had to have mastery over the four pillars of political power—the Alawite community, the army, the security services, the Baath Party. A renowned journalist and activist, Michel Kilo would maintain as late as 2009 that Bashar dominated foreign policy while the security services reigned over domestic affairs.

 the syrian rebellion by fouad ajami  
 Photo credit: Hoover Press

The answer as to the proclivities of the young ruler was not long in coming. The regime quickly snuffed out the Damascus Spring. There was a thirst for liberty. Syrians long silenced yearned for political argument and debate, it had been so prominent a feature of their political life before the Assad years. A noted intellectual and academic living and teaching in Paris, Burhan Ghalioun recalls the enthusiasm of that moment: civic forums sprouted everywhere, there were fifty new “salons” in the space of a few months, and even villages wanted forums of their own and were willing to run afoul of the security forces. Ghalioun attributes this enthusiasm to the “exceptional thirst of the Syrian middle class for freedom.”

One such civic group, the Forum for National Dialogue, headed by Riad Seif, a dissident of high standing and genuine courage, invited Ghalioun to give a public lecture. Seven hundred people showed up, and Baath Party functionaries grew alarmed at the public ferment. People had taken the young president’s claims to openness at face value and had begun to test them. It did not really matter whether the ruler himself had recognized the threats to the autocracy, or whether that perennial “old guard” had drawn a line against these new temptations.

The people had taken the young president’s claims to openness at face value.

The forums were shut down, and dissidents hauled off to prison were given sentences between two and ten years. “I called it a warm day in winter,” a renowned civil libertarian and lawyer, Haitham al-Maleh, said of this false spring. “I was not surprised. Bashar is the son of his father.” The hopes invested in the young ruler were in vain. If anything, Bashar’s rearing had formed an uncompromising autocrat, one perhaps more unyielding than his father.

Ghalioun put it well: “When Assad the elder died, I knew his son was going to be more dangerous than his father. His father was a political figure with political connections. He had struggled to reach his position, irrespective of his methods. But Bashar was born into a qawqaa (a shell), with no political experience. I knew he would not be able to respond to a complex society and that he would use violence more than his father. People would say he is more open, European-educated. But I viewed him as a young, inexperienced, out-of-touch crown prince, surrounded by bodyguards and an entourage.”

There came a time when the guesswork about the ruler subsided. This “crown prince” had been bequeathed his kingdom by autocracy—his father’s will, the accidental death of his older brother, Basel, who had been groomed to rule—and it stood to reason that he would defend what he had been given.

An irresistible force has clashed with an immovable object. The regime could not frighten the population, and the people could not dispatch the highly entrenched regime that Assad Sen-ior had built, the most fearsome national security state in the Arab East. In other words, the country was confronting the classic ingredients of a civil war, and a sectarian war within. The Syrians who braved it all did not want to be ruled by Bashar’s children in the way they had been ruled by Bashar and their parents by Bashar’s father. As though to foreclose the political universe, Bashar had a son and named him Hafez.

The age-old bargain in Arab lands, bread for freedom, had come apart in Syria, more than 30 percent of its people were living below the poverty line, and key sectors of the economy were in the hands of the House of Assad and their in-laws. A proud people wanted something more than this drab regime of dictatorship and plunder.

Hitherto quiescent people were done with the Assad tyranny, and they were ready to pay the ultimate price. The dictatorship alternated savage violence with promises of reform. The protests had begun in mid-March, and the regime was to make what it saw as its big concession—the lifting of the emergency law that had governed the country since 1963. But the tanks and the helicopter gunships were now loose on the population. Syrians were fleeing across the borders to Turkey and Jordan and Lebanon. Amid this violence, the ruler appeared dazed and uncertain. He could not recognize the rebellious people demanding an end to his tyranny.

For four long decades, the Assad dynasty, the intelligence barons, and the brigade commanders had grown accustomed to a culture of quiescence and silence. Ruler and ruled were now in uncharted territory. A boy of thirteen from the southern town of Deraa, by the Jordanian border, Hamza al-Khatib would emerge as the emblematic figure of this war between the regime and its people. The boy had been picked up along with a number of his peers. They had committed the unpardonable sin of scribbling anti-regime graffiti on their town walls. His body was returned to his family a month later. He had been subjected to horrific torture, his knees and neck broken, even his genitals severed.

Bashar, the accidental inheritor of a political realm, now had his own war.

In the mind of the dictatorship and its enforcers, this was meant to do the trick and scare people into their private homes. It had worked that way before, but the barrier of fear was broken. That grim deed had strengthened the resolve of those who wanted to be done with the cruel regime.

Another notable crime took place in Hama and it was to echo through the country: the body of a young cement layer named Ibrahim Qashoush was dragged from the Orontes River in July. The man’s throat had been cut and his vocal cords ripped out. Torturers and regime enforcers are never subtle. The man had sinned against the order of things by singing a popular protest lyric, “Yalla Erhal Ya Bashar” (“Come on Bashar, Leave”). The silence had been breached, and a lyric would cost a man his life. Clarity came with the repression.

The protesters were now saying that they hated the regime and its functionaries more than they did the Israelis they had long hated and maligned. Those with a memory of their country under French rule—and young protesters who were told of this history—now spoke of the respect shown by French forces for the sanctity of mosques. Mosques were then off-limits, a sanctuary for protesters on the run. Now mosques, and even their prayer leaders, were fair targets for the forces of the regime.

It’s no surprise the eruption came in Syria, chronologically, after the upheavals of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and Bahrain. The Syrians had taken their time. It was as though a people knew that they were in for a particularly grim and bloody struggle. Tunisia had led the caravan and then stepped out of the way, its upheaval overwhelmed by the protests in Cairo. The Tunisian strongman had made a run for it first, on January 14, 2011. The Egyptian ruler had followed, his reign of three decades coming to an end on February 11. Libya, flanked to the west by Tunisia and in the shadow of Egypt to the east, rose in rebellion on February 17. The date would become, on the calendar of the Libyan rebels, the birth of their new order.

Fittingly, Friday would become the big day of protest. The protesters would give each Friday a name and a theme—Your Silence Is Killing Us, the Friday for International Protection, the Friday of the Free Syrian Army, With Us Is God, and so forth. Forty-two Fridays were to come and go in 2011, and both the regime and the opposition were standing their ground. Bashar, the accidental inheritor of a political realm, now had his own war. He had stepped out of his father’s shadow only to merge with it.

If the protesters were discouraged, they didn’t show it. They vowed that 2012 would see the end of this dictatorship.


Fouad Ajami is the Herbert and Jane Dwight Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and the cochair of the Herbert and Jane Dwight Working Group on Islamism and the International Order. From 1980 to 2011 he was director of Middle East Studies at the Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of The Arab Predicament, The Vanished Imam: Musa al Sadr and the Shia of Lebanon, Beirut: City of Regrets, The Dream Palace of the Arabs, and The Foreigner's Gift: The Americans, the Arabs, and the Iraqis in Iraq. His most recent publication is The Syrian Rebellion (Hoover Institution Press, 2012). His writings also include some four hundred essays on Arab and Islamic politics, US foreign policy, and contemporary international history. Ajami has received numerous awards, including the Benjamin Franklin Award for public service (2011), the Eric Breindel Award for Excellence in Opinion Journalism (2011), the Bradley Prize (2006), the National Humanities Medal (2006), and the MacArthur Fellows Award (1982). His research has charted the road to 9/11, the Iraq war, and the US presence in the Arab-Islamic world.


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