Sacrificing His Core Supporters in a Race Against Defeat
Ever since the Baath Party came to power in Syria in 1963, it has faced a challenge from the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic militants. These Islamists were -- and still are -- bitterly opposed to the Baath Party's secular policies and to the prominence in its leadership of Syria's minorities, notably Alawis, whom extremist Sunnis consider heretics.
The smoldering resentment burst into open conflict during the 30-year rule (1970-2000) of Hafez al-Assad, and again during the rule of his son, Bashar, who took over the presidency after his father's death. In February 1982, Hafez al-Assad put down a rebellion in the city of Hama by his Islamist opponents. Three decades later, in February 2012, Bashar al-Assad faced down a rebellion in Homs, a sister city of Hama in the central Syrian plain. Both responded with great brutality to these regime-threatening uprisings, as if aware that they and their community would face no mercy if the Islamists were ever to come to power.
These two epoch-making events were remarkably similar. Both Hafez and Bashar had been slow to recognize and address the groundswell of complaint against rising poverty, corruption, and government neglect that would fuel the uprisings. Preoccupied with foreign affairs, they failed to pay sufficient attention to the domestic scene, often turning a blind eye to the abuses and profiteering of their close associates, including members of their own family. More fundamentally, both Hafez and Bashar believed in those moments of crisis that they were wrestling not only with internal dissent but with a large-scale American and Israeli conspiracy to unseat them, backed by some of their Arab enemies.
In Hafez al-Assad's mind, his physical battle with Islamist guerrillas was an extension of his long, unsuccessful struggle with Israel and the United States over the nature of the political settlement after the October War of 1973 -- a war that Hafez al-Assad and Egypt's leader Anwar al-Sadat waged together against Israel with the aim of regaining territory captured by Israel in the 1967 war. Once the war was over, Hafez al-Assad had bitterly opposed Henry Kissinger's 1975 Sinai disengagement agreement, which removed Egypt from the confrontation with Israel. Similarly, he interpreted the U.S.-sponsored Camp David Accords of 1978, and the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of the following year, as a conspiracy to leave the Arab world defenseless in the face of Israeli power. This was only the latest, as he saw it, in a long string of Western plots to divide and enfeeble the Arabs, dating back to World War I.
In much the same way, Bashar al-Assad's immediate reaction to the uprising of this past year was to view it as the domestic wing of a foreign conspiracy by the United States, Israel, and some Arab states to bring down his regime and Iran's as well -- and with them the whole Tehran-Damascus-Hezbollah axis, which, he believed, was the only real obstacle to American and Israeli hegemony.
The foreign conspiracies with which Hafez and Bashar have had to deal were, without doubt, very real. America's unflagging support for Israel -- including an airlift of weapons during the October War -- put the Arab armies at a grave disadvantage, while Kissinger's diplomacy removed the most powerful Arab state from the Arab lineup, allowing Israel the freedom to invade Lebanon in 1982 and remain there for 18 years. But focusing on foreign conspiracies blinded both Hafez and Bashar to the legitimate grievances of their angry populations, and caused them to overreact, using excessive force when putting down their domestic opponents.
Hafez and Bashar both accused their foreign enemies of supplying the insurgents with sophisticated American-made communications equipment, as well as with weapons and cash. In 1982, the regime confiscated some 15,000 machine guns. Last month, when the regime regained control of the Baba Amr quarter of Homs, it also claimed to have captured a rich haul of foreign-supplied weapons and equipment.
There were differences, however, in the trajectories leading up to the deadly uprisings. In Bashar's case, the revolution began as peaceful urban protests. In his father's case, it began with a campaign of assassinations of important men close to him, and other acts of extreme violence. One of the most dramatic of these was the gunning down of 83 Alawi officer cadets at the Aleppo Artillery School in June of 1979. From their safe haven deep in the ancient warrens of Aleppo and Hama, where cars could not enter, the guerrillas emerged repeatedly to bomb and kill.
Between 1979 and 1981, terrorists killed more than 300 people in Aleppo, mainly Baathists and Alawis. In response, the security forces killed some 2,000 Muslim opponents over the same period, and thousands more were rounded up and thrown into jail, where they were often beaten and tortured.
Having failed to bring down the government by assassinations, the Islamist insurgents then attempted the bolder strategy of organizing large-scale urban uprisings in cities across the country. The uprisings culminated in the Islamists' seizure of Hama in early February 1982, when hundreds of fighters rose from their hiding places and slaughtered some 70 leading Baathists overnight. The triumphant guerrillas declared the city liberated.
With Bashar al-Assad it was the other way around: the uprising against his rule started a year ago, with large urban demonstrations. It was only when the regime responded with live fire that the opposition took up arms and started carrying out hit-and-run attacks, ambushes, and assassinations against soldiers, policemen, and government targets. The showdown culminated in the rebel Free Syrian Army's seizure of the Baba Amr quarter of Homs. They were aided by jihadists smuggled in from Iraq, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia.
In 1982, it took three grim weeks for the regime to regain control of Hama and hunt down the insurgents. Some 10,000 people were killed. In 2012, the battle for Homs lasted nearly a month. As at Hama 30 years ago, there was heavy collateral damage and great suffering by the local population, which was deprived of food, water, and fuel during a harsh winter. Having routed the rebels at Homs, Bashar has now sent his army to bombard and overrun other rebel strongpoints, notably at Idlib, in the north of the country.
So far, in the rebellion against Bashar, the Muslim Brotherhood seems to have been the main recipient of weapons and financing from Libya, Qatar, and elsewhere. Although they do not seem to be one cohesive group, but, rather, four or five different currents with different external backers, these Islamist guerrillas operate under the umbrella of the opposition Syrian National Council based in Turkey. They certainly seem to have been involved, together with army defectors and freelance fighters, in the battle for Baba Amr. Most observers agree that the Muslim Brotherhood is the best-organized and the best-funded of all the opposition factions. Still more extreme than the Muslim Brotherhood, al Qaeda jihadists, smuggled in from neighboring countries, also appear to have entered the battle in recent months, and to have been responsible for a number of suicide bombings of government targets. Ayman al-Zawahiri, who took over the leadership of al Qaeda after Osama bin Laden's death, has called for a global jihad against the Syrian regime.
The long campaign of terror against Hafez al-Assad from 1976 to 1982 was political insanity. By defeating it, Hafez won himself nearly two more decades of rule. Similarly, the arming of the opposition against Bashar al-Assad seems not to have advanced the opposition's cause but to have given the regime the justification for crushing it.
The regime's victory at Homs has opened a new phase in the crisis, in which negotiations, presided over by Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary-general, might now be given a chance. Annan has been mandated by both the Arab League and the United Nations to bring about a ceasefire and create the conditions for a dialogue between the regime and its opponents. He has condemned the arming of the opposition and declared that his immediate goal is to stop the killing.
Although the regime's onslaught continues and armed rebels refuse to put down their guns, there is yet a slim chance that Annan may succeed. In both camps there are men who now realize that there can be no military solution to the crisis -- either in Syria or in Iran. Indeed, Annan's Syrian venture is mirrored by the efforts of the EU foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, to open a dialogue with Iran. The peacemakers should be given a chance. But there are still plenty of hawks about -- in the United States, in Israel, and in some European and Arab capitals -- who dream of regime change in Tehran and Damascus, and will be content with nothing less.
Both Hafiz and Bashar used brute force to crush their opponents. Hafiz -- widely feared and admired -- triumphed over his enemies and ruled for 30 years, until his death from natural causes. Bashar, more fallible, enigmatic, and perplexing than his father, is clearly not cast in the traditional mold of an Arab leader. He has managed to survive the yearlong uprising, but it seems unlikely that he will equal his father's record.