Richmond World Affairs Council

Syria, Part 1: The Regime through 2011

The demonstrations and violence in Syria are an ongoing cause of concern for the international community. Throughout the past year, violence has escalated from peaceful protests inspired by the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions to a continued conflict costing thousands of lives. What caused this revolution? What have some of the pivotal events in the conflict been? Who leads the opposition? Where should the Syrian people hope to go from the current situation? This series of blog posts will explore the Syrian Revolution and aims to answer all these questions and more.

The al-Assad family has held power in Syria since Hafez al-Assad staged a coup and took control of an unstable nation in 1970. The period between Syrian liberation from French imperialism in 1946 and Hafez al-Assad’s takeover was characterized by a series of coup d’états and extreme instability. The elder al-Assad took over the government in 1970 and helped end the volatility with the creation of the Arab Ba’ath party, which has remained in power ever since. The government under the Hafez al-Assad was extremely dictatorial, though he used it to give the Syrian people a sense of stability and security that they had so long lacked. He drafted a new constitution which gave women equal status, widened the availability of public education, and built the Thawra Dam that still supplies Syriawith a huge percentage of its power.

Despite the development that took place under Hafez al-Assad’s regime, both the original Constitution and human rights suffered greatly. He dropped the Constitutional requirement for the president to be Muslim, and rioting broke out in response to this change, but the army put the riots down (BBC News). The legislature was entirely suspended under his rule in a 49-year-long state of emergency that continued until the protests began in 2011. In addition to manipulating the political system to suit his ambitions, he vastly expanded the role of the military with the help of the USSR and used them in the Hama Massacre, the slaughter of up to 40,000 civilians to put down a revolt by the Muslim Brotherhood (BBC News). A widespread propaganda campaign took place portraying the elder al-Assad as a heroic leader and public figure, and children sang songs praising him at schools. 

When Hafez al-Assad died in 2000, his son Bashar al-Assad took over the leadership position in the country. The Constitution was amended to bring the youngest legal age of a president from 40 down to 34, his age when he was elected. He ran entirely unopposed, and won with more than 97.3% of the popular vote (CIA World Factbook 2004). Though it appeared that immediately after his election he would allow for some amount of democratization with the so called “Damascus Spring,” after a year of increased political activity, al-Assad tightened restrictions again and quashed this liberalization (BBC News). In 2007, laws were passed that required internet cafes to record their users’ comments on blogs, and popular websites such as Facebook, YouTube, and Wikipedia were sporadically blocked. Dissenters from the regime were routinely tortured and killed, and those who were known activists were not allowed to leave the country.

These abuses were a continuation of the oppression that the Syrian people have known for decades under the Assad regime. The one-party system of the Assads, internet censorship, imprisonment and torture of all outspoken political opponents, and the continued refusal to reform built to a boiling point, culminating in March of 2011. The metaphorical spark was the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, igniting an unstoppable revolution. 

~ Rachel Smith
World Affairs Council Intern