News / Middle East

Assad Family Grip on Syria Hampers Reform

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, addresses the Parliament, in Damascus, Syria, March 30, 2011 (file photo).
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, addresses the Parliament, in Damascus, Syria, March 30, 2011 (file photo).

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Elizabeth Arrott

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's crackdown on anti-government protesters has been leavened with at least verbal concessions to reform. But given the history of the country, the government and his family, some political analysts believe those promises will never be fulfilled.

There was a telling moment a few weeks back, as the Syrian president appeared before parliament.  His army was using tanks and guns against his citizens, but inside the legislature, lawmakers heaped praise upon the president, some appearing overcome with emotion. Assad stood smiling broadly, basking in their accolades. The disconnect between government and the Syrian people is not what everyone hoped for when the Western-educated eye-doctor took power in 2000.  

But Hilal Khasan, political science professor at the American University in Beirut, says the president is steeped in his family's political tradition.

"You cannot undo the work of the formative years," said Khasan.  "Bashar was socialized by his father, and Bashar grew up in a household that considered Hafez al-Assad, the father, the owner of Syria."

For three decades, Hafez al-Assad ran Syria with an iron fist. He consolidated power in his fractured country by manning key government positions with members his family and others of his minority Alawite sect, a Shi'ite group in the majority Sunni country. He crushed his opponents, most notably an uprising in Hama in 1982, at the cost of thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of lives.

In what is referred to informally as a hereditary republic, Bashar al-Assad has continued the tradition, with his brother and brother-in-law among those holding top positions in the army and intelligence.

"It is impossible to separate between the Assad regime and the security forces," added Khasan.  "Actually, without the security forces, this regime would not be able to stay in power for a single day."

The Assads' ideology is secular, but the alliances have been with fellow Shi'ites, most notably Iran and the militant Lebanon-based Hezbollah. The backdrop they present is that the country is segmented, and faces threats from Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as its enemy Israel.

"People believed the stories that give the Assad regime legitimacy," said Nadhim Shehadeh, a Middle East and North Africa analyst at Chatham House.  "And basically a dictatorship needs to prove that it is indispensable, that it is irreplaceable and that beyond it there is chaos that is very unimaginable, so that people could cling to it for all these reasons.   And also, the creation of an atmosphere of fear also helps because it bonds all of these elements together."

The Israel narrative has been largely dormant since Syria lost the Golan Heights to its neighbor in 1967.  But in recent days, it proved handy again, with the government allowing Palestinian refugees to cross through to the Golan boundary.

The U.S. called it a cynical move to distract attention from domestic unrest.  Others argued it was also a reminder to Israel and its backers that the Assads, both father and son, left the Golan alone.

But how long can this system - forged in another era, when information was tightly controlled and the current uprisings sweeping the region seemed unimaginable - stay viable?   London-based analyst Shehadeh believes there is a limit.

"It is impossible to reconcile such a system with the reforms that are necessary," noted Shehadeh.  "And that's why such a regime can survive for a very long time as people buy the idea of the regime. But once this is exposed, or once the credibility or legitimacy is gone, it's very difficult to maintain such a facade."

American University in Beirut's Khashan argues that there is no question that the idea of legitimacy is shaken in Syria. He asks, how else could anyone explain the continued uprising against Assad, despite the heavy toll in human life.

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