The Syrians did not choose Hafez Al-Assad to be their president. Based on the facts, Al-Assad led a military coup on 16 November 1970 against his comrades in the Ba'ath Party. They had also came to power as a result of a coup on 8 March 1963 followed by bloody conflicts between the rebels, most prominently the February 23rd coup which allowed Hafez Al-Assad and his comrades to hold on to power. Before them, most of those who came to power were not known to the Syrians. They were just people brought in by tanks to rule the country and decide the fate of the state and society in Syria.
When the March 1963 coup took place, Hafez Al-Assad was just a retired army captain who was sent back to the military by his friends in the Baathist Party who staged the coup and promoted him to the rank of lieutenant colonel. He was appointed as commander of the Al-Dumayr air base near Damascus. He was then promoted to rank of general after the February 1966 coup and was appointed as commander of the air force. After that, he was appointed as defence minister in Yusuf Zuayyin's government. When the government resigned after the 1967 defeat, he refused to resign from the Ministry of Defence and fought a fierce fight with his colleagues, which led to his coup against them and their detention for over 20 years.
After his coup in 1970, Al-Assad appointed Ahmad Al-Khatib, who was head of the teachers' union at the time, as head of state, keeping the positions of prime minister, defence minister and commander of the air force for himself. He was paving the way for establishing a presidential system, which he would achieve by means of a referendum controlled by the intelligence agencies which he had a frim grip on. In doing so, he was elected as president in March 1971 and he continued to hold his pre-determined referendums, the last of which was held in 1999.
For 30 years, Al-Assad Sr did not see the Syrians as a people, but merely as a tool ensuring he remains in power. Whenever he felt a problem with this tool and its functions, he would suppress its political, civil and popular movement. His rule was an ongoing series of oppression, terrorism and dictatorship in which he committed several crimes, including murder, assassination, long detention of his opponents, including his comrades and massacres against the people in Damascus, Homs, Hama, Aleppo, Jisr Al-Shughur, Palmyra, etc. He did so to ensure he would remain in power in the individual-family-sectarian authority that he sought to enshrine for his sons, replacing himself with his second son Bashar.
Just as the Syrians did not choose Hafez Al-Assad as their president, they did not choose his heir Bashar. He was handed the reins of the government, including its officials and agencies, amid regional and international acceptance, after the constitution was amended in one sitting. The amendment to the constitution allowed Bashar to be appointed as head of the state based on the same pre-determined referendum that kept his father in power until his death.
Also, just as Al-Assad Sr began his rule with silencing the Syrians and appealing to them by "reforming the regime" and moving into a new phase, his son went along with the aspirations for cultural and social movements for the rise of Damascus, before he turned against them and arrested, imprisoned and persecuted them. He oppressed the newborn movement and blocked all possibilities for reforming the government in a gradual and safe manner. He chose his father's path, renewing his second presidential term via referendum and he brutally repressed the Syrians' revolution and their demands for freedom, democracy and a better future for them and their country. He opened the doors for extremism and terrorism by unleashing all types of forces. He then resorted to regional and international interventions to defeat them before renewing his presidency for a third term, amid a pool of blood, destruction and the displacement of millions of Syrians. He embodied the chant of his thugs, who repeated, "Al-Assad or we burn the country".
In the midst of that inferno, in which Al-Assad Jr drowned Syria and the Syrians, there is a surprising point, i.e. there are still some who support Al-Assad and his government to remain in power. This support is under various pretexts from regional and international parties. Some justify their support in the name of national sovereignty, patriotism, or hostility to Israel, while others claim there are no alternatives to him. However, all of these justifications were invalidated by Al-Assad's government by means of its actions over the past seven years.
Perhaps the strangest part in the defence of Al-Assad and the support for the survival of his government and his rule in Syria is that Syrians describe themselves as "his people". Syrian political officials, including supporters of the revolution and opponents of his regime, refer to themselves as his people in their speeches and articles, as well as in international human rights reports and news reports. In doing so, everyone forgets that in his first speech following the revolution in 2011, Al-Assad referred to them as germs. He then talked about the homogenous society he was aiming for in his war against the Syrians. All of this proves that the Syrians are not "his people", and that his people are only those who participated in his violence, destruction and displacement and those who support his remainder in power and remain silent in the face of his crimes.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Arabi21 on 23 April 2018
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.