It was back in 1971, fifty years ago, that Hafez Al-Assad took over a turbulent Syria and began to rule with an iron fist in a style that resembled that of Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania and North Korea’s Kim dynasty. Gradually, Al-Assad succeeded in transforming the Syrian Republic into a twisted monarchy so that the Assad reign, and name, may eternally live.
He became known by his nickname “Abu Bassel”, Bassel being the name of his eldest son and heir. Bassel Al-Assad was considered a prized Syrian star in the late eighties, one who had graduated from the army as an engineer, paratrooper and commander of armoured tanks. As for his horsemanship, he was crowned as a knight after Adnan Kassar, who had beaten him in a horse race and was consequently thrown in prison. Kassar was released 21 years later, thanks to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Before his tragic death, Bassel performed his pilgrimage to Hajj to fulfil his qualifications as an over-qualified and pious president-to-be of Syria. By then, his title was made up of eight words: the golden knight, engineer, pioneer, paratrooper and Major Bassel Hafez Al-Assad.
But these titles and medals expired on 21 January, 1994, the day he died.
Official accounts say that he was killed in a car accident due to early morning fog as he drove to the airport, without a seatbelt, heading to Germany (although the Germans never confirmed that they were expecting him). Until this day, no one is sure of the details of the accident, and those who questioned the official story were eternally silenced.
According to Robert Fisk, Al-Assad’s loss of his son marked the first instance in which Syrians witnessed the weakness of their president. Fisk writes: “In Syria, nothing important happens without the approval of the Lion of Damascus – save for the act of God which took his eldest son away. And it must have been President Hafez Al-Assad who decided to allow the country to watch his day of agony. Never before has Syrian television been permitted to show such intimate pictures of the man whose iron hand has governed the Syrian Arab Republic for almost a quarter of a century, a man whose energy and strength momentarily seeped away before the cameras as he stood before his son’s coffin.”
The “Lion” (English for Assad) fell into a long period of grieving. But despite the pain, the grief-stricken president had no choice but to prepare his amateur college-age boy, Bashar, and ready him to run one of the most complex countries on the geopolitical map of the Middle East.
At first, the regime questioned Bashar’s character and intellectual ability to run a country. It was even mentioned that Bushra, Assad’s first-born daughter, was fitter to be president than her brother. However, a patriarchal Alawite sect and political system were not able to handle the thought of a woman rising to power, and so the idea was buried before it saw light.
On 10 June, 2000, at noon, Hafez Al-Assad died. This was a historic day for Syrians. It was their moment in history to make history.
As happens to be the case for every Syrian, this pseudo-grand day also holds personal memories for me as a Syrian.
At the time, I was working for a research company in Damascus. As I arrived at work, I recall finding our regional director, George, from Egypt, frantically calling travel agencies, looking to purchase a plane ticket and escape the country.
Ayman, the project manager, was cursing the bad timing of Al-Assad’s death as he needed a few more days to complete his assigned project.
Two of my colleagues had sunken into a frenzy of hysterical crying.
Meanwhile, I was patiently awaiting the arrival of my Kurdish colleague, who was held up in a meeting, for he was the only one to whom I could trust to announce my state of ecstasy.
As he heard me chant the news, he took in two deep breaths and asked: “Are you sure?”
I replied: “Yes, I just heard this with my two ears announced by the Syrian News Agency.”
Elated, we cried tears of joy and hugged in celebratory ecstasy.
After a few wet moments, he looked at me and said: “This is a moment in history. A moment in history has come our way!”
Eleven years later, during the Arab Spring, these exact words were repeated by a Tunisian who was also awaiting his “moment in history”.
Neither of us could have imagined in our wildest dreams the historical moments that were to come, one after the other, eleven years later when the gates were opened for Arabs to return to history after having been imprisoned within a geography contoured by Arab tyrants.
My Kurdish friend and I bid each other farewell with another embrace. He decided to welcome the moment in history in his neighbourhood where Syrian Kurds lived. As for me, I scurried through the streets of Damascus in search of this moment in history.
With my eyes hovering in all directions, I was carefully and urgently looking to capture any stray signal or a fleeting hint of any plans for a celebration.
I took a cab from the West side of Damascus to its East, a city that was silently hushed in prayer, waiting for her children to begin their production of this moment in history. But there was no one to be found. Everyone was hiding behind their thick, drawn curtains. The streets were empty of humans. The only sign of life was that of Al-Assad’s brigades assembled on street corners; they were like wolves awaiting their prey, ready to pounce on anyone who dared to walk out into the streets or announce the end of the tyrant’s era.
The city’s silence was deafening. The only sound heard was that of whispers from behind the walls. Fear was running through the veins of Syrians as they apprehensively sat in anticipation of one courageous outcry.
Nighttime fell on Damascus, but the historical moment never arrived.
I recall how hundreds of different barricades were erected around the city where cabs were signalled to stop. After careful inspection of drivers and passengers, we were offered Arabic coffee and asked to read Al-Fatiha in mourning of the deceased.
I did not dare refuse the coffee. By the end of my taxi ride, I had consumed ten cups of coffee. After each cup, I put on a grief-stricken face and opened my palms pretending to recite Al-Fatiha while in secret I was rejoicing and singing: “A president of a country has died; a president from amongst the great has died. Hafez Al-Assad died, and may he rest in hell.” I then ended each “prayer” with a loud “Amen”.
Al-Assad’s cold body was transported to his native village of Qardaha. I reckon that he must have known better than to be buried in Damascus after all he had done to her. Deep within, he must have also known that a time would come when she would take revenge, even if it were after he had rotted in his grave.
You may wonder how a leader glorified by his people and revered by his followers is not buried in the greatest capital and oldest inhabited city in history. Well, Iraqi Sargon Boulus has a possible answer written in one of his poems: “Executioner! Go back to your little village. Today we have fired you and eliminated your position.”
On that cursed evening, my friends and I bought three litres of Al-Rayyan Araq liquor in preparation for the celebration of our moment in history.
But the celebration turned into bereavement as we found ourselves watching the news and witnessing what was happening in the Syrian People’s Assembly. The country’s laws were being amended and re-tailored to fit the measurements of the president’s son, and the minimum age requirement in the Constitution was lowered from 40 to 34 (Bashar’s age at the time).
We were dumbfounded at the mockery that was taking place in front of our eyes. We were waiting for someone to summon the historical moment, but no one dared take the lead. Regretfully, what we had not realised then, was that we were in a stronger position than a regime that was apprehensively biting its fingers in a state of panic and fear.
It was as if we were drugged, numb, unable to move as if Syria would surely and naturally be ours now that the tyrant had departed.
But today, twenty-one years later, as we think back to that moment in history, we burn in shame and regret. What we did not realise back then, was that it was up to us to take hold of the moment in history, but the truth must be told – we were cowards. We sat and helplessly watched as our motherland was humiliated before our eyes.
However, after the passing of eleven years, Syrians have also come to realise that the buried Al-Assad must have been aware that the era of Assadism had come to an end with the death of his eldest heir. Additionally, what he must have known was that the most fulfilling act of revenge on Syrians would be to name the inept Bashar as president of Syria.
As he delivered his Oath of Office, the voice of our new president was like the sound of a fired bullet, a bullet that assassinated our long-awaited moment in history. Our moment in history was transformed into the most disgraceful moment in the history of Syria.
Ever since that day, Syrians began to depart one after another, looking for refugee in far-away cold lands, leaving their dreams buried behind.
Today, in light of the recent farce of elections in Syria, our motherland is being burnt at the hands of the son. While the new Syrian generations continue to march the streets chanting “il sha’b il souree ma byinthal (Syrian people will not be humiliated),” we, the former generation, look back with scorching regret at our cowardliness and at how we had simply let that moment in history slip through our fingers.
As I think of my Kurdish friend today, I can imagine him sitting atop the roof of his house singing on his Tanbur for Joan Hajo, Shefan and Feqe Teyra, and reminiscing about that moment in history – one that Syrians are paying a multiplied price for today.
I acknowledge that we did lose our chance at seizing the moment in history back then. As a result, our youth, daughters and sons of the Syrian revolution are paying their lives today so that they can take back their country. This is what happens when a moment in history is postponed.
History does not wait for anyone to make history. As a member of the defeated generation, I place all my hope in today’s generation, the generation of the revolution. I dream that we, the great Syrian diaspora scattered in refugee camps and in places of exile, may flood back like a new river of life and sweep away the tyrant and his regime into a place that better suits them – the pit of history.
This article was translated from Arabic by Ghada Alatrash PhD, a Syrian-Canadian Lecturer in the Department of Humanities and General Education at Mt. Royal University in Calgary, Canada. She holds a Doctorate in Educational Research: Languages and Diversity from the University of Calgary.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.