ince December 2010, the Arab World has been witnessing massive political upheaval. Most Arab nations have seen massive protests by people against their entrenched political masters.
The Jasmine Revolution dethroned Tunisian dictator, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, after 24 years in power while the Egyptian Revolution (or the Facebook Revolution, as it is also called) ousted Hosni Mubarak after three decades of close-fisted rule.
Today, Syria is also witnessing widespread public protests against the regime of president Bashar al-Assad. In fact, public demonstrations against the dictatorial rule of Bashar have been raging across the Syrian nation since February 2011, which makes it the longest running people’s movement in the so-called Arab Spring.
In the first of the two-part Explainer on Syria, I will focus on some important facts about Syria: demographics and the rule of Hafez al-Assad, father of the current president, Bashar al-Assad.
Syria is located in the Middle East, or West Asia as some call the region. It is bordered by Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, and Lebanon. It gained independence from France in April 1946. In 1958, it merged with Egypt to form the United Arab Republic, only to break the union three years later. Since 1971, the Assad family has come to rule Syria, like a family fiefdom.
Who are the Assads?
The Assads belong to the Alawi group, which is a branch of Shia Islam. Alawis make up only 12% of Syria’s population while their bête noir Sunni Muslims make up nearly 70% of the total population. Under a new constitution drafted in 1973, Syria was declared to be a secular, socialist country with Islam as the major religion.
The divisive rule of the Assads has, over the years, shaped Syrian polity and society, which are riven with sectarian strife. There is a great deal of mistrust and animosity between the Sunnis and Shias on the one hand and the Muslims and the minority groups (like Druze) on the other.
Hafez al-Assad’s presidency
For close to two decades after it gained independence from France, Syria experienced political instability, the result of a series of military coups. The ascendance of Hafez al-Assad (pictured on the right) to the presidency in 1971 brought in much-needed political stability. As is the case with most military-polity establishments, this stability came at the altar of essential freedoms, including the denial of fundamental rights to citizens.
While Hafez ruled in a democratic polity, in practice he abandoned all democratic practices; highly intolerant of dissent, he imprisoned thousands of political activists. In fact, anyone who dared to oppose him was detained arbitrarily and tortured.
Once Hafez took power, he filled the security agencies, including the intelligence bodies, with loyalists from his Alawi sect. In order to perpetuate his rule, Hafez created one of the most brutal, secretive, and repressive dictatorships in the world.
The Sunnis, who were marginalised and discriminated against in matters of employment and denied access to resources, did not take kindly to the ascendance to power of the minority Shia sect. The Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni militant group, rebelled against Hafez but the insurrection was suppressed through use of massive force.
The 1982 Hama Massacre will give you an idea of the brutality of Hafez’s regime. When the Sunni population of Hama town rose in revolt, in support of the Muslim Brotherhood, against the discriminatory attitude of the Shia-dominated regime of Hafez, the dictator hit back with great force, massacring 20,000 people in a brutal crackdown (estimates of the Hama Massacre vary widely – 12,000 to 80,000 deaths).
The Hama massacre is just one incident; during the three decades of his iron-fisted rule, he is said to be responsible for the deaths of thousands of Syrians.
Let me also mention the 1973 Yom Kippur War, which was launched by Hafez, in alliance with Egypt, to decimate Israel and retake the Golan Heights, which was captured by the Jewish state in the 1967 Six Day War. Unfortunately for Hafez, he could not succeed and had to face defeat at the hands of Israelis.
Hafez died in June 2000. He was succeeded by his ophthalmologist son, Bashar al-Assad.
Click here for the second and final part in The Explainer on Syria will focus on the regime of Bashar al-Assad and the latest political situation in Syria.
(Read The Explainer: The Syrian Crisis - Part II)