Syria's Assad Family Instills Legacy Of Fear
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The military campaign in Syria recalls a brutal crackdown on dissidents back in 1982 by the current president's father, then-President Hafez al-Assad. He sent troops into the city of Hama, and they killed as many as 30,000 people, although the true death toll may never be known. Joshua Landis writes the blog Syria Comment. He says that massacre has had a lasting impact.
Mr. JOSHUA LANDIS (Syria Comment): There is a terrible legacy of fear and authoritarianism that sits on top of Syria and is in some ways a prod for to further fighting but also a cautionary tale about what can happen if sectarianism gets out of control.
MONTAGNE: Is history repeating itself now? The brother of the current president is said to be leading this latest crackdown.
Mr. LANDIS: Yes, history is repeating itself. The structure of the regime has been extraordinarily consistent for 40 years. Bashir al-Assad has preserved that structure, right down to the family structure and there is a division of labor within the family. The younger brother, Rifat al-Assad, was Hafez al-Assad's enforcer, his sort of kneecapper who was in charge of putting down any kind of dissension or competition.
MONTAGNE: Thats the original Assad.
Mr. LANDIS: Thats the original guy, in 1982. Today, Bashar has empowered his younger brother, Maher al-Assad, to be that enforcer. And he's the one who leads the Republican Guard, which is the special force that protects the presidential palace and make sure there's no coup. This is why the military will not turn on the president and why it's remained loyal.
MONTAGNE: Is, though, the current president, Bashar al-Assad, who came in talking about reform, does it turn out that he's really not fully in control -that he's under the control of more powerful family members?
Mr. LANDIS: You know, this is the million dollar question and there are two views on this. One is that, you know, he is the good reformer who's been trying to do these things and that he's really a captive of those people around him. I'm not sure I buy that. The family is a unit and this is a family business.
There is another cousin, Rami Mahlouf, who was Mr. 20 Percent in the economy. He's a businessman who keeps alliances, business alliances sweet by participating in them all. They're...
MONTAGNE: And Mr. 20 Percent, meaning that's his take.
Mr. LANDIS: That's his take. You know, this is a family affair. You can see it as the enforcers and the other family members trying to protect the president's image, in the hopes that if they ever re-emerge and stand a chance of integrating into the international community - hard to imagine how that will happen - that he can hold the faith of the Syrians as being the person who's been against the kind of heavy-handed tactics that his brother leaves.
MONTAGNE: There's another curious aspect of the Assad brothers, and that is that the current president had an older brother, an heir apparent, who died in a car accident before that brother could ascend to power. Is he, in any way, overshadowed by even the memory of that brother?
Mr. LANDIS: We're talking about Basil al-Assad who died in 1994 while he was driving, evidently, a hundred miles an hour in his Mercedes, to get to a flight in order to his girlfriend abroad. He lost control - was killed. Now, he was the guy brought up in the military. He was much tougher. He commanded a lot of respect.
Bashar was the doctor, rather shy, diffident. But, you know, many Syrians were glad. They wanted something new. They wanted a reformer, Mr. Nice Guy and he presented himself as that. The guy would go out to dinner with his family in restaurants in Damascus. He would appear before the people. And he had pink around his posters in big heart shapes, sort of the I Love New York campaign taken for Syria. He tried to soften this authoritarian regime, obviously that failed badly.
And people wanted more. They wanted dignity and freedom, and not to be oppressed.
MONTAGNE: Well, thank you very much.
Mr. LANDIS: It's a pleasure.
MONTAGNE: Joshua Landis is director of the University of Oklahoma Center for Middle East Studies.
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