The Assad family's rise to autocracy

Updated: Jul 21, 2020

Written by Talal Arslan and Kyla Kelly.

Find out more about them in the "Our Team" section of the website.

Hafez Al-Assad was born in Al Qardaha, a northwestern town in Syria on the 6th of October 1930. His family was part of an Islamic sect minority called the Alawites. At the age of 25, Hafez joined the Syrian military as an air force pilot. After the Ba’athist Party took power in 1963, Hafez aided the military coup d'etat led by Salah Al Jadid (another Alawite) against the UAR (United Arab Republic) and was promoted from major to general, controversially skipping over many of his seniors. He became an air force commander and later the Minister of Defense, largely from a close relationship with Al Jadid.

However under his ministry in 1966, Syria lost the Golan Heights to Israel. During the 1967 war, Hafez’s popularity plummeted due to him being seen as the main culprit in what was an embarrassing showing for the Syrian forces. The political tension created a rift between the prodigy (Hafez) and his teacher (Al-Jadid). Hafez was able to gain control after appointing an interim government and jailing most previous officials. He later was assigned the Presidency of Syria in 1971 by that same interim council. Hafez reigned over Syria for 29 years. During his reign, he had two main focuses. One being to strengthen and grow the military/security agencies of Syria with the aid of the Soviet Union. The second being to enforce a one-party Ba’athist System which monopolized politics. During this period, Iraq (governed by Saddam Hussein) was also under a Ba’athist rule. Negative tensions arose between Hafez and Saddam, who had differing views on Arab nationalism and their forms of socialism.

The darkest year of Hafez’s reign started with a series of revolts in 1976 lasting 5 years to 1982. The revolts were touted as a power grab by the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood (MB) group despite protestors coming from diverse backgrounds and called for democracy. The revolts were largely secular even from the MB protestors who largely called for a secular reformed government. Hafez took advantage of the largely illiterate and limited media adaptations in the country by not covering the protests and smearing it with propaganda. The revolutions reached climactic point on February 1982 when Hama, the 3rd largest Syrian city, was besieged by Rifaat Al Assad, Hafez’s brother and Commander in chief of the military at time. The Siege lasted 27 days causing atrocious human right crimes. The estimates of the massacre death toll (largely civilians) ranges from 20,000 - 40,000, while Rifaat Al Assad (Hafez’s brother) personally boasting about 38,000 people massacred. As we can see there has been consistency in the consolidation of power, through fear, within the family.

Bashar Al Assad’s rise to the presidency was a prime example of nepotism ruling politics. As Hafez aged, he prepared Bassel Al Assad, his oldest son, to take over the presidency. In 1994, Bassel died in a horrific car accident. At that time, Bashar was studying Ophthalmology in London, with no particular political ambitions. After the sudden death of his brother, being the heir apparent, he was recalled back to the Syrian Army in 1994. The next 6 years would see a radical change in Syria. Security intelligence agencies became increasingly influential and intrusive on everyday life. Misspeaking publicly was a death sentence. Along with Bashar’s rise, the military and police forces were drastically reformed as well, old officers from Hafez’s regime were systematically phased out of service for young Alawite officers with strong loyalty to the rising “prodigy”. The culture within the security forces fueled the conflict by creating a factionalized and largely unrestrained army of Assad loyalists.

The Assad family, and the repressive regime they installed, would all amount to tension, distrust, and anger among the oppressed Syrian people, leading it to what is known as the Syrian Civil War.


Ma'oz, Moshe; Ginat, Joseph; Winckler, Onn (1999). Modern Syria: From Ottoman Rule to Pivotal Role in the Middle East. Sussex Academic Press. ISBN 1-898723-83-4.

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