Syria’s half century of iron-fisted Assad rule

DAMASCUS (AFP): As Arab nations prepare to meet in Saudi Arabia to discuss rehabilitating Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, AFP looks back at more than 50 years of the Assad dynasty’s brutal rule.

– 1970: Hafez takes charge –

Hafez al-Assad, Syria’s defence minister and the father of Bashar, takes power in a military coup on November 16, 1970.

Assad, who leads the Syrian branch of the pan-Arab nationalist Baath Party, is elected president on March 12, 1971. He is the only candidate.

He is Syria’s first head of state from the Alawite Muslim sect, a minority that makes up 10 percent of the population.

– 1973: war with Israel –

Egypt and Syria launch a surprise attack on Israel on October 6, 1973 in a bid to win back territories they lost in the Six-Day War of 1967, but they are pushed back.

A disengagement agreement for the Golan Heights — formerly held by Syria — is signed in May 1974, officially ending the war.

– 1976: Lebanon intervention –

A month later, in June 1974, US president Richard Nixon visits Damascus and announces the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Syria, frozen since 1967.

Two years later, Syrian troops intervene in the Lebanese civil war after an appeal by embattled Christian forces.

For three decades Syria will be a dominant military and political force in Lebanon.

– 1982: crackdown –

The Syrian regime viciously cracks down on an armed uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood in the city of Hama in February 1982. Between 10,000 and 40,000 people die.

The Brotherhood had previously been accused of a 1979 Aleppo attack in which 80 military cadets, all Alawites, were killed in a hail of gunfire and grenades at their academy.

– Courting the West –

Syria’s ties with the US begin to thaw in 1990-1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union to which Damascus was allied.

Syria joins the US-led coalition against Saddam Hussein after Iraq invades Kuwait.

– 2000: Bashar takes over –

Hafez al-Assad dies on June 10, 2000, aged 69.

Parliament amends the constitution to lower the minimum age required to become president from 40 to 34 — a tailor-made change for Bashar who was born in 1965.

A month later, Bashar al-Assad becomes Syria’s new head of state, winning a referendum with 97 percent of the vote. He is the only candidate.

– ‘Damascus Spring’ –

In September that year, 100 intellectuals call for the lifting of martial law, in place since 1963, more freedom and political pluralism. This becomes known as the “Damascus Spring”.

But the period of apparent openness is short-lived. Assad’s government cracks down on dissent and arrests opponents in July 2001.

– 2011: Arab Spring –

A decade later, the Arab Spring of uprisings against autocratic rulers reaches in Syria.

In March 2011, protesters take to the streets calling for civil liberties and freedom for political prisoners.

– Civil war –

The protests, brutally repressed, become an armed rebellion which sparks a full-blown civil war, with several regional and international powers getting involved, as well as jihadists.

The Islamic State group takes advantage of the war to proclaim a caliphate in parts of Syria and Iraq where it imposes a reign of terror before eventually being defeated by US-backed Kurdish-led forces in 2019.

Assad clings on to power with massive military backing from Russia and Iran, and manages to win back most of the territory his regime lost.

The war kills more than 500,000 people, displaces half the country’s pre-war population and makes Assad a global pariah.

The Arab League suspends Syrian membership in response to the bloody crackdown and calls for sanctions against the regime.

– Pariah no more? –

In December 2018, the United Arab Emirates reopens its embassy in Syria, seven years after breaking ties.

In February 2023, a devastating earthquake strikes Turkey and Syria, prompting Arab outreach to the internationally shunned Damascus regime.

In April 2023, Saudi Arabia hosts Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad in the first such visit since war broke out, ahead of a meeting to discuss Syria’s return to the Arab League.