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The Assads

Last modified 2 April 2014.

First published 12 January 2009. Reviewed 2 April 2014

Hafez al-Assad, Rifaat al-Assad, Bashar al-Assad

Hafez (AKA 'The Sphinx', AKA 'The Lion of Damascus') is the older brother of Rifaat (AKA 'Butcher of Hama') and the father of Bashar.

Country: Syria.

Kill tally: Up to 25,000 killed in Hama during a siege of the city in February 1982. (Estimates of the number killed vary from 5,000 to 25,000. It is likely that the real figure is somewhere near the lower end of the estimates.) More than 100,000 killed since the outbreak of Syria's civil war in March 2011.

Background: Human occupation of ancient or 'Greater' Syria (the lands now recognised as Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria) can be traced back at least 11 thousand years, to 9000 BCE. Evidence of the region's first cities dates to around 4000 BCE.

Over the centuries Greater Syria falls under the control of surrounding states (Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome) and becomes a cultural and religious melting pot, with Judaism, Christianity and Islam all having an influence. In 1516 the region becomes a province of the Ottoman Empire.

Ottoman rule nears its end at the start of the First World War, a time which is also marked by the rise of the Syrian independence movement.

The British seize on this desire for independence to further their war effort. Arabs are encouraged to revolt against the Ottomans. In return, the British pledge support for the establishment of an independent Arab state following the war.

However, the British renege on their pledge and Greater Syria is carved up among European powers. The French are given control over Lebanon and Syria. The British take Jordan and Palestine. Provision is made of the establishment of a Jewish state within Palestine.

By 15 April 1946 the French are finally gone. Syria celebrates its independence on April 17.

Syria now enters a prolonged period of instability. Coup is followed by counter-coup and regional allegiances shift as sectarian, religious and military factions within the country via for influence. The majority of Syrian's are Sunni Muslims, comprising about 74% of the population. Other Muslim sects comprise about 16% of the population. Christians comprise about 10%. More background.

Mini biography: Hafez al-Assad is born on 6 October 1930, in the village of al-Qurdaha, 200 km northwest of Damascus, in the Syrian province of Latakia. He is the ninth of his parent's 11 children.

The al-Assad family are poor but well-respected peasants. They are members of the Numaylatillah clan and Matawirah tribe within the Alawite sect (a branch of Shia Islam). The Alawites are the largest of the Muslim minority groups in Syria, comprising around 10% of the population.

The al-Assad's original family name is said to have been al-Wahash, meaning "beast" in Arabic. This name was changed at some stage (and perhaps by Hafez) to al-Assad, meaning "lion".

Hafez receives his secondary education at a school in Latakia on the coast. In 1952 he is admitted to the Air Force College in Aleppo, graduating in 1955 as a lieutenant pilot.

In 1957 he travels to the Soviet Union to learn how to fly MIG-15s and MIG-17s.

Hafez marries Anissa Makhloof. The couple have four sons (Basil, Bashar, Majid and Maher) and a daughter (Bushra).

Rifaat al-Assad is born in 1937, also in al-Qurdaha. He is the younger brother of Hafez and the youngest of the family's 11 children.

Though he studies political science and economics at Damascus University, Rifaat opts for a career in the military. He trains at the Homs Military Academy and joins the army in 1963.

Rifaat will polygamously marry four wives: Amirah (a cousin from al-Qurdaha), Aneesi (a cousin of Hafez's wife), Raja Barakat (a member of the Sunni establishment) and Lina al-Khayyir (a member of one of the most prominent Alawite families in Syria).

1946 - Syria gains independence on 17 April.

1948 - The State of Israel is formally proclaimed on 14 May 1948. Arab military forces, including Syria, invade the following day. The invasion fails. A cease-fire is declared in 1949. Israel is left occupying more territory than originally granted by the United Nations.

1949 - The first of Syria's coups occurs on 30 March. The first counter-coup occurs less than five months later on 14 August. Further coups follow on 19 December 1949, 28 November 1951 and 25 February 1954.

In this atmosphere of political instability left-wing groups, including the Baath Party (Arab Socialist Resurrection) and the Syrian Communist Party begin to gain ascendancy.

Baath is a pan-Arab movement committed to socialism, Arab nationalism and secularism. By the end of 1957 the party, along with the communists and other left-wing factions, controls the government.

Hafez Assad is an early member of the party, joining in 1946, soon after it is formed. Rifaat joins the party in 1952.

In order to preserve its power, Baath turns to Egyptian President Gamal Abdul-Nasser, asking for a union between Syria and Egypt.

1958 - Syria and Egypt formally join as the United Arab Republic (UAR) on 1 February.

However, the plan backfires. The Baath Party is marginalised and Syria subordinated by the dominance of Nasser and Egypt.

During this period, Hafez is stationed in Egypt. Along with other Syrian officers, he begins to plan for the overthrow of the administration in Damascus and the dissolution of the union with Egypt.

1961 - On 28 September a military coup is staged in Damascus. Syria secedes from the UAR and reestablishes itself as the Syrian Arab Republic. The pattern of coup and counter-coup resumes and becomes increasingly violent.

Hafez is temporarily removed from the Air Force on 2 December and posted in the Ministry of Sea Transportation. Along with other members of the Baath Party, he begins to plan for a coup to restore the party to power.

1963 - The Baath Party takes control of government following a coup on 8 March. However, the party is not unified. Factions favouring pan-Arab unity and Syrian "regionalism" continuously jostle for power, leading to the formation and dissolution of successive governments.

The regionalists favour implementing the Baath Party's social program of land reform and nationalisation within Syria. They also advocate closer ties with the Soviet Union. Hafez is aligned with the regionalists.

Baath declares a state or emergency soon after taking power. The state of emergency enables the government to suppress dissent and control the media. Criticism of the regime is forbidden. The state of emergency is not lifted until April 2011.

Meanwhile, Hafez is reappointed to the Air Force with the rank of major. In 1964 he is promoted to general and placed on the Baath Party's Regional Command.

1965 - Hafez is appointed as commander of the Air Force. Rifaat is appointed commander of a special security force. Bashar al-Assad is born on 11 September.

1966 - On 23 February Hafez participates in a coup that brings the regionalists to power. Soon after he is appointed as minister for defence in the new government. Rifaat's special security force plays a key role in the coup.

A counter-coup attempt takes place on 8 September but fails when Hafez threatens to use the Air Force against the coup plotters.

1967 - When Egypt moves 100,000 troops and 1,000 tanks across the Suez Canal into the Sinai Peninsula in May, Israel starts preparing for a war.

Believing the Arabs intend an all-out attack, Israel decides on a preemptive blow against Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq.

On 5 June, two weeks after the Egyptian troop deployment, a massive Israeli air strike is launched against the Arab nations, beginning the 'Six-Day War'.

The Arab air forces are wiped out within hours. Left without any air cover, the Egyptians are overwhelmed and pushed back across the Sinai and the Suez. When Jordan shells Jerusalem, the Israelis take all of the city and the West Bank (Judea and Samaria). The Israelis also occupy the Golan Heights in Syria and most of the Gaza Strip.

With its victory, Israel has tripled the size of the territory under its control, united Jerusalem and increased the number of Palestinians living in Israeli-occupied land to over one million.

About 16,000 Arabs, mostly Egyptians, and 800 Israeli soldiers have died in the war.

The defeat shakes the Syrian regime and sets the scene for Hafez's rise to power.

1970 - In September the Jordanian Army begins to launch attacks against camps in Jordan that are occupied by Palestinian refugees from Israel. The camps are controlled by the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).

The Syrian Army backs the PLO and sends about 200 tanks into Jordan to provide support. However, the Syrian Air Force, headed by Hafez, refuses to provide air cover and the army is forced to withdraw.

On 13 November Hafez has his opponents arrested and brings a new government to power in a bloodless coup. Once again Rifaat's special security force is instrumental in securing the coup.

On 19 November Hafez is appointed as prime minister and minister of defence.

1971 - On 12 March Hafez is elected president for a seven-year term. He also takes control of the Baath Party, the military and the security forces (collectively known as the Mukhabarat).

Rifaat's special security force evolves into the so-called Defence Companies (Saraya al-Difaah), an elite military unit that is independent of regular armed forces.

The Defence Companies consist of about 15,000 to 25,000 specially trained and equipped officers and men. Most recruits are Alawites. The Companies are considered to be Hafez Assad's private army and a counter-coup strike-force. They are also involved in internal security. The size of the force will later grow to about 55,000.

Rifaat is given command of the Companies and made the nation's vice president for military and national security affairs.

Other members of Hafez's family are also given prominent positions within the security forces. Older brother Jamil commands the Murtada militia. Nephew Adnan commands the Struggle Companies (Saraya as Sira). Another nephew, Fawwaz, heads a security force stationed in Latakia. Brother-in-law Adnan Makhluf commands the Republican Guard.

Syria under Hafez is effectively an autocracy controlled by the military and run by a single-party, both of which are headed by Hafez. Alawites hold most key positions within the military and security forces. Social dissent is monitored and controlled by a network of 15 competing intelligence agencies.

Initially Hafez is seen as having a moderating effect on domestic politics, on Syria's relations with regional neighbours and on broader foreign affairs.

However, opposition from Sunni Muslims mounts. Sunni Muslims comprise the majority of the Syrian population. They are disgruntled with the Alawite hold on power and by the secular leaning of the Baath-dominated government.

1973 - In February, Sunni militants stage a series of riots in predominantly Sunni cities such as Hama and Homs.

Meanwhile, on 6 October, Syria and Egypt launch a surprise attack against Israel on two fronts. During 18 days of bloody fighting the Israelis drive the Syrians back and surround the Egyptian Third Army. A cease-fire is declared on 22 October and hostilities finally end on 25 October.

1976 - In May Syria intervenes in the Lebanese Civil War, sending troops to back the Lebanese Front (comprised principally of Maronite Christians) against the Lebanese National Movement (comprised of Muslims, Druzes, leftists, and sections of the PLO).

The intervention marks the beginning of the ongoing direct involvement of Syria and the Syrian military in Lebanese domestic affairs.

1978 - In February Hafez is elected unopposed for a second seven-year term.

1979 - Sunni militants, spearheaded by the Muslim Brotherhood, launch a series of attacks within Syria, targeting Alawites and government and military installations. On 16 June 50 Alawite cadets at the military academy in Aleppo are gunned down.

1980 - Violence by the Sunni militants increases. In June at least two attempts are made on Hafez's life. In revenge, Rifaat's Defence Companies kill between 500 and 1,000 Muslim Brotherhood suspects being held at a prison near Tadmor (Palmyra) in the centre of Syria. The men are shot in their cells.

A law passed on 7 July authorises capital punishment for those who do not renounce their membership of the Muslim Brotherhood in writing.

Meanwhile, war breaks out between Iraq and Iran. Hafez backs the Iranians, beginning an ongoing relationship which will later see Syria and Iran sponsor Shia militants operating in Lebanon. The militants call themselves Hezbollah (Party of God).

1981 - Hafez resolves to root out Syria's Sunni militants from their strongholds. Membership of the Muslim Brotherhood is made a capital offence. In March and April security forces descend on Aleppo and Hama looking for militants. About 200 to 300 people are killed and sections of both cities are destroyed.

In Lebanon, Rifaat founds the Arab Knights of the Arab Democratic Party, a pro-Syrian militia largely composed of Lebanese Alawites of Syrian origin. The party, along with other pro-Syrian Lebanese militias, is supported by the Defence Companies.

During this time, Rifaat also uses his position to further his business ventures, both legitimate and illicit.

He establishes an illegal, unregulated port at the coastal city of Latakia through which he smuggles goods. The port is guarded by members of the Defence Companies. It is reported that he is involved in drug trafficking and the trade of other illegal goods.

By the turn of the century, Rifaat's personal fortune is estimated at between US$2 billion and US$4 billion.

1982 - At the start of February the full force of the Syrian army is brought to bear on the Sunni stronghold at Hama. Several thousand troops commanded by Rifaat, including units from the Defence Companies, seal off the city and then move in.

Over a period of two weeks entire sections of the Hama, including the architecturally significant ancient quarter, are reduced to rubble by tanks, artillery fire and warplanes. Between 5,000 and 25,000 people are killed, including about 1,000 soldiers. (It is likely that the real figure is somewhere near the lower end of the estimates.)

Rifaat later denies involvement in the massacre, saying "I never entered Hama," and claiming that he was not in charge of Syria's security forces at that time.

Meanwhile, Syria is implicated in the assassination of Lebanese president and Maronite Christian leader Bashir Gemayel on 14 September. The assassination sparks the massacre of up to 3,000 Palestinians by Christian Phalangist militia at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut.

Hafez is also implicated in the bombing of the headquarters of US and French forces in Lebanon that kills 298 on the 23 October 1983.

1983 - In November Hafez suffers a severe heart attack and is hospitalised for several months.

Rifaat attempts to take advantage of his brother's illness and seize power. Units from the Defence Companies are dispatched around Damascus. However, troops loyal to Hafez confront the Companies and Rifaat's bid fails.

1984 - In March Hafez's health improves sufficiently to allow him to regain control of the country.

However, the rivalry between the brothers flares again in May when Hafez suffers a relapse.

Order is restored by the end of the month. Rifaat is relieved of his command of the Defence Companies and, along with several of his military rivals, sent overseas on a "diplomatic mission."

The Defence Companies are reorganised and absorbed into the broader military, depriving Rifaat of his power-base.

Rifaat is allowed to return to Syria at the end of the year, arriving in Damascus on 26 November.

1985 - In January a meeting of the Baath Party confirms Hafez as leader. Rifaat is ranked as fifth in the party hierarchy, with the position of vice president for security affairs.

Later, Hafez wins another seven-year term as president. He will be elected unopposed for two more terms, in 1992 and 1999.

1986 - As a result of political infighting over the question of who will succeed Hafez, Rifaat goes into exile in Europe, living in France, Switzerland and Marbella in southern Spain. He is permanently escorted by about 30 bodyguards.

1991 - Following the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq and the refusal by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to follow a UN Security Council demand to withdraw, a coalition of 33 world nations, led by the US, counterattacks, starting the six-week Gulf War, also known as 'Operation Desert Storm'. Syria sides with the allied forces and sends troops to combat the Iraqis.

1992 - Rifaat returns to Syria to attend his mother's funeral. He will reside in Syria on and off for the next six years.

Bashar al-Assad travels to London to study ophthalmology.

1994 - Hafez's eldest son and heir-apparent Basil is killed in a car accident on 12 January. Bashar is recalled from medical school in London and groomed for a leadership role.

Rifaat returns briefly to Syria for Basil's funeral.

1997 - Rifaat establishes a 24-hour satellite TV news channel, the Arabic News Network. Based in London and run by his son Sumar, the network frequently broadcasts criticisms of the Assad regime in Syria.

1998 - Rifaat is formally stripped of his position as vice president and expelled from the Baath Party. He again goes into exile.

1999 - Syrian security forces arrest many of Rifaat's supporters in Syria. Rifaat's illegal port at Latakia is closed down.

Bashar is made a colonel in the army and placed in charge of a brigade of the Republican Guard. He also takes up some political responsibilities, including relations with Lebanon.

2000 - Hafez dies from heart disease on 10 June. He is buried in the family cemetery at al-Qurdaha.

Hafez is succeeded as president by Bashar. The succession requires an amendment to the Syrian constitution, which had previously stipulated that the president must be at least 40 years-old. (Bashar was only 34 at the time of his father's death.) Bashar also becomes commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

Rifaat, a potential leadership rival, is warned that he will be arrested if he returns to Syria for his brother's funeral.

The Independent newspaper quotes Rifaat as saying to his dead brother, "They regarded me as a lurking danger and thus barred me from paying respects and praying before your body.

"You have left a sudden and tragic vacuum which some believed they could fill, underestimating the issue of your succession and downplaying the enormity of responsibility."

Meanwhile, Bashar marries Asma al-Akhras, a British citizen of Syrian descent. The couple met while Bashar was studying ophthalmology in London. They will have three children - Hafez, Zein and Karim.

Bashar is initially seem as a potential agent for political and economic reform. The first 12 months of his rule sees a freeing up of political dialogue within the country and comes to be know as the 'Damascus Spring'. However, the thaw does not last and restrictions are soon reimposed.

2005 - Rifaat announces that he wants to return to Syrian to resume his "political responsibilities."

"Syria is in trouble, and I want to take part in saving it," Rifaat is quoted as saying.

"I have nothing but love for my nephew (Bashar). But I have condemned the way he rules."

Rifaat heads the United National Group, an umbrella organisation for parties and groups seeking political reform in Syria.

2007 - Bashar is appointed to a second seven-year term as president after reportedly winning 97% of the vote in a referendum where he was the only candidate.

2011 - As the so-called 'Arab Spring' uprisings bring down repressive governments in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, the populace of Syria also begins to agitate for greater freedoms.

However, peaceful demonstrations calling for democratic reforms are brutally suppressed by the Assad regime. Thousands are killed by security forces. The crackdown is led by Bashar's younger brother, Maher, who commands the Republican Guard and the army's Fourth Armoured Division.

Bashar refuses to accept responsibility for the violence, telling US journalist Barbara Walters, "We don't kill our people ... no government in the world kills its people, unless it's led by a crazy person."

The UN Security Council attempts to pass a resolution condemning the Assad regime and calling for a cease-fire but is blocked by Russia and China. Observers believe the Security Council's failure to act gives the Assad regime a green-light to continue the violence.

2012 - In February the security forces concentrate their actions on the city of Homs, in central Syria, near the border with Lebanon. In an offensive that echoes the massacre at Hama in 1982, hundreds are killed when the army overruns the city.

In March, a report by Amnesty International finds that "a grim catalogue of torture, involving over two dozen brutal techniques, has emerged from former detainees describing their treatment in Syria's detention centres since the predominantly peaceful protests against President Bashar Assad's government began in March 2011."

According to the report, "the torture carried out appears to be part of a widespread and systematic attack against the civilian population, carried out in an organised manner and as part of Syrian government policy to crush dissent. It therefore amounts to a crime against humanity, and is still being committed daily across the country against hundreds if not thousands of detainees with impunity."

A Human Rights Watch report released later in the year finds that "since the beginning of anti-government protests in March 2011, Syrian authorities have subjected tens of thousands of people to arbitrary arrests, unlawful detentions, enforced disappearances, ill-treatment, and torture using an extensive network of detention facilities, an archipelago of torture centres, scattered throughout Syria."

The report, 'Torture Archipelago: Arbitrary Arrests, Torture and Enforced Disappearances in Syria's Underground Prisons since March 2011', identifies the locations, agencies responsible, torture methods used, and, in many cases, the commanders in charge of 27 detention facilities run by Syrian intelligence agencies.

"The systematic patterns of ill-treatment and torture that Human Rights Watch documented clearly point to a state policy of torture and ill-treatment and therefore constitute a crime against humanity," a Human Rights Watch statement says.

As the year progresses the conflict escalates into a full-scale civil war between the Syrian Army and a coalition of opposition militias. Both sides are implicated in crimes against humanity. One of the worst atrocities takes place at Houla, near Homs and Hama, on 25 May, where 108 civilians, including 49 children and 34 women, are butchered.

The UN later concludes that government forces and members of the pro-regime Shabiha militia were responsible for the massacre.

Bashar tells his parliament that the crackdown on opponents is necessary to defend "a cause and a country."

"When a surgeon in an operating room ... cuts and cleans and amputates, and the wound bleeds, do we say to him your hands are stained with blood?" he asks. "Or do we thank him for saving the patient?"

Following a massacre of 78 people at the village of al-Qubair, also near Homs and Hama, at the start of June, UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon says the Syrian regime has "lost all legitimacy." According to Ban, the spate of killings are "indicative of a pattern that may amount to crimes against humanity."

A report by the UN's Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic finds government forces and the Shabiha have "committed the crimes against humanity of murder and of torture, war crimes and gross violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law, including unlawful killing, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, sexual violence, indiscriminate attack, pillaging and destruction of property."

"The commission confirms its previous finding that violations were committed pursuant to state policy," the report says. "Large-scale operations conducted in different governorates, their similar modus operandi, their complexity and integrated military-security apparatus indicate the involvement at the highest levels of the armed and security forces and the government."

The report also finds that war crimes, including extrajudicial execution and torture, have been perpetrated by anti-government armed groups. However, "the violations and abuses committed by anti-government armed groups did not reach the gravity, frequency and scale of those committed by government forces and the Shabiha."

Meanwhile, the opposition militias, fighting under the banner of the 'Free Syrian Army' but also including Islamist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra (Nusra Front), begin to make inroads, taking control of large areas in the north and east of Syria and launching campaigns in Damascus and Aleppo, the country's financial heart.

The Syrian military respond by bombarding suspected rebel positions and civilian districts with artillery and air strikes. Attempts by the international community to halt the violence are ineffectual.

By the end of 2012, at least 60,000 Syrians have been killed in the conflict, according to the United Nations. Over 560,000 Syrians have fled the country. The UN Human Rights Council finds that the war is descending into an "overtly sectarian" and ethnic clash characterised by widespread human rights abuses.

Bashar Assad denies the country is in civil war. He says the conflict is an international plot against Syria that is being run by "terrorists holding the views of al-Qaida who call themselves jihadists."

"I am Syrian, I am made in Syria, and I will live and die in Syria," he says.

2013 - In January reports emerge of a massacre in the village of Haswiyeh, near Homs. More than 100 people are reported to have been killed, most likely by pro-Assad forces. Another massacre of 110 men is reported in Aleppo later the same month. Reports suggest the men were killed by military security forces. They appear to have been summarily executed.

Countless atrocities follow as the war grinds to a stalemate with neither side able to prevail. The conflict is complicated further when the myriad opposition groups begin to fight among themselves. Al-Qaeda affiliated Islamists seeking to take advantage of the chaos to establish an Islamic state battle secular militias. The Islamists also seek to expel Syria's Kurds from their enclave in the far northeast corner of Syria and gain control of the oil fields in the region. Kurds make up about 10 percent of Syria's population.

In order to counter the rise of the al-Qaeda affiliated revels, Saudi Arabia funds a new group, the Islamic Front, which in turn begins to challenge the Western-backed Free Syrian Army.

Yet more complications arise when Hezbollah militants cross the border from Lebanon to help shore up the Assad regime. Hezbollah is backed by Iran, which also supports the Assads. Iran and Russia supply the Assads with arms. Iran also sends thousands of troops from its Revolutionary Guards.

The opposition forces receive military aid, including arms, from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the US. Turkey provides the opposition with additional aid. Jordan allows opposition fighters and arms to cross its border. Operatives from the Central Intelligence Agency and US Special Operations run military training camps in Jordan. The opposition's numbers are bolstered by volunteers, including Islamic extremists, who travel to Syria from around the world.

Underlying the war is the ancient schism between the Shia and Sunni factions of Islam and the ongoing regional tension that this has fuelled. The Assad regime, Iran and Hezbollah are Shia. The opposition, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are Sunni.

Among the many low points of the conflict during 2013, the following stand out:

  • The firing by the regime of four ballistic missiles (probably Scuds supplied by Russia) into residential areas of Aleppo at the end of February. At least 141 people are killed. The use of ballistic missiles in a way that disproportionately affects civilians is a war crime.
  • The release in May of video footage showing a rebel commander cutting open a dead soldier's chest, removing part of the lungs then biting into it. "I swear to God we will eat your hearts and your livers, you soldiers of Bashar the dog," the commander shouts.
  • The massacre of about 190 civilians during a rebel attack on pro-regime villages in the province of Latakia on 4 August. According to Human Rights Watch, the attack was led by five groups of Islamic extremists, including Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.
  • The firing of rockets armed with the nerve gas sarin into residential areas in the eastern and western suburbs of Damascus on 21 August. The US Government estimates that 1,429 people are killed, including at least 426 children. Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) says its staff in the area treated about 3,600 patients with "neurotoxic symptoms" and that 355 died. The US says it has "high confidence" that the Assad regime was responsible for the attack. Human Rights Watch finds that Syrian Government forces were "almost certainly responsible" for the attack. The attack follows multiple earlier, less deadly chemical attacks and provokes the US to threaten direct military intervention. The threat is defused when the Assad regime agrees to halt its chemical weapons program and destroy its existing stockpile (estimated to be about 1,200 tonnes). The use of chemical weapons is a war crime. The incident is the worst recorded use of chemical weapons since the attack on Halabjah in Iraq by the regime of Saddam Hussein in March 1987.
  • The use by the regime of barrel bombs (oil drums filled with explosives, fuel and scrap metal). The bombs are dropped by helicopters over residential areas and cause indiscriminate death and destruction.

Meanwhile, the UN announces that the war has created the world's worst refugee crisis for 20 years. According to Antonio Guterres, the head of the UN's refugee agency, 6,000 people are fleeing the conflict every day.

More than two million refugees have fled Syria, mostly to camps in neighbouring Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq. The Zaatari camp in Jordan has become the country's fourth largest city with a population of about 150,000. Over 700,000 refugees have crossed into Lebanon. Refugees now make up about one sixth of Lebanon's population. About 400,000 refugees have crossed into Turkey. About 170,000 are registered in Iraq. At least six million Syrians are internally displaced.

The UN estimates that 5,000 people are being killed every month. Over 100,000 Syrians have been killed since the conflict began in March 2011, including more than 10,000 children.

At the start of December, Navi Pillay, the head of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, says the UN's Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic "has produced massive evidence ... (of) very serious crimes, war crimes, crimes against humanity" and that "the evidence indicates responsibility at the highest level of government, including the head of state." It is the first time the UN has directly linked Bashar Assad to the war crimes and crimes against humanity being committed in Syria.

By the end of the year the momentum of the conflict has shifted toward the Assad regime, though an end to the fighting still appears a long way off.

2014 - A UN-sponsored peace conference is held in Switzerland at the end of January. Representatives from the Assad regime and from the opposition attend. The conference, along with a second round of talks held in February, achieves no substantial results.

As the talks take place the regime continues to drop barrel bombs on areas with large civilian populations. It is also accused of using a "starve or surrender" policy that blocks the delivery of aid to rebel-held areas.

A report by the UN also accuses the regime of "the arrest, arbitrary detention, ill treatment and torture of children." According to the report, children in detention have been subjected to "beatings with metal cables, whips and wooden and metal batons; electric shock, including to the genitals; the ripping out of fingernails and toenails; sexual violence, including rape or threats of rape; mock executions; cigarette burns; sleep deprivation; solitary confinement; and exposure to the torture of relatives."

The report also accuses rebel forces of mistreating children. "Armed opposition groups have been responsible for the recruitment and use of children both in combat and support roles, as well as for conducting military operations, including using terror tactics, in civilian-populated areas, leading to civilian casualties, including children. ... Allegations were received that armed opposition groups also controlled detention facilities in which children perceived to be pro-Government suffered ill treatment and torture. ... Armed opposition groups also engaged in the summary execution of children," the report says.

Comment: When this profile was first published in 2009 it was principally concerned with the human rights abuses committed by Hafez Assad and his brother Rifaat during the Sunni uprisings of the early 1980s. It seemed unlikely at that stage that Hafez's son and successor would ever come close to emulating the excesses of his father and uncle. Indeed, Bashar Assad appeared to be a somewhat bumbling and ineffectual character who never expected to head the regime in Syria and would have vastly preferred it if he never had. How wrong that assessment now seems. Bashar Assad, or rather Bashar Assad's regime, has outdone Hafez and Rifaat in every aspect of abuse. More deaths. More crimes against humanity. More war crimes. More cruelty. More lies.

What is cruellest of all is that there was a point very early on where it could possibly and quite easily have all been avoided. If early on the Assad regime had bent just a little and allowed just some reforms three years plus of war and the worst humanitarian crisis in a quarter of a century could have been prevented. If the Assad regime had been just a little braver and a little more mature. If it had been a little less self-interested. A little less conniving. A little more concerned about the welfare and aspirations of all Syrians.

Early in the conflict, after yet another outrage by the regime that resulted in the deaths of yet more civilians, a media outlet broadcast an interview with a bystander, perhaps the father or brother of one of those who had died. The interviewer asked the man if he thought Bashar Assad who ever leave Syria. Never, the man answered, no matter what the cost. Bashar would rather kill millions than leave. He would kill every last opponent if needs be. He would kill us all.

At the time those comments seemed to be an extreme reaction from an emotionally stressed victim of the regime. Now they seem prescient. Now it seems Bashar Assad will do whatever it takes, just so long as he and his family and associates remain on the throne.