The Assads

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. 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 CE 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 17 April. Syria now enters a prolonged period of instability. Coup is followed by counter-coup as secular, religious and military factions within the country via for influence. The majority of Syrians 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, Rifaat al-Assad, Bashar al-Assad

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 the city of Latakia, the capital of Latakia province and Syria's principal sea port. In 1952 he is admitted to the Air Force College in Aleppo. He graduates 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 Anisa Makhlouf. 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 polygamously marries 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).

Bashar al-Assad is born on 11 September 1965. Bashar pursues a career in medicine. He graduates from the College of Medicine at the University of Damascus in 1988. Between 1988 and 1992 he specialises in ophthalmology at Tishrin military hospital in Damascus, after which he travels to London to further his studies. Up until the death of his brother, Basil, in 1994 he has little involvement in Syrian politics.

Bashar marries Asma al-Akhras, a British citizen of Syrian descent, in 2000. The couple have three children - Hafez, Zein and Karim.

1946 - Syria gains independence on 17 April.

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.

Amid the ongoing 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. Hafez al-Assad is an early member of the Baath Party, joining in 1946, soon after it is formed. Rifaat joins the party in 1952.

By the end of 1957, the Baath Party, along with the communists and other left-wing factions, controls the government.

To forestall a takeover of the government by the communists, the Baathists turn 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 union backfires for the Baathists and Syria. The Baath Party is marginalised and Syria's needs are subordinated to those of Nasser and Egypt.

During this period, Hafez is stationed in Egypt. Along with other Syrian officers, he participates in the preparation of a plan to overthrow the administration in Damascus and dissolve 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. He and other members of the Baath Party begin 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 continuously jostle for power with others committed to "regionalism", 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.

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 - The Six-Day War between Israel and the surrounding Arab nations of Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq begins on 5 June when Israel launches a massive preemptive air strike.

The Arabs are soundly defeated. Israel occupies the Sinai, all of Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Golan Heights in Syria and most of the Gaza Strip.

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

1970 - On 13 November Hafez has his opponents arrested and installs a new government 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). Hafez remains as president and leader of the Baath Party until he dies. He is elected unopposed for a second seven-year term as president in 1978. A third seven-year term follows in 1985, then a fourth in 1992, and a fifth in 1999.

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 al-Assad's private army and a counter-coup strike-force. They are also involved in internal security. The size of the force later grows to about 55,000.

Rifaat is given command of the Companies and made the nation's vice president for military and national security affairs. He is ranked as fifth in the Baath Party hierarchy.

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. 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, domestic 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. During the early 1970s, Sunni militants begin to stage riots in predominantly Sunni cities such as Hama and Homs.

Syria under the al-Assads also begins to become increasingly interventionist in regional affairs.

On 6 October 1973 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. Hostilities finally end on 25 October.

In May 1976 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 Palestine Liberation Organisation).

The intervention marks the beginning of 29 years of direct involvement by Syria and the Syrian military in Lebanon's domestic affairs. During this time, Syria is implicated in the assassination of Lebanese president and Maronite Christian leader Bashir Gemayel on 14 September 1982. Syria is also implicated in the bombing of the headquarters of United States and French forces in Lebanon that kills 298 on 23 October 1983.

When war breaks out between Iraq and Iran in 1980, 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).

In 1991 Syria joins a coalition of 33 nations formed to repel an invasion of Kuwait by Iraq.

1979 - Sunni militants, led 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.

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.

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 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.

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, but relations between the brothers remains tense. Rifaat goes into exile in Europe in 1986, living in France, Switzerland and Marbella in southern Spain. He is permanently escorted by about 30 bodyguards.

In 1997 Rifaat uses part of his immense personal fortune to establish a 24-hour satellite TV news channel, the Arabic News Network. Based in London and run by Rifaat's son, Sumar, the network frequently broadcasts criticisms of the Assad regime in Syria.

Rifaat's personal fortune is estimated at between US$2 billion and US$4 billion. It is sourced in part from the smuggling of goods through an illegal, unregulated port in Latakia. It is reported that Rifaat is involved in drug trafficking and the trade of other illegal goods.

Rifaat is formally stripped of his position as vice president and expelled from the Baath Party in 1998. Syrian security forces arrest many of Rifaat's supporters in Syria in 1999. Rifaat's illegal port at Latakia is closed down. Rifaat is warned he will be arrested if he returns to Syria.

From about 2010 on, Rifaat's financial affairs come under investigation by authorities in France and Spain. French authorities suspect he was involved in embezzlement of public funds and money laundering. Spanish police investigate his family for involvement in money laundering.

1994 - Hafez's eldest son and heir-apparent Basil is killed in a car accident on 12 January. Bashar, the second son and now the new heir, is recalled from medical school in London to be groomed for leadership. He enters the military academy at Homs to train for his new role.

1999 - 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, focusing on relations with Lebanon and domestic corruption. He is considered to be relatively liberal and an advocate of modernisation.

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

Bashar al-Assad formally replaces his father as president in July when he receives 97% of the vote in referendum in which he is the only candidate. Bashar is appointed to a second seven-year term as president in 2007. He is appointed to a third seven-year term in 2014. Bashar also becomes secretary general of the Baath Party and commander-in-chief of the armed forces with the rank of field marshal.

Bashar is initially viewed 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. Emergency rule remains in effect.

2005 - Syria is implicated in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri in Beirut on 13 February. Domestic and international pressure subsequently mounts on Syria to finally withdraw all its troops from Lebanon.

On 26 April the withdrawal is completed, bringing to an end Syria's 29 years of continuous military presence in Lebanon. However, some Syrian intelligence agents remain in the country.

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.

Bashar dismisses his cabinet, ends emergency rule and promises to start a national dialogue. However, peaceful demonstrations calling for democratic reforms are brutally suppressed. Thousands are killed by the military and security forces. The crackdown is led by Bashar's younger brother, Maher, who commands the Republican Guard and the army's Fourth Armoured Division.

The situation quickly deteriorates into a full-scale civil war between Assad's military and security forces and a coalition of rebel militias, including Islamist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra (an al-Qaeda affiliate, also known as the Nusra Front and later renamed Jabhat Fatah al-Sham).

Both sides are implicated in war crimes and crimes against humanity, though the worst and most widespread abuses are attributed to the state military and security forces. Arbitrary arrest, the use of torture and extrajudicial killings become commonplace. The indiscriminate use of high-powered armaments results in high civilian casualties.

Bashar al-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-Qaeda who call themselves jihadists".

As the war drags on, the Syrian Army resorts to increasingly extreme measures. Rebel enclaves are surrounded and placed under siege. Barrel bombs (oil drums filled with explosives, fuel and scrap metal) are dropped from helicopters, causing widespread death and destruction. Rockets and bombs loaded with chemical weapons are fired into residential areas.

The United Nations (UN) estimates that 5,000 people are being killed every month and that 6,000 Syrians are fleeing the conflict every day.

Attempts by the international community to halt the violence are ineffectual. A series on UN-sponsored peace talks achieve no substantial results.

By the end of 2012, at least 60,000 Syrians have been killed in the conflict, according to the UN. Over 560,000 Syrians have fled the country.

By the beginning of 2017, more than 321,000 have been killed and more than 145,000 are missing. Over five million people have fled Syria to neighbouring countries. An additional 6.3 million are internally displaced. There are about three million Syrian refugees in Turkey. Lebanon hosts about 1.5 million, Jordan about 657,000, Iraq about 240,000 and Egypt about 120,000. It is the largest number of refugees from a single conflict since the Afghan civil war of the 1990s. Tens of thousands of refugees have also travelled to Europe to seek asylum there.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, of the 321,000 killed, more than 96,000 were civilians. Government forces and their allies had killed more than 83,500 civilians. Rebel forces had killed more than 7,000 civilians. Islamic extremists had killed more than 3,700 civilians. US-led air strikes had killed 920 civilians. Turkish forces had killed 500 civilians.

2013 - The war grinds to a stalemate with neither side able to prevail. The conflict is complicated further when the myriad rebel groups begin to fight among themselves. Al-Qaeda affiliated Islamists seeking to take advantage of the chaos to establish an Islamic state, battle more moderate 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.

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 rebel forces receive military aid, including arms, from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United States. Turkey provides additional aid and support.

Underlying the backing that each side receives 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 rebels, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are Sunni.

As the conflict continues to drag on, the extremist group Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), also known as the Islamic State, becomes increasingly powerful, taking control of large areas in eastern and northern Syria and setting up a de facto "capital" in Raqqa. Other rebel groups are swept aside.

ISIS is led by fundamentalist Sunni Muslins seeking to establish an Islamic caliphate across the Middle East and bring on the apocalypse. In pursuit of this goal it extends the conflict into Iraq, seizing large areas in the west and north of the country and at one stage threatening the capital Baghdad.

ISIS has little or no tolerance for those of different creeds, especially Shia Muslins, and becomes notorious for its cruelty. The group becomes the biggest threat in the Middle East. Some reports suggest that ISIS is receiving substantial funding from private donors in Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

2015 - The Assad regime, seemingly in the ascendancy at the end of 2013 and through much of 2014, begins to look increasingly brittle. ISIS becomes more and more formidable, gaining control of approximately 50% of Syria by May despite repeated air strikes on its positions within the country by US Air Force fighters, with air support from Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates.

The capacity of other jihadi groups like the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra) is enhanced by more coordinated support from principal backers Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar and by a more coordinated operational structure, with several groups affiliating under the banner Jaish al-Fatah (Army of Conquest).

Bashar al-Assad's 2012 statement that the war is being run by "terrorists holding the views of al-Qaeda who call themselves jihadists" has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, although now al-Qaeda has been supplemented by the even more extreme ISIS.

Slowly, the balance begins to shift once more. Kurdish forces become increasingly effective against ISIS in the north and east. The Kurds are aided by US-led air strikes. The Turkish Air Force also beings to carry out strikes against ISIS positions within Syria.

Russia increases its military support for the Assad regime. At the end of September Russian warplanes and helicopter gunships begin to conduct strikes against jihadi and rebel targets inside Syria. The strikes are coordinated with the Syrian military command.

2016 - Under the cover of Russian warplanes, Syrian Army troops begin to make gains on the ground, taking positions along the border with Turkey, advancing on rebel-held east Aleppo and pushing back rebel forces in the south. East Aleppo is placed under siege and pounded by the most sustained and relentless bombardment of any location in Syria since the beginning of the war.

The final push on east Aleppo begins in mid-November. A renewed bombing campaign is followed by a ground assault. The resistance is broken and the rebels withdraw. East Aleppo is completely retaken by government forces on 22 December. It is Bashar al-Assad's biggest victory of the war.

The conflict has turned in favour of al-Assad.

Meanwhile, a report released in February by the Syrian Centre for Policy Research estimates at least 470,000 Syrians have died as a result of the war, almost double the number estimated by the UN. Life expectancy has dropped 14 years, to 56 from 70, according to the report. The cost to Syria's economy has been US$255 billion.

2017 - ISIS is defeated in Iraq and expelled from its strongholds in Syria. The group's de facto capital at Raqqa is liberated in October following heavy bombing by US warplanes and a ground assault by US-backed Kurdish and Syrian rebel forces. By the end of the year, ISIS has been almost completely neutralised within Syria.

2018 - The rebel enclave at eastern Ghouta on the outskirts of Damascus becomes the next focus of the Assad regime. Using similar siege and bombardment techniques to those employed against east Aleppo in 2016, the Syrian military and security forces overwhelm the fractured rebel resistance. East Ghouta falls to the government in April. A smaller rebel enclave to the southwest is cleared in May. Bashar al-Assad gains complete control of Damascus and its surrounding suburbs for the first time since the war broke out in 2011.

The armed rebel movement is now confined to two major areas - Idlib province in the northwest near the Turkish border and Daraa in the southwest near the Jordanian border.

Comment

When this profile was first published in 2009 it was principally concerned with the human rights abuses committed by Hafez al-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 al-Assad appeared to be a somewhat bumbling and ineffectual character who never expected to head the regime in Syria and would have vastly preferred to have lived a quite life practicing as an ophthalmologist. How wrong that assessment now seems. Bashar al-Assad, or rather Bashar al-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 Bashar al-Assad's regime had bent just a little more and allowed some meaningful reforms it is possible that years of war and the worst humanitarian crisis in a quarter of a century could have been prevented. If the Bashar al-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 al-Assad would 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.

It is a double tragedy that the reform movement in Syria became so compromised so quickly. What seemed to be a grass-roots and peaceful uprising soon became hijacked by regional powers in pursuit of self-interested goals. Global players then joined in, pursuing goals of their own. Worst of all was the infiltration by jihadis and religious extremists. Bashar al-Assad's claim that the war was being run by "terrorists holding the views of al-Qaeda who call themselves jihadists" became a self-fulfilling prophecy. In the Syrian Civil War there is no good versus bad, just bad versus worse. It is a terrible irony that Syria's best hope may now lie with Bashar al-Assad and his regime.