Monday, June 18, 2007

Hafez al-Assad is still dead (thank God)

You may recall my earlier post involving the wacky Syrian Arab News Agency and their frankly bizarre article about the celebration isosceles trapezoid? Naturally, I've started reading their website religiously, partly for weird, poorly translated stories about Syria, but also because SANA is a perfect example of what dictatorships do to the press.

Case in point: this article about Syrian cabinet ministers "celebrating" the seventh anniversary of Hafez al-Assad's long overdue demise. I admit that I'm no expert on Arab culture, but celebrating the demise of a dictator whose cult of personality was (and still is) a part of everyday political life in Syria seems, at best, a very strange choice of word. I can understand Syria's long suffering neighbors (Israel and Lebanon) breaking out the champagne, but why would Syrian officials publicly celebrate the death of someone whose boots they're still officially required to lick?

We may never get a sense of how ordinary people in Syria feel about the demise of their most notorious dictator. People in Syria will immediately change the topic when someone begins discussing religion or politics; after all, you never know who might be eavesdropping. Who knows what Syrians might say about the old man given a chance to speak freely? After all, there was no shortage of people in Syria who nursed serious grudges against Assad.

After seizing power in a coup in 1970, Hafez al-Assad turned Syria into a dictatorial police state, rivaled only by that of his neighbor, Saddam Hussein of Iraq. Like Saddam, al-Assad used his power to settle grudges, often in a spectacularly bloody fashion. When the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood seized the city of Hama, al-Assad swore he would rather level the city to the ground than tolerate any challenge to his authority, and level it he did. Without any hesitation, al-Assad called in the army, who assaulted the city with artillery and poison gas until over 30,000 people perished. In fact, "the politics of revenge" more or less defined the style of Hafez al-Assad, whether it involved his own Kurdish population, his dealings with Israel and Lebanon, or even his penchant for doling out money and support to terrorist groups - every move made by Hafez al-Assad was invariably shrewd while simultaneously being brutal, vicious and repugnant. Is it any wonder that people would rather not discuss his legacy in public?

If anyone inside Syria has reason, and permission, to publicly celebrate the demise of Hafez al-Assad, it's his weak chinned son Bashar al-Assad, who inherited the top job when his more capable and ruthless elder brother, Basil, died in a car accident. An ophthalmologist by training, Bashar al-Assad appears to be learning the ins and outs of the dictator business as he goes. While Bashar has preserved his father's aggressive secret police and penchant for preserving rule by a tiny Alawite elite, Bashar lacks his father's instincts for making intuitively shrewd moves. Hafez conquered Lebanon, but Bashar lost it.

So while I doubt that Bashar al-Assad's sycophantic cronies are celebrating the demise of Hafez al-Assad, I think I'll take a minute today to do so myself. I think I'll save the champagne, however, until Bashar kicks the bucket, too.

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