Assad’s “eternal rule:” the long prelude to genocide

Assadism willfully manufactured sectarian divides. These divisions are now emerging as genocidal formations that imply a readiness to annihilate others. What does Syria show us about the need to resist political leaders’ weaponization of group identities?


Yassin al Haj Saleh

Sectarianism in Syria and the region is considered a socio-political defect, one that weakens states and societies, and inhibits any rational analysis of social and political conditions. The prevailing thought on this matter, both in our countries and in the West, tends to explain sectarianism in terms of inherited religious groupings, seen as a primordial particularity of Middle Eastern societies. But this conception both fails to fully encapsulate the emergence of sectarianism and to grasp the full extent of its dangers.  

In the course of the past five decades, Assadist rule has moved Syria towards sharper sectarian divides. This trend began with Hafez al-Assad, who was basically a product of his time – he likely harbored anti-colonial and nationalist sentiments, and there is little reason to assume that he had ill intent towards his country. But he had a strong desire for something more: control over Syria, and to remain in power for as long as possible. To that end, he appointed his most trusted cronies to pivotal positions of power within his regime. It was an open secret that security agencies and military divisions with security functions were predominantly comprised of Alawites, the religious group to which the president belonged. Himself a former officer and minister of defense, Hafez placed all his trust in the hands of relatives, seeking to avert the military coups for which Syria had become notorious in the two decades following its independence in 1946.

His approach not only depoliticized the military, it also degraded its professionalism and diminished its militarism. Since the 1970s, the “Syrian Arab Army” became woefully susceptible to sectarian division, with its recruits emerging more sectarian and less patriotic than before joining its ranks. This was contrary to all the assumptions of modernization theories dominant among Western scholars until the 1970s and 1980s. It also contradicted the nationalist ideology of the regime.

In his first book, The Struggle for Power in Syria, Nikolaos van Dam attributed the highly sectarianized security apparatus to a desire for stability, and the fulfillment of the ideals of modernization and nationalism that characterized Baathists of the 1960s and 1970s. However, one is led to ask: what remains of these ideals when power revolves around a sectarianized security apparatus working as a pump of discrimination? Rather than creating stability, the solidification of sectarian divisions has proven fertile ground for civil war.

The coup-proofing mechanisms put in place during the era of Hafez al-Assad also served as an effective barrier to political change, under what the regime itself began referring to since the 1980s as its “eternal rule” (Ila al’Abad, O, Hafez Alassad! was a military slogan that entered widespread use in the 80s). Eternal rule required the destruction of any dissenting political organizations; not only Islamist organizations that engaged in armed conflict with the regime in the late 1970s, but also Leftist organizations that maintained a significant presence at the time. These organizations brought together Syrians from various backgrounds, including Kurds and Arabs, Christians and Muslims, Alawites, Druz, Ismailis, and Sunnis.

In the course of 1980s the active opposition parties underwent “politicide” at the hands of the regime, with many of their members spending long years in prison. I was one of them: I spent 16 years incarcerated.

With the purpose of maintaining its hold on power, the regime’s elimination of dissent undermined the civic alternatives that were produced by, and available to, Syrian society to overcome its internal divisions. In the course of the 1980s, the active opposition parties underwent “politicide” at the hands of the regime, with many of their members spending long years in jails. I was one of them: I spent 16 years incarcerated. Unions of doctors, engineers, lawyers, and pharmacists were dissolved in 1981 because they were critical of the regime in the statements they issued in the Spring of 1980. These organs were “reformed” in a way that robbed them of any independence, with regime puppets controlling them. Many active trade unionists were arrested and carried out 11 year prison sentences.

Hence, what happened in Syria during the Assad era was not only a consolidation of power around a sectarianized security apparatus, but the destruction of any independent anti-sectarian political organizations or convergences that could have built alliances between social groups. Hafez al-Assad not only built a dictatorial police state but also politically drained Syrian society, reducing it to a political desert, with the state functioning as the engine of this deepening sectarianization process. We, on the other hand, were denied any counter-dynamics that could curtail the destructive effects of this process. We had always been Muslims and Christians, Sunnis and Alawites and others in Syria, but as a result of the decades under the rule of Hafez and his successor, Sunnis became more Sunni, Alawites more Alawite, Christians more Christian, and so on. And thus, all Syrians became less Syrian.

This process, in general, was not one of the Alawization of the regime, but rather of the Alawization of Alawites themselves, so to speak – the production of a sect that is, or verges on being, monolithic in its support for this regime.

Sects were rendered into clientelistic networks that met people’s needs. They served the function of securing wasta (nepotistic mediation) without which arranging anything was unviable, and which was a service that could rarely be provided outside of one’s group. This brought Alawites closer to other Alawites and Sunnis closer to other Sunnis, and so on. (I’ve previously elaborated on how this all took shape in the final chapter of my book The Impossible Revolution, London 2017). In this scheme, the regime was thought of in the public consciousness as the manifestation of Alawite power. But on this, I disagree with our great, late intellectual, Sadiq Jalal al-Azm. I understand the manifestation of Alawism in Syriain its social and political meanings – as a sect that has been manufactured by the regime. This contrasts with the idea that the regime is an expression of some political Alawism, the concept of political Alawism that Jalal al-Azm introduced after the Syrian Uprising.

Alawites were “sculpted” through multiple processes that not only included the state-level discrimination that facilitated identification with the group, but also included the violent elimination of pluralism from within the Alawite community. In the 1970s, the regime eradicated a rival Baathist organization, the most prominent of whose members were Alawite, and their symbolic leader, Salah Jadid, died after 23 years of imprisonment. In the 1980s and early 1990s, similar large-scale arrest campaigns took place, which targeted members of anti-regime Communist Action Party, a considerable proportion of whom were Alawite. This process, in general, was not one of the Alawization of the regime, but rather of the Alawization of Alawites themselves, so to speak – the production of a sect that is, or verges on being, monolithic in its support for this regime.

Eternal rule went from being a means of perpetuating the regime’s political power to a social structure.

The process of producing Alawites as a sect was circumstantially facilitated by a unified ascension by Sunni Muslim sectarianism, which challenged the regime and culminated in the 1979 massacre of dozens of young Alawite cadets at the hands of a young officer recruited by Islamic fundamentalists. It also appears that his recruitment was facilitated by sectarian discrimination he had experienced in the army (see, Hussam Jazmati’s article). Moreover, the construction of a dynasty and the strife to achieve eternal rule constituted a vast leap in the privatization of the state. Rather than the political actualization of society, the function of the state became the organized and hostile power that controls society by force, and eradicates anyone rebelling against it. This privatized state was a strong blow to whoever still possessed a sense of dissidence within the Alawite environment.

Our sects are a product of half a century of dynamics of containment and exclusion. Amid discrimination, violence, and the creation of a sense of mutual fear and distrust, proximity to the regime became the only means through which people could gain a sense of security. Assad’s Syria has thus produced a social infrastructure that facilitates the reproduction and perpetuation of sectarianism. This was not achieved without resistance, but all attempts at resistance were consecutively thwarted. Over decades of Assadist rule, social groups in Syria have become increasingly consolidated and further dissociated from one another; eternal fossilized artifacts. In this way, eternal rule went from being a means of perpetuating the regime’s political power to a social structure. In other words, it turned into a social arrangement grounded in the consolidation of sects and their transformation into eternal socio-political artifacts.

Eternal rule is no longer half a century of dynastic reign that aspires to persist eternally, rather it is now inscribed in the very structure of Syrian society. Seen in this light, the regime’s claim to protecting minorities becomes exposed as a component of the production of sects – a process that sustains discriminatory political conditions that in turn harm everyone who live under them, majorities and minorities alike.

The 1982 Hama sectarian massacre marked a decisive turn by the regime towards sectarianization. It was also after this event that the practice of erecting statues of Hafez al-Assad began to spread. Sects are, themselves monuments, the way monuments are symbols of consolidated and eternalized social and political systems. Monuments are not found in nature, nor are sects. They are artifacts, produced through political art, from something that was not destined to take that particular shape. In Arabic, the words “sect” and “statue” are one and the same (awabed). The two are intimately related to the word for “eternal” (abadi), and thus to the consolidation and eternalization of power.

I propose here a concept of genocracy, the rule of a genos, the Greek word for a race or kin. I think that we are witnessing a genocratic turn on a global scale, and that genocracies are quite susceptible to genocides.

The United Nations Genocide Convention defines genocide as the destruction, in whole or in part, of a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group, i.e. a group with a known inherited identity. A political regime that founds its enteral claim to power upon the production of essentialist primordial identities and the negation of history necessarily runs the risk of becoming genocidal whenever the permanence of its rule is at risk. This genocide is precisely what is happening in Syria today, and we could trace its forewarnings back to the end of the first decade of Hafez al-Assad’s rule. I propose here a concept of genocracy, the rule of a genos, the Greek word for a race or kin. I think that we are witnessing a genocratic turn on a global scale, and that genocracies are quite susceptible to genocides.

In the wake of its independence, Syria witnessed political violence, but it had never known genocidal violence before Baathist rule. This was especially evident after Hafez al-Assad assumed power. Even during the French occupation, genocide as such did not even make an appearance, even if there were sectarian assaults and provocations. Could Syria have avoided sectarianism had Assad never taken over power? Considering the situation in Lebanon and Iraq, we cannot claim that with any degree of certainty. Beyond the fact that Assad’s Syria has contributed to the wider sectarianization of the region, it also combined the worst of both tyrannical Iraq under Saddam and patronage-based Lebanon, and reproduced itself for half a century today, nearly half the age of the modern Syrian state itself.

What has happened in Syria has been neither natural nor predestined.

Syrians did resist this dictatorial and sectarian transformation, but they were defeated. Fatalistic Western experts who use the so-called mosaic structure of our societies as the explanation for sectarianism neglect this factor. Local experts, equally fatalistic, also tend to neglect it. To the extent that sectarianization opened the door to genocide, closing this door necessitates curtailing sectarianization, and consequently requires nationalizing the privatized state, which was the first agent of the sectarianization process.

This will by no means be easily attained. On the contrary, today this eternally genocidal state receives protection from Russia and Iran, two states whose interventions benefit from and promote sectarian violence. A few weeks ago, the official spokesperson for the Russian base in Syria spoke about the protection of Orthodox Christians after other officials and the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, had made similar statements. This was a sinister echo of the Assadist rhetoric of protecting minorities. The Iranian ruling elite, for their part, beyond a mere propping up of the regime, are interested in securing a long-lasting Shi’a social support base in the country. This offers Syrians no prospect other than the persistence of genocidal policies.

Nationalizing the state means power sharing and the appropriation of the state by the people, not by a family or a sect. It involves working on a citizenship-based political and judicial system as a means of eliminating sectarianism. This is easier said than done, but so was the work of intimidating the people of a nation through its security apparatus, erecting monuments of narcissistic self-reverence, and establishing a booming torture industry. What has happened in Syria has been neither natural nor predestined. It has been the outcome of numerous efforts to annihilate social and political resistances that struggled against discrimination and for political pluralism. This is as pertinent a reality today as it was for the last fifty years.


Yassin al Haj Saleh is a Syrian writer, author of seven books on Syria, jail, contemporary Islam, and culture and politics. Based now in Berlin.  

Translation from Arabic by Yasser Al Zaiat