Hafez al Assad’s ominous capture of power on 13 November 1970, as chronicled by a former student activist and left-wing Baathist from the Alawi heartland.
On 30 October 1970, the Syrian Baath Party held its Tenth Extraordinary National Convention in the capital Damascus. The proceedings took place behind closed doors at the directive of the party’s radical left-wing faction, headed by its strongman, General Salah Jadid. The central item on the agenda was the removal of the then-Defence Minister Hafez al Assad and his chief of staff, General Mustafa Tlas, from their positions. Save for those directly involved, few at the time were aware of the implications of this intra-party feud.
On 13 November, Assad arrested the party’s leading members, launching a coup that purged the organisation of his critics. On the 16th, state media announced that a ‘Corrective Movement’ had occurred, marking the formal beginning of Assad’s hijacking of the party and seizure of the state.
The announcement sent shivers down my 17-year-old spine. At the time, I was a student activist and supporter of the faction that had dominated the party. I was also the brother of an officer whose principled resistance to Assad’s creeping authoritarianism had led to his imprisonment in 1968. As such, I instinctively understood the ominousness of this moment in history. In my hometown of Jableh, situated in the ‘Alawi-majority province of Latakia, my comrades and I immediately began planning protests with like-minded individuals to counter Assad’s coup.
That same night, armed pro-Assad gangs openly roamed the streets in pursuit of left-wing Baathists along the Syrian coast. Once caught, the latter were severely beaten and warned not to partake in anti-coup demonstrations. Mobilised and deployed by Hafez’s younger brother, Rifat – commander of the notorious Defence Companies that would later spearhead the 1982 Hama Massacre – their violence marked our first experience with the shabbiha that came to terrorise Syrian society. They were almost exclusively 'Alawi'. 41 years before the Syrian Uprising, we, who belonged to the same ‘sect’ as these thugs, were the original targets of their repression.
Undeterred, my peers and I arrived at school the next morning to stage a march aimed at linking up with a demonstration occurring in front of the party’s local office. To our shock, we were ambushed by elements of the secret service (mukhabarat) and the shabbiha, who had jointly occupied the premise. Greatly outnumbered, we were beaten and detained for hours. Assad’s informants had successfully infiltrated not only the party, but student unions such as ours.
The faces of the newly co-opted thugs staring back at us were all too familiar. They included students belonging to prominent landowning families who resented the party for its land redistribution schemes and fringe members of the Makhlouf clan who, at the time, had lived in poverty. The brothers and cousins of Adnan Makhlouf, who came to command Hafez Assad's elite Republican Guards, were among those who suppressed our peaceful resistance.
Bruised but not subdued, I returned home after my release and was overwhelmed with visitors who came to show support and share stories about the developments unfolding across the coast. I was told that thousands of ‘Alawi peasants from the surrounding villages who had been expected to join the anti-Assad movement were forced back at gunpoint by Rifat’s troops, which had installed a series of checkpoints along the countryside’s main roads. Our primary demonstration was effectively reduced to a few dozen individuals who had hardly marched for a hundred metres before being viciously attacked and dispersed by supporters of the emerging regime.
Assad utilised this template to eradicate peaceful opposition across the country. In the capital, Baathists had planned a major demonstration in front of the party office. News reached us that Muhammad Ahmad Rabah, Secretary of the Damascus Branch, received a threatening call from Hafez warning him of the consequences of allowing the demonstration. Yet Rabah defied him. “The people around me have mobilized to mourn their party,” he stated. “I won’t deny them this right.”
Hours later, the march began but was quelled almost instantly. The Defense Companies, dressed in civilian clothes, had penetrated the ranks of the demonstrators. Less than fifteen minutes after anti-Assad chants had erupted, they turned on the participants and thrashed them. Rabah, like many influential Ba’thist figures, was thrown in jail and imprisoned for years, while Jadid remained incarcerated until his death in 1993. Others were either killed or released, only to die shortly after under mysterious circumstances.
In the days that followed, images of pro-coup demonstrations flooded the only Syrian TV station, which had become the Assad regime’s primary instrument for the dissemination of propaganda. With a mixture of repugnance and disbelief, we watched on, knowing that the mukhabarat must have coerced students, factory and office workers, and even some elements of the armed forces, to take to the streets – setting a precedent for artificial marches of support that became routine practice of the regime henceforward.
The new regime fashioned its own brand of Baathism by opening the door to anyone willing to demonstrate unquestioning subservience. Loyalty displaced ideological conviction, thus creating an inflated organisation stacked with opportunists that bore little resemblance to the one decimated by Hafez. Party membership became a passport for those pursuing employment in office and across ministries.
Additionally, Assad transformed the party into an adjunct to the security apparatus, and officials at all levels were tasked with spying on the sectors of society from which ideational challenges to the regime could occur. Universities, colleges, factories and trade unions were monitored to ensure that the ‘party line’ – as dictated by Assad – was enforced across society. It functioned with little autonomy outside of his directives, possessing neither meaningful power nor moral or ideological credibility. It became another tool of control in Assad’s police state.
Under Assad’s regime, the media and many artists were relegated to cheerleaders that functioned solely to perpetuate the myth of his eternal ‘wisdom.’ Symbols of the regime became omnipresent: statues of Hafez were erected on major streets and pictures hung in every institutional office in the country, from primary schools to military compounds. His henchmen were given a free hand to amass fortunes at the expense of the public, creating an ultra-wealthy class whose very existence runs contrary to Baathist socialist principles. Unchecked corruption, facilitated by patron-client networks, served as a mechanism for rewarding their allegiance. This kept its benefactors busy and content, curbing incentives to challenge his autocratic rule. It also drastically widened the gap between rich and poor.
In contrast, the average Syrian had benefited from the policies enacted under Jadid. The implementation of an expanded agrarian reform project – combined with commodity and residential rent control and intolerance toward corruption – limited economic inequality. However, his regime’s failure to include ordinary people in its decision-making and share power with other left-wing political parties, such as Syria’s Nasserists, nationalists and communists, alienated the masses and left it without allies. Thus, when the moment came, very few Syrians actively resisted Assad’s reign.
50 years on, Syria and its people are still paying for this reckoning. Bashar al Assad has inherited the obstinacy and brutality of his father. Since the 2011 uprising, this has resulted in the death of hundreds of thousands of Syrians, the displacement of more than half the population, and the physical, social, and moral destruction of the country. Syrians continue to endure the legacy of the Corrective Movement, the tragedy that we tried – but failed – to prevent.
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