Why are we mourning Hafez Assad?
True, "mourning" might be too strong an expression to describe the unwritten diplomatic protocol that requires the death of certain kinds of statesmen, particularly long-serving statesmen—and particularly long-serving statesmen of the Middle East—to be marked in a certain kind of way. Presidents, prime ministers, and foreign ministers express condolences, send telegrams, and start making plans to attend funerals, however inconvenient. Leading newspapers write respectful obituaries and speculate, cautiously, about the succession. All of those "expert" commentators who normally spend their time in the dark obscurity of think tanks and specialist institutes surface on television, looking shellshocked and invariably giving overly complex answers to easy questions.
I'd even concede that there is something vaguely soothing about the very repetitiveness of these rituals, played out, in recent memory, for the kings of Morocco and Jordan. The king is dead, long live the king—and we will now return to our regularly scheduled programming. But habits are made to be broken, and in the case of Assad, who for 30 years ruled Syria, I think it might be worth breaking them: not, that is, merely remembering the recent occasions on which he met Clinton or discussing the meaning of his death for the future of Middle East peace or speculating on the significance of the fact that his son and successor is a trained ophthalmologist, but rather pausing, albeit briefly and superficially, to remember just what a thoroughly evil and unpleasant dictator he was and to remember the tragedies he inflicted upon his own people.
Assad came to power in 1970, following a series of bloody coups and countercoups; thereafter he maintained power by ensuring that he himself was never overthrown in a like manner. His reign was marked by a single-minded determination to rid himself of opposition, whether ethnic, religious, or political. Early on, he used violence to put down riots organized by Syria's majority Sunni Muslim community (he himself was one of the minority Alawite religious sect). When support grew, nevertheless, for the Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni fundamentalist organization, and other groups, Assad responded to their protests and attacks with more violence—heavy surveillance, torture, public hangings (membership in banned organizations was punishable by death)—culminating in the infamous destruction of the city of Hamah, a wholesale slaughter in which up to 25,000 people are thought to have died. (for a photograph of Hamah after the violence, click here).
Ethnic, religious, and intellectual dissent persisted nevertheless, inspiring Assad to set up a complicated system of security networks, each with its own jails and interrogation centers, each directly answerable to Assad himself. In 1998, Amnesty International began its report on Syria with the following comment: "Dozens of people were arrested on political grounds, and hundreds of political prisoners, including prisoners of conscience, continued to serve prison sentences or were held without charge or trial. At least six political prisoners, including prisoners of conscience, continued to be held beyond the expiry of their sentences. The fate of scores of prisoners who 'disappeared' in previous years remained unknown." According to the group's 1999 report, some political prisoners had been released, but among other things, "torture continued to be routine in some prisons." Fear was, in short, the primary tool that Assad used to remain in power.
But Assad was also an evil influence abroad. Infamously, his regime is thought to have sponsored and trained not only Abu Nidal but also a huge range of terrorist groups, including the Baader Meinhof gang and the Japanese Red Army, as well as Kurds, Tamils, Omanis, Somalis, Eritreans, Armenians, and Pakistanis. (See the State Department's most recent assessment of Syria's role in sponsoring international terrorism here.) Even leaving aside his role in the Lebanese civil war and his destructive and sometimes murderous meddling among the Palestinian leadership, Assad enjoyed, at different times, tense relationships with most of his other neighbors. Nor did his reign of fear at home and terror abroad do much to foster the economic well-being of his people, who remained among the poorest in the Middle East, with a per capita income of $6,600.
All this, of course, is leaving aside Assad's pernicious role in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Since this is what most of the comment over the last day or two has focused on, I will merely note here that it is perhaps no coincidence that Assad was one of the last Arab leaders to have been dragged, kicking and screaming, into the Israeli peace process. And no wonder: "Peace," either at home or internationally, was never in Assad's interests. His primary goal always lay in maintaining his own iron grip on power. No tool of violence was too extreme for him, no methods too immoral, no tactic too unspeakable.
The world is better off without him.