On the morning of the 10th of June 2000, front pages of newspapers and TV screens from the entire Arab world showed but one headline, accompanied by a funeral speech: Hafez Al-Assad fi djimmat Allah. (Hafez Al-Assad, in God’s care)
The 10th of June 2020 marked the 20-year anniversary of the death of the former Syrian president, after almost 30 years of governing that ended with his son, Bashar Al-Assad, being instated as supreme leader. It marked the first Arab hereditary republic in the Middle East and ensured the continuity of the Al-Assad Alawite family at the control board of absolute power over Syria and its society.
The late president was laid to rest in the small town of Qardaha, close to the Mediterranean coast, the fief of the Syrian Alawites.
Today, the anniversary of the death of the former Syrian leader chronologically marks 20 years since Bashar Al-Assad started governing Syria, as well as 50 years since the Assad family have been its supreme leaders – the longest gerontocracy in the modern history of the Arab Middle East and Maghrib.
Today, 20 years after Hafez Al-Assad’s death and after 9 years of “Syria isn’t Tunisia”, the Damascus regime governs over a country that faces a series of major challenges: a state of ruin, in the literal sense, an unprecedented economic crisis that threatens to cause new waves of protests, already seen in Daraa, in the south of the country, in the north-east, and in the foreign-controlled west, and last but not least, a major deploy of forces that stake their claim over these districts – the regime, which controls over 60% of the national territory, the Kurdish separatists, the Syrian military opposition and the scarce enclaves controlled by the rest of the Jihadist groups. And, to complete the list we must mention the fierce competition between the regional and extra-regional powers, which use their strategic advantages provided by the Syrian political geography, for influence and control over this country, and by extension over the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean.
One may say that ever since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, this crisis has gradually become international, not only because of the political and diplomatic actions and initiatives taken to reduce the violence, but also because of the tempestuous interference of the regional and international powers, which are divided into two categories, depending on their stance and policy related to the Damascus regime. Starting with the Arab monarchies in the Gulf, led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and moving on to the “big” players from the Euro-Atlantic community – the USA, under the successive administrations of Barack Obama and Donald Trump, Great Britain, France, Germany – they all took a dynamic and versatile stance against Bashar Al-Assad’s regime, supporting the political and military Syrian opposition. This largely directed the internal evolution of events towards the disarray of the Damascus leadership and its military swiftly drifting into chaos.
It was this moment that marked a new and violent stage, which started in December 2015, when Vladimir Putin’s Russian air forces became directly involved in the conflict, siding with the Syrian National Army. The Russian air forces, logistic support, Russian military police and Russian special forces rapidly managed to prevent the fall of the Syrian regime and turned the balance of power in favour of Bashar Al-Assad. Actually, by joining Syria, Vladimir Putin joined the so called “Axis of Resistance” – a highly ideological agreement established by Iran since the time of the former Syrian president Hafez Al-Assad, immediately after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Islamic regime came to power in Tehran, an agreement seconded by the pro-Iranian militias and groups led by the Lebanese Hezbollah.
The war in Syria has not come to an end and peace is still unclear and far away.
Despite the triumphant rhetoric of the Damascus political leadership, the future of this country and its people don’t depend on the decisions taken by its official leaders or by the Syrian people, but by the foreign powers that have claimed their victories in their competition for Syria.
After Donald Trump withdrew a considerable part of his war machine from Syria and gave up the alliance with a Syrian Kurdish minority that have been used for as long as they had proven themselves useful to the structural and combative break-up of the Jihad practiced by the Islamic State and Syrian Al-Qaeda – he seems to have given a new, stronger meaning to the concept of “extreme pressure”, a term found in the so-called “Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act”. Signed by the US president on the 20th of December 2019, due to be enforced in the following period, it extends the individual or institutional sanctions and penalties imposed on the Syrian regime, to the Syrian figures who support Bashar Al-Assad’s regime, as well as to third parties (which do not comply with the measures imposed by the Caesar Act).
Targeting objectives vital to the functioning of the institutions and society – such as stopping the post-war reconstruction process by blocking foreign financial contributions, which might aid the proper functioning of the country, its economy and society, or implementing a severe embargo on the delivery and import of oil and petroleum products and other types of merchandise – the document raises doubts, at least as far as analysts are concerned, regarding the impact these measures might have on the civil society. Thus, the latest measures in “Caesar Act” are actually aimed at supporting a “rebirth” of the Syrian people, that, if well organised, coordinated and supported, would eventually lead to a new “Arab Spring”, capable of causing the implosion of the Syrian regime. There already are relevant signs to support this theory, in the south of the country, in Daraa and Suwaida, where the first riots took place in 2011, as well as in the northeastern regions of the Syrian territory, in the areas controlled by Bashar Al-Assad’s regime. The plan of the Washington “Caesar” is meant, at the same time, to show that even in the short time left until the presidential elections, it can hinder, for as long as possible, the normalisation of Syria’s international relations. These are the circumstances under which Syria is still isolated and kept out of the Arab League, despite the fact that out of mercantile reasons or political vendetta, some countries have reopened or decided to reopen their diplomatic missions in Damascus (as is the case with Cyprus, which did it to protest against the Turkish intervention in Syria – a protest related to the well-known tensions between Nicosia and Ankara).
In Arabic the word “Assad” means “lion” and was used as an appellation for the former president, Hafez Al-Assad who was referred to as “the Lion of Damascus”.