Editor’s Note: Every Monday, Managing Editor Frederick Deknatel highlights a major unfolding story in the Middle East, while curating some of the best news and analysis from the region. Subscribers can adjust their newsletter settings to receive Middle East Memo by email every week.
Nov. 13 marked a grim milestone in Syria: 50 years since Hafez al-Assad, then a young Alawite air force officer from the coastal hills outside Latakia, seized power in a bloodless coup. At the time, it was just the latest in a string of coups and countercoups in Damascus—starting with the Arab world’s first military putsch in 1949—that had made Syria so unstable in the first few decades of its independence following French colonial rule. But where other military officers had failed, leading short-lived juntas, only to be deposed and in some cases executed by their rivals, Assad succeeded, brutally.
He held power through cold and repressive calculation for 30 years, dividing Syrians among themselves under the ever-present eye of a police state. Assad maintained his authority through what historian David Lesch has called a “Faustian bargain,” in which Syrians gained a form of stability—at least compared to the constant upheavals of the 1950s and 1960s—but lost their basic political rights. That stability under Assad, though, if it can be called that, came with other, much higher costs, most notoriously in 1982, when he ordered a massacre of thousands in the city of Hama to put down an Islamist-led revolt. Hafez’s son, Bashar, has tried to emulate this blueprint since 2000, including the past nine years of civil war that have wrecked Syria.