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Rima Alaf

20 years ago today, I was at a Damascus hair salon when an assistant rushed to tell us Hafez Assad had died. What I saw and lived in the next days and years is set in stone in my memory. This thread is but a glimpse of life in #Syria then and the slow descent into implosion. /1

Hafez started preparing the ground for 2nd son Bashar in 1994 when original heir Bassel was killed in a car crash. While Bashar’s meteoric rise in army ranks and early public appearances in late 90s prepared people, Hafez was busy clearing regime ranks of potential contenders. /2

Big names Syrians had grown up fearing, from Hekmat Shehabi to dreaded head of intelligence Ali Douba, were officially retired to ensure only the most loyal and least ambitious men stayed. Bashar never had to fight an “old guard” in later years as some clueless media claimed. /3

Within an hour of Hafez’s death, parliament held a special televised session to amend the constitution. In 5 minutes, the required age for the presidency was lowered from 40 to 34, Bashar’s age. We all watched in stunned silence: we expected it, but it was still humiliating. /4

When Bassel died, Hafez Assad forced the entire country to shut down & mourn for 40 days. So when Hafez died, Syrians went into self-preservation mode: within a couple of hours, streets emptied & shops closed, with people at home glued to TVs, trying to interpret developments. /5

Turns out Bashar couldn’t care less if people grieved “the eternal leader” as long as they cheered “the hope” – the cute moniker his folks spread for us to repeat. Bashar was devoid of emotion, even flippant at the funeral, a bit ungrateful considering his hefty inheritance. /6

The formalities of Bashar’s “election” took place the following month, and many would have wanted the story to end with “and we all lived happily ever after” … but we didn’t. To begin with, the personality cult imposed under Hafez paled in comparison to what Bashar demanded. /7

Hafez liked being feared but Bashar was desperate to be admired. Over the years, he sidelined any Syrian personality who came even close to being popular or, God forbid, to outshine the king. Old wooden Baathist dinosaurs are still his core ministers & advisors for a reason. /8

To be admired, Bashar strived to be cool. The rumors about work ethics, love of technology and humble demeanor, the wife, the living quarters, the interviews, the cafes, the modernity, the posters magically appearing “against his will” – all meant to drip with coolness. /9

Before Hafez died, I was one of the first few thousand Syrians to buy a mobile phone. For that privilege, in addition to the cost of the phone (illegal to bring one from abroad) + various fees, I paid $1,200 to Syriatel just to have a number. That’s how Rami became cool too. /10

As portfolio manager of the Assad and Makhlouf clans, Rami was the most visible and most powerful “businessman.” But all the children of the Hafez buddies became the new business people of the Bashar era – not that it’s a feat of entrepreneurship with no competition allowed. /11

The so-called economic opening was merely an erratic crony capitalist economy so a few could live it up. As they watched mounting obscene wealth around them, Syrians were beginning to face rising prices, diminishing means, a dismal housing situation and a transport nightmare. /12

From the start, Bashar claimed the economy would be reformed; if this was reform, imagine the rest. There were a couple of private banks, some media, a few private schools – none of which had an effect on the lives of ordinary Syrians. On the political front, empty words. /13

Some dared to call Bashar’s bluff. In September 2000, 99 brave Syrian intellectuals signed a statement asking him to lift the state of emergency (in place since 1963), free political prisoners, allow freedom of speech … if you know Syria, you know where this is going. /14

Syrians waited for these basic freedoms and rights for an entire decade, and paid dearly for it. While Rami scooped up every possible penny made in or coming into Syria, Bashar was scooping up Syrians who dared to speak out and populating jails with prisoners of conscience. /15

The Damascus Spring, as we call it, turned rapidly into a Damascus Winter. Many old opposition figures who the world discovered in 2011 had been prisoners of conscience for years – under father and then son – for “weakening national sentiment.” Defying Bashar was verboten. /16

Abroad, Bashar played statesman with disastrous effect, giving absurd interviews pontificating on world affairs. A mansplainer of the first order, he tediously denied claims about any action by saying “it’s not logical.” He riled up the US by sending fighters to Iraq … /17

… even though he voted for Resolution 1441 on his Security Council stint, giving the US the unanimity it had sought and the justification it needed to invade Iraq a few months later (Bashar always wants to be wanted, and if that doesn’t work he makes trouble to be noticed). /18

And then there was Lebanon, which he had been messing up since the day he inherited his realm. In 2004, he forced the Lebanese parliament to extend then-president Emile Lahoud for 3 years (unconstitutionally), and in February 2005, with his ever stronger ally Hezbollah, … /19

… he killed Rafic Hariri, setting in motion a sequence of further assassinations and upheaval, and the forced retreat of Syrian soldiers who had been there since the 1970s. When brave Syrians dared to stand with their Lebanese counterparts, he threw them in jail, again. /20

Syrians watched Lebanese protesters publicly insult Bashar, shaking the regime for the first time. That is when the “menhebak” (we love you) posters started appearing, and when the regime began peddling Syrianism (basically, Syria First) to replace Baathist Arabism. /21

After the hasty Lebanon retreat, Bashar promised Syrians big changes were coming. We were not holding our breath, but when he then convened a Baath Party Congress (the first since 2000), some again dared to hope the regime had finally learned its lesson. Silly them. /22

The Congress declared that the economy (officially socialist for people, capitalist for ruling elite) would henceforth be known as a “social market economy,” whatever that means. Poverty continued to rise, the velvet society continued to sip frappuccinos at the Four Seasons. /23

Ostracized by the entire region and the world, Bashar was saved by Hezbollah’s infamous May 2008 assault on Beirut which led to a reconciliation agreement sponsored by Qatar, leading itself to his reintegration into the international community and an invitation to Paris. /24

The bigger Bashar’s head got on a regional level, the more his actions increased Syrian despair and disparity. And when he declared in early 2011 to WSJ that Syria was immune to the Arab spring, the children of Deraa pointed to the naked emperor and wrote: it’s your turn. /25

Syrians endured suffocating hardship over decades of Assad tyranny before they started the revolution – a revolution in every sense of the word. To understand this seemingly sudden unleashing of the free Syrian spirit, you need to know about the decade that preceded it. /26

This thread merely scratches the surface of the trajectory of Bashar Assad and Syria, which I researched for years at Chatham House, and wrote and spoke about in hundreds of articles, talks and interviews. Expertise on Syrian affairs is needed, above all from Syrians. /27

Hafez Assad bequeathed him a hereditary republic; Bashar took this massive trust fund and destroyed it over the course of 20 years, little by little at first through reckless abandon, and then with every weapon of mass terror and destruction. /28

This gluttonous, incompetent, barbaric regime is unreformable, proving repeatedly it will use all means at its disposal to maintain its violent power, 50 years on and counting. Since March 2011, most Syrians have sacrificed everything to liberate themselves, with little help. /29

As the world rethinks its selective commitment to fighting injustice and upholding human rights, after the exposure of horrific crimes on unarmed civilians, it should help Syrians get justice too. For that to happen, Bashar Assad’s 20th anniversary in power must be his last. /30

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