The name Assad has been inextricably linked with Syria’s fortunes since 1970, when Hafez al-Assad (above), while defence minister, came to power on the back of an intra-party struggle within the ruling Baath Party, which culminated in him staging the coup that put him there.
Thereafter he initiated his self-styled ‘Corrective Movement’ of radical reforms to the Syrian economy, armed forces, foreign policy and government insitutitons. The man he deposed was his one time comrade, Salah Jadid, who himself had come to power in the wake of a previous intra-party struggle and resulting coup in 1966, thus toppling those who had led Syria’s secession from Egypt in the coup of 1963.
Assad’s ascent, therefore, took place in a country in which the rule of the gun was already embedded within its political culture, reflective of a Baathist ideology that embraced a muscular Arab identity in reflex to the humiliating experience of the region at the hands of western colonialism and imperialism.
Under Salah Jadid’s governance, Syria had taken a radical turn, unleashing class war against the Sunni-dominated merchant and economic elite who’d held sway since the country gained its independence from France in 1946. As with Assad, Jadid was an Alawite (Alawi), the minority sect based in Latakia in the north west of the country, where it remains predominant to this day.
Alawite history had for centuries been one of marginalisation, impoverishment, and at various points persecution within the Arab and Muslim world as followers of the minority religious sect known as Twelver. This is an offshoot of Shia Islam whose adherents believe there have been twelve divinely ordained leaders since the death of the Prophet Muhammad, collectively known as the Twelve Imams.
Alawites are, if not biological, certainly theological and cultural followers of Muhammad Ibn Nusayr, a Shia disciple who split from mainstream Shia Islam in the ninth century over the issue of the identity of the Twelfth Imam, which ended in his excommunication.