Main Assad or We Burn the Country

Assad or We Burn the Country

The definitive account of the destruction of Syria from inside the palace of President Bashar al-Assad, offering a new way of understanding the conflict that has engulfed the Middle East and pitted the United States against Russia
In the spring of 2011, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad turned to his lifelong friend and the commander of the presidential guard, Manaf Tlass, for advice about how to respond to violent protests. Tlass urged Assad to make peace with the people, but Assad chose to launch a bloody crackdown on the protestors, the opening volley in a six year war that has killed more than half a million people and fueled a global refugee crisis. In this expertly reported examination of the man at the center of the worst humanitarian disaster of the 21st century, noted journalist Sam Dagher offers a new way to understand how a regional conflict has found itself at the center of the US-Russia standoff and led to increased xenophobia, hate crimes, and...
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ISBN 978-0-31655670-5




Title Page




Syria Map

Damascus Map

Inside the Palace

Outside the Palace


1. You’re Next, Doctor

2. Embracing the Clouds

3. Creation and Punishment

4. Golden Knight

5. To Whom the Horses after You, Bassel?

6. New King and Early Spring

7. Hit Them Where It Hurts

8. Precious Interlocutor and Unavoidable Player

9. No More Fear after Today

10. The Conspiracy

11. Make Peace

12. You’re Too Soft

13. The Hama Manual

14. Yalla Erhal Ya, Bashar! (Come On, Bashar, Leave!)

15. Don’t Stay with the Butcher

16. Blood on My Hands

17. We Have to Win!

18. Exiting

19. No Role for You

20. Holy War: At Your Service, O Bashar!

21. The Clan’s Knig; hts and Soothsayers

22. Macabre Coronation

23. A Game of Nations

24. Abu Ali Putin

25. Daesh or Bashar?

26. Dictators Strike Back—but Hope Endures


Discover More

About the Author

Note on Characters


To the Syrians who rose up to demand freedom and dignity: Your heroism, sacrifice, and story will never be obscured by lies.

Explore book giveaways, sneak peeks, deals, and more.

Tap here to learn more.

The youth o’ mother heard freedom was at the gate, they came out to chant for it…

—Samih Choukair, Ya Heif



Inside the Palace

Outside the Palace

Mazen Darwish (Damascus human rights lawyer, activist, protest organizer, cofounder of local coordination committees/LCCs) Yara Bader (journalist, activist, Mazen’s wife) Razan Zeitouneh (cofounder LCCs, Mazen’s colleague) Khaled al-Khani (painter, activist, protest organizer, 1982 Hama Massacre survivor) Dr. Hikmat al-Khani (Khaled’s father) Sally Masalmeh (activist and youth leader in southern city of Daraa) Fadi and Shaker (Sally’s brothers)

Malek al-Jawabra (Sally’s husband)


The idea for this book was born during a trip from the Middle East to the United States toward the end of 2014, three months after I had been kicked out of Damascus by the Assad regime and put on its mukhabarat (secret police) watch list, without even being allowed to collect my belongings.

“Count your blessings, you’re so lucky, you got away lightly,” my Syrian friends kept saying. I could have disappeared in a mukhabarat prison, or worse, and the regime would have probably blamed it on “armed terrorist groups,” they told me.

I had been the only Western reporter permanently based in Damascus. One year before my expulsion, I was detained by regime militiamen and briefly held in an underground mukhabarat prison, and I continued to face threats and intimidation after my release. Of course, what happened to me were mere inconveniences compared to what Syrians have had to endure under this regime. Perhaps I was simply lucky, or perhaps I was spared a much worse fate because I had been living and working legally inside Damascus, or maybe the regime reckoned that a spat over a US reporter was unnecessary at that particular moment in 2014 when America was fixated on Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the Islamic State (known as ISIS or, in Arabic, Daesh) and not on Bashar alAssad and his war crimes. The regime and its patron Iran wanted to be Barack Obama’s partners in the war on ISIS.

I had started reporting from Damascus in October 2012; earlier that year, two of my generation’s best reporters, Marie Colvin and Anthony Shadid, had died while doing their job inside Syria. A Syrian mukhabarat chief would tell me two years later that the regime’s targeting of the house where Marie was staying in a rebel-controlled section of the city of Homs was “justifiable” because she and other Western reporters had, as he put it, “embedded with the terrorists.” It was in Homs that I witnessed, over almost two years, the aftermath of the pure terror unleashed by the Assads on a city that dared challenge their rule.

“They have even erased our names,” said Abu Rami tearfully as we stood at the entrance of his apartment building in central Homs on the morning of June 18, 2014. A large burn mark and mangled wires were all that was left of the building’s intercom, the work of looters who had ripped out the box and set the wires on fire to get at the copper. The flames had consumed the tenants’ names that had been neatly handwritten in green next to each buzzer. The Arabic-letter equivalents of “B” and “R” were all that remained of Abu Rami’s label.

Like vultures, the looters had meticulously stripped every apartment in Abu Rami’s building, including his, down to its bare bones, taking the furniture, doors, windows, bathroom and kitchen fixtures, and even tiles. After being cleaned out, the apartments were set ablaze. Abu Rami’s home library, evidently deemed worthless by the looters, was now a pile of ash. I followed Abu Rami to the balcony, where a few incinerated potted plants stood in the corner. We looked out onto an incredible scene.

Every building in the district had been subjected to the same systematic pillaging and arson. The entire street and neighborhood was awash in mounds of debris mixed in with the remains of people’s lives—gutted teddy bears, crushed toys, abandoned school notebooks and photo albums, empty and battered suitcases, broken furniture. It was as if a hurricane had swept through central Homs, just a month after it reverted to Bashar alAssad’s control following a vicious three-year siege and bombing campaign intended to strangle communities that rebelled against him. Bashar made people choose between starving to death and surrendering to him, and when they had done one or the other, or fled the country altogether, he declared victory.

“Long Live Assad’s Syria—Assad or We Burn the Country,” was sprayed in big bold black letters on Abu Rami’s building.

By the time this book comes out, the Assad family will have been in power for nearly half a century, outlasting eight US presidents starting with Richard Nixon.

While the Islamic State’s black-clad barbarian-like terrorists horrified people everywhere and dictated much of Western policy in Syria, the truth is that Bashar, a mild-mannered former eye doctor trained in the West and married to a glamorous British-born former investment banker, was the one chiefly responsible for the mayhem, destruction, and intense human suffering that consumed Syria and reverberated across the Middle East and world between 2011 and 2018. Bashar commanded and directed the army officers and soldiers, the mukhabarat bosses and agents, and the legions of militiamen doing most of the killing, and he was empowered by the extraordinary support he received from his allies and backers—Iran; the Lebanese militia, Hezbollah; and then, crucially, the Russian military.

When it comes to Syria, one often hears these arguments: Everyone has blood on their hands. Bashar may be bad but ISIS is worse. There are no good guys in Syria. Or more analytically: This is a civil war that turned into a complex multilayered conflict and drew in regional and world powers.

There are elements of truth in all these assertions, but there’s one truth which can never be obscured: Bashar and his family, motivated by their quest to cling to power at any cost, were directly responsible for decisions and actions that turned the peaceful protests of the spring of 2011 into a devastating, years-long war and facilitated the rise and spread of ISIS—a truth buttressed by new evidence and details revealed in this book.

For the first time, I lay bare what went on in Bashar’s innermost circle during the fateful period between March 18, 2011, when the first Syrian protesters were shot dead, and August 18, 2011, when President Obama said that Bashar must step down. I examine Bashar’s decision to release Islamist militants from prison a few months into the popular uprising and deliberately abandon key outposts and regions on the Iraq–Syria border in early 2013 at the precise moment ISIS was emerging; through my hard-won access to regime insiders, I investigate the regime’s rationale for using chemical weapons.

In the spring of 2016, I was in Geneva covering the UN-mediated peace talks between the Syrian regime and opposition (talks that Bashar skillfully turned into a charade and time-wasting exercise under the auspices of the Americans and Russians), when the UN envoy to Syria at the time, Staffan de Mistura, announced that the Syrian death toll had reached 400,000.1

The death meter has not stopped. Following de Mistura’s report, tens of thousands more would suffocate to death, be incinerated, or get slashed to pieces from the airstrikes, incendiary rockets, ballistic missiles, cluster bombs, barrel bombs, chlorine bombs, and chemical weapons launched by either the Syrian regime or the Russian military. Not to mention those who would die because of lack of access to food and medicine due to sieges imposed principally by Bashar and his allies. Neither ISIS nor any of the rebel factions fighting Bashar possessed the Russian-made attack helicopters and fighter jets that rained death on civilians in opposition-held areas day after day and year after year under the watchful eyes of the international community and the pretext of “fighting terrorism.” By early 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin was boasting that he had already tested more than two hundred new weapons in Syria.2

Thousands more Syrians, mostly activists and protesters who resisted the regime peacefully, were hanged by sham military tribunals at the Saydnaya prison near Damascus,3 exactly as Bashar’s father, Hafez, had done at the Tadmor prison in the Homs desert four decades before. And just as in Hafez’s era, the lives of many more Syrians were taken by medieval torture techniques in the mukhabarat secret prisons and dungeons located in the heart of Damascus’s residential neighborhoods or at the notorious 601 Military Hospital, a five-minute drive from the palace where Bashar received successive UN envoys trying to negotiate peace in Syria. Photos of emaciated and numbered cadavers stacked at the hospital’s hangar horrified the world, at least until the world’s attention shifted to ISIS.4 Ultimately, all those killed by ISIS terrorists in both Iraq and Syria represented a mere fraction of the Assad regime’s victims.

Of course, the more than twelve million Syrians (about half the total population) who were either uprooted internally or had to flee the country altogether to neighboring states and beyond were not just escaping Bashar and his killing machine.5 In fact, hundreds of thousands of them opted to stay under his regime’s thumb in Assad-controlled areas, including the capital, Damascus, a reality I witnessed myself from 2012 until my expulsion in 2014. Bashar exploited the misery and desperation of average Syrians and used food rations doled out by UN humanitarian agencies based in his territories and operating according to his rules and restrictions as rewards to those who obeyed him and as weapons against those who defied him. Ironically, much of this food was paid for by the same foreign powers that were trying to topple him.

At the heart of this story are sons and daughters wrestling with their parents’ choices and legacies.

From the moment that Bashar, an awkward and painfully shy second son, emerged as the substitute heir after the death of his eldest brother in the mid-1990s, he was on a quest to slay his inner demons and, in a way, the ghost of his still-omnipresent and powerful father, Hafez. Bashar set out to prove that he could be as cutthroat and ruthless as his father, if not more so, while also projecting youthfulness, reform, and dynamism. “There’s no other way to govern our society except with the shoe over people’s heads,” a thirty-year-old Bashar told a private gathering in the summer of 1995, one year into his mentorship to inherit power from Hafez, as the regime’s propagandists portrayed him as the “savior” who was going to fight corruption, reform the system, and usher Syria into the twenty-first century. The same script would be used by other ailing Middle Eastern despots to bequeath power to their sons.

At Bashar’s side was Manaf Tlass, a handsome rising star in the Republican Guard force, who was among those enlisted by Hafez to assist and promote his heir. The Assad and Tlass children grew up together as practically one family, and the Tlass patriarch, Mustafa, was a pillar of the regime and, as Hafez often said, its gatekeeper. The fathers had been friends and lifetime companions from the time they were ambitious and scrappy twenty-something cadets in the early 1950s, as Syria and other Arab states grappled with their newly won independence from colonial powers. Manaf’s father, Mustafa, accompanied Hafez every step of the way to the pinnacle of power and faithfully served him for fifty years. Together they wrote the manual for crushing all challenges to the regime, which they applied in the 1970s and ’80s with horrific results. Mustafa was willing to kill to protect what he and Hafez had constructed, but was his son Manaf prepared to do the same? As the Arab Spring arrived in Syria in 2011, Manaf had to make decisions and choices that would forever alter his life.

Syria was at a crossroads. Outside the presidential palace walls we meet Mazen Darwish, a thirty-something human rights lawyer and free speech advocate, who had been agitating for real reform for nearly a decade. He saw the Arab Spring as the best chance to achieve what his own parents and an older generation of opposition leaders, jailed and persecuted for their nonconformist political beliefs, had long aspired to but could never attain under the Assads. The promise of the Spring also drew Khaled al-Khani, an artist who struggled for years to overcome the childhood trauma and deep family loss provoked by Hafez alAssad’s assault on his hometown of Hama in 1982. In conservative southern Syria, meanwhile, eighteen-year-old Sally Masalmeh, was captivated by the Arab Spring and, like so many of Syria’s restless youth sensed an opportunity to find her voice and identity and free herself from the shackles of authoritarianism, the “voluntary servitude” often consented to by the older generation and “brutish masses,” as the French humanist Étienne de La Boétie wrote in the sixteenth century.6 Sally shrugged off her parents’ warnings—“it will be just like Hama 1982,” they kept saying—to embrace what she and other Syrian youth called the revolution.

How has this brutal dynasty survived for this long—from the moment Hafez seized absolute power in the fall of 1970 until Bashar appeared to emerge victorious by the end of 2018—and why has it gotten away with murder each time?

The Assad clan has embedded itself in the fabric of Syrian society and unscrupulously manipulated class and religion fissures to empower itself, effectively co-opting Syria’s national identity. Syria became Souriya alAssad (“Assad’s Syria”). In much the same way and to the same ends, the Assads have been masterful in exploiting the divisions and bloody power struggles endemic throughout the Middle East. Further, both father and son relied on big lies to win the support of large segments of the Syrian population.

But all lies eventually wear off or are exposed. The Assads knew this. Deception was not enough. There had to be fear and terror maintained and applied by a sprawling and web-like internal security and intelligence apparatus, known as the mukhabarat, that monitored and controlled every facet of public and private life in Syria.

But another crucial constant emerges throughout this story: the Assads could not have survived if it were not for the way Western powers, democracies that profess to defend universal liberal values like human rights and freedom, have engaged with this turbulent and strategic corner of the world. Over the decades, the shortsighted and opportunistic bargains that Western powers have struck with almost all of the Middle East’s despots and kleptocrats, not just the Assads, have never taken the interests of ordinary citizens into consideration.

After the Second World War, successive US administrations viewed the newly independent states of the Levant and Arabian Peninsula, including Syria, mainly through the prism of the Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union. Washington’s priorities were to secure oil supplies and find a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Few of the Middle East’s rising tyrants knew how to exploit this broader geostrategic game better than Hafez alAssad. By the mid-1970s, Hafez, who was busy enshrining a cultish dictatorship in Syria, received military aid and support from the Soviet Union at the same time that he was getting recognition and financial aid from the US and its rich Gulf Arab allies. There was an unspoken but well-understood quid pro quo with Washington: Hafez was free to do everything he needed to do to maintain his iron grip at home as long as he never waged war against Israel after 1973. Jimmy Carter later called Hafez a “strong and moderate” leader.

“Realpolitik” was cited by France when its president, François Mitterrand, flew to Damascus in the mid-1980s to meet with Hafez even though his own government and intelligence services had ample proof that the Assad regime was connected to terror attacks against French and Western interests in Lebanon and Europe. Terrorism was a “bargaining chip” for the Assads, noted one French official. After the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Hafez wasted no time in switching sides and joined the US-led coalition to confront Saddam Hussein, another regional despot propped up by the West and its oil-rich Arab allies in the struggle against Iran, before Hussein made the miscalculation of invading Kuwait. Hafez’s reward was financial support from Gulf dynasties, free rein in Lebanon as it emerged from its civil war, and the space and resources to burnish his brutal regime’s image and prepare for a transfer of power to his son.

Bill Clinton embraced Hafez and his regime in the hopes of going down in history as the US president who brokered comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace. All Hafez really cared about, though, was preserving his family’s rule, winning respectability and recognition from the United States, and removing his regime from Washington’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. “It seems to me he is poised and someone who is ready to assume his duties. I was very encouraged by his desire to follow in his father’s footsteps,” declared Clinton’s last secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, as Bashar assumed power from Hafez in a coronation choreographed by Mustafa Tlass.7 Bashar and his beautiful British-born wife, Asma, were feted as young Arab reformers.

For a time after the September 11 attacks, Bashar was a partner in Washington’s global war on terror. Syria was one of the destinations of the Central Intelligence Agency’s infamous rendition program during the George W. Bush administration. Bashar’s calculus changed, however, as the United States prepared to invade neighboring Iraq and, along with France and other allies, sought to hem in the Syrians in Lebanon. The assassination of Lebanese leader Rafic Hariri was an “act of terrorism” for which Bashar’s regime and its allies were responsible, announced the West in early 2005. But by then, America’s need to get out of the Iraq War quagmire took precedence over accountability and justice. A bipartisan congressional report recommended engaging with Bashar once more to convince him to end his and his mukhabarat’s support for the Iraqi insurgency and shut down the pipeline of jihadists and suicide bombers flocking to Iraq through Syria to kill both Iraqis and American soldiers.

In the lead-up to the Obama administration, Bashar was no longer the Iran-backed villain and pariah but instead was once more the reformer supposedly doing his best to better his people’s lot despite severe internal and external challenges and pressures. Nancy Pelosi, who at the time became the first female House Speaker, flew in for lunch with Bashar and Asma, while the stars of American and British TV news clamored to interview the Assad couple. Later John Kerry, who was at the time a US senator heading the powerful Foreign Relations Committee, told France’s ambassador to Syria that Bashar was “a man we could do business with” because he had given his word that he would stop supporting insurgents and terrorist groups in Iraq.8

Even a few months into the 2011 Arab Spring revolts, the United States and its Western allies believed that Bashar did not necessarily have to step down like the dictators of Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen, and that he could even be the one to implement the changes demanded by the people, underscoring how little they understood the Assad regime. From the onset, Bashar knew that the price of any real and meaningful concessions was going to be his own head. Facts revealed for the first time in this book show that Bashar’s immediate impulse was to issue shoot-to-kill orders to his security forces in order to scare peaceful protesters off the streets.

Obama was absolutely right, of course, about not wanting to send US troops each time there was a crisis in the Middle East. But his approach to a fast-developing situation in Syria, that looked certain to have major life-and-death consequences for average Syrians and a wider impact on the whole world, was flawed from the start; one experienced Middle East analyst described it to me as a “catastrophic moral failure.” I have no doubt that Obama and many members of his team were genuinely horrified by what Bashar was doing to his people and wanted to do everything they could to stop it, but at the same time, the 2003 invasion of Iraq and its consequences were still very much on the minds of Obama and ardent noninterventionists in his administration.

So the result was a middle-of-the-road approach in Syria that attempted to meld the twin goals of stopping Bashar’s killing machine and making absolutely sure that the United States remained at arm’s length from the whole conflict. For example, instead of taking concrete and bold actions to support the heroic protesters and activists who took to the streets, and the soldiers who defected rather than kill their fellow Syrians, the job was relegated to regional powers deemed to be US allies, like Qatar, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. Qatar and Turkey, for their part, wanted to co-opt the change movements sweeping the Arab world and to empower their local Islamist protégés—and Syria was no exception. Saudi Arabia, at the same time, worked to stop Qatar and Turkey for an entirely different reason: the Arab Spring was a direct threat to its own ruling family’s legitimacy and grip on power, so the freedom movements had to be either controlled or smothered. Meanwhile, Bashar’s patron and regional protector, Iran, was not just going to sit back and lose Syria, a crucial link in a line of Iranian power and influence extending from Tehran to Beirut via Baghdad and Damascus.

These poisonous regional conflicts and the West’s reticence and caution gave Bashar and his backers ample time to decimate those resisting peacefully and to turn the standoff into an armed struggle fueled by sectarian extremists on both sides. Right in front of me, the Assad regime’s henchmen mocked Obama’s calls on Bashar to relinquish power and his warnings over chemical weapons use because they had calculated—correctly, it turned out—that these were merely words.

The complexity of the conflict became an excuse not to consider meaningful steps like a limited no-fly zone in parts of Syria, which, very early on, would have saved lives and stemmed the tide of refugees. The United States and its allies could comfort themselves with the notion that they were trying to do something, but it was the Russians and Chinese who were obstructing at the UN Security Council. Bashar dug in and was effectively given license to ratchet up his atrocities. The chemicalweapons attack of the summer of 2013 and Obama’s vacillation in response were simply the culmination of an already failed and even cynical Western policy in Syria—practically an invitation by the West to Vladimir Putin to intervene further in Syria. It then became much easier for the West to rationalize its actions in Syria when choices were whittled down to either Bashar alAssad or the barbarians of ISIS who were attacking Europe.

Understanding how the Syrian people have arrived at this moment has never been more crucial if the goal is to someday put an end to the scourge of terror and extremism and have real change and stability in the Middle East.


You’re Next, Doctor

Spring was beginning to return to Damascus on the February morning in 2011 that Bashar alAssad played tennis with his friend and army general Manaf Tlass. The patchy grass lawns in nearby Tishreen Park had been seeded, and overgrown hedges had been given an overdue trim. The clay tennis court was nestled in a wooded grove within the Tishreen Palace compound, where the Assad family often hosted foreign guests.

A massive Syrian flag whipped in the wind some 300 feet above the court. Installed the previous July, the flag marked the tenth anniversary of Bashar’s ascension to power as president. A large celebration had been held in the park at its unveiling; the prime minister spoke on the occasion and schoolchildren sang patriotic songs while waving heart-shaped cardboard cutouts of Bashar’s face.1

As Bashar and Manaf began their match that day in February, Manaf sensed that his tennis partner was distracted and downbeat. The tall (over six feet), slender, and athletic Bashar, who had turned forty-five a few months earlier, normally relished physical activity as a reprieve from his often dull presidential duties. He was a fierce competitor and served hard as he fixed his blue eyes on opponents across the net. But today he seemed unfocused; something was not right, Manaf thought.

Manaf hit the ball with his racket, thwack!

Suddenly the flag looming overhead cracked violently in the wind, almost like a loud thunder snap. Rattled by the sound, Bashar dropped his racket.2

“Calm down, there’s nothing to fear,” Manaf said with a smile, trying to put his friend at ease. Bashar laughed nervously and, in a moment, they returned to the game.

Bashar had much to fear that winter. In mid-January, a popular uprising toppled the head of a corrupt, entrenched regime in the North African state of Tunisia that for years had been backed by the West and the Arabian Peninsula’s oil-rich dynasties. The Tunisian army broke from the ruler and sided with the people. More significant were the protests that engulfed the US-supported leader of Egypt, the long-ruling former army general who was grooming his son to inherit the presidency. Libya, sandwiched between Egypt and Tunisia, was also on the brink of revolt against the maniacal ex–army officer who held power. Saudi Arabia’s monarchs, who had a long history of sponsoring strongmen across the region, looked on with trepidation as demonstrations gripped their poor southern neighbor Yemen and threatened fellow royals on the island of Bahrain, just across from their oil fields.

Arab regimes seemed stunned in disbelief as elation and a sense of liberation spread through the streets. It appeared nothing could stand in the face of the people’s will. Comparisons were made to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the revolutions that swept through the Communist-bloc countries of Eastern Europe afterward. The thinking was that, as in Eastern Europe, the Arab world’s sclerotic regimes and merciless police states would collapse one by one like dominoes. The newfound and much-yearned-for hurriyeh, or freedom, would spread like the brilliant wildflowers that had just begun sprouting throughout the countryside near Damascus as winter drew to a close that year. It would be an Arab Spring.

Many were already betting that the Assad family, which had ruled for forty years, was next.

The family’s ruthless guardians, however, saw matters differently. “It is impossible for Syria to witness anything of the sort… everything is under control… Syria is immune from the turmoil,” was the unanimous conclusion in the written reports Bashar received from his multiple intelligence and security services.3

These assurances should have been enough to comfort Bashar and put his mind at ease. After all, these agencies and the myriad branches attached to them constituted the backbone of Syria’s police state. Collectively known as the mukhabarat, they operated above any law and were responsible for watching the army, the government, every Syrian citizen—and each other. No detail of daily life eluded their scrutiny and control. It was as if America’s CIA, FBI, and NSA worked nonstop to suppress any hint of criticism of the US president.

The mere mention of the mukhabarat horrified most Syrians. The common saying was that one could “disappear behind the sun” for doing anything that might upset the mukhabarat, a romantic euphemism for rotting in a prison cell with nobody knowing your whereabouts. The mukhabarat believed that the terror it had worked so hard for decades to instill in every Syrian’s heart remained potent.4 Even so, all the usual suspects were summoned one by one for a “cup of coffee” with senior mukhabarat officers who reminded them about the catastrophic consequences of rebellion.5

Meanwhile, the regime guardians bolstered their young leader with affirmation: Syrians adore you. Why should they protest? Your reformist and visionary leadership is miles ahead of the Arab world’s restless youth. You have already implemented the Arab Spring’s lofty ideals and slogans like “Bread, Freedom, and Social Justice.” You are on the cusp of transforming Syria and the entire region. At forty-five, you have absolutely nothing in common with the Middle East’s geriatric leaders who made peace with “our enemy” Israel and have been propped up for decades by America, Europe, and the petrodollars of Gulf Arab states.

The gist of the mukhabarat reports served as Bashar’s talking points at the end of January 2011, when he was interviewed by American reporters from the Wall Street Journal.6 The message was echoed by Bashar’s articulate and stylish wife, Asma, a few weeks later when she hosted Harvard’s Arab Alumni Association in Damascus. “Our identity must become that of a learning region… opening ourselves to new perspectives… adopting new skills,” Asma told the accomplished Arabs.7

In those early months of 2011, when Arab masses were intoxicated with thawra, or revolution, and many Syrians secretly yearned to liberate themselves from the fear, humiliation, and deception they had been living under for almost half a century, the regime’s greatest hope was that the narrative it worked years to construct, about Bashar and his leadership, his wife, and his vision, would shield it from the fever sweeping the region.

The narrative was something like this: Bashar was a genuinely nice guy. Educated, polite, modest, and even nerdy, he abandoned his career as an ophthalmologist and became his father’s heir because he wanted to reform Syria and lead it into the twenty-first century. He was battling the system’s corrupt and deep-rooted old guard. He was making great strides, but it was no easy task and he should be allowed more time. Complicating his mission were external factors like war and instability in neighboring Iraq and Lebanon, as well as conspiracies hatched by Syria’s enemies, chiefly the United States and Israel. Syria’s alliance with Iran and what the regime called “resistance movements,” like the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, should make every Arab proud. Better ties with Turkey and rapprochement with the West and rich Gulf monarchies toward the end of the first decade of his rule were an extension of the maverick politics of his late father, Hafez alAssad, “the builder of modern Syria.”

The young leader’s wife, Asma, was a bonus—two for the price of one. The pretty and intelligent British-born daughter of a Syrian surgeon had also abandoned a comfortable life in the West and a career in investment banking because she loved Bashar and shared his vision for a new Syria. While many focused on her designer outfits and stiletto heels, Asma worked hard on nurturing early-childhood learning, supporting rural women, and preserving cultural heritage.8 The story was that Bashar and the first lady were on a quest to create an enlightened, empowered, and prosperous Syrian citizenry.

As proof of how modern and progressive the presidential couple were, their marriage transcended religious divides, he Alawite (a minority religion) and she Sunni (like the majority of Syrians)—not that this mattered in the secular Syria painted by the regime, of course. Showing that the couple also had the common touch was central to the narrative. They were pictured playing with their children at a Damascus park, biking and hiking in the countryside, and dining with the people at a traditional eatery. The president and his wife surrounded themselves with young friends, advisers and assistants who acted like them and shared their ethos and perspective.

Manaf Tlass and his wife, Thala Khair, were pivotal members of this cast of characters. Manaf, three years older than Bashar, was more than just a general in the Republican Guard, a kind of praetorian army unit charged with the president’s security. The two men were close intimates, practically family. Manaf’s father, Mustafa, the former defense minister, was the lifelong companion of Bashar’s father, Hafez. They met as cadets in their twenties at the military academy and rose up together when their Baath Party seized power in 1963. Mustafa helped his friend neutralize all his party rivals and secure his power in a coup d’état in 1970 under the guise of reform. Mustafa served Hafez with unwavering loyalty until the elder Assad’s death in 2000, and he was the chief kingmaker during the transfer of power to Bashar. The Assad and Tlass children had grown up together over the years. For a long time, Bashar addressed Manaf’s parents khaleh and ammou—“aunt” and “uncle” in Arabic.9

Manaf was in the president’s innermost circle and had direct access to him, even though he had not attained his father’s status and had to contend with those—particularly Bashar’s maternal cousins, the Makhloufs—who were intent on pushing the Tlasses out of this power orbit. Manaf, however, had something none of the other courtiers possessed: he and his wife, Thala, were strikingly charming and good-looking. With his boyish appearance, casual style, broad shoulders, shaggy salt-and-pepper hair, and frequent stubble, Manaf looked more like a movie star than an army general in a despotic Middle Eastern state.

Thala was beautiful, pedigreed, and interested in culture and education. She helped start one of the first model private primary schools, and the couple supported Syrian artists and collected their works. They led a busy and colorful social life, mingling with a young, hip crowd. Manaf was a movie buff, with encyclopedic knowledge of cinema and its techniques. In another life he could have been a film director.

One of the couple’s favorite haunts was Marmar, a bar tucked in the alleyways of the charming historic center, which screened artsy foreign movies during the week and featured live performers and funky DJs on the weekend. The luncheons and parties Manaf and his wife hosted at their spectacular mountaintop retreat near Damascus were the talk of the town. Their friendship with Bashar and Asma meant Manaf and Thala were eagerly sought out by members of the Damascene upper crust and all those who wanted to get ahead or simply get things done in a country where navigating the layers of bureaucracy and the mukhabarat’s vagaries was no small feat.

In a way, Manaf and Thala’s lifestyle and outlook accentuated and sustained the carefully constructed narrative of Bashar and his more open and youthful rule. Bashar knew this and endorsed it.

Bashar genuinely believed he was a reformer, but of course within the parameters and timetable set by him and his police state, and he wanted to believe the mukhabarat’s assurances about the power of the narrative, but experience had taught him to question their methods and motives. Bashar could not ignore the region’s dramatic events and early signs in Syria itself. Everything pointed to trouble ahead for the regime.

Manaf saw his friend’s confidence waver. On some days Bashar seemed untouched by the threat and confident of the regime’s staying power, while on others he seemed to grow agitated and apprehensive. The insecurities Bashar worked all his life to suppress seemed to be resurging, Manaf observed. This was, after all, a man who on many occasions boasted to Manaf about his detachment, rationality, and coldness in tackling all matters, whether private or public.10 To the world, Bashar appeared like a man who wore a steel armor shielding him from all human impulses. Manaf was one of the few who could see through this armor. They grew up together and remained close; Manaf witnessed Bashar’s transformation from a painfully shy and tormented child and adolescent to the strong but reformist leader he craved to be.

The alarm sounded for Bashar and the region’s autocrats after the eruption of massive protests in Egypt in late January 2011.11 The world was transfixed by the sight of millions of Egyptians taking to the streets and occupying Cairo’s central Tahrir Square. In the age of satellite TV channels and online social media, the slogans, defiance, and public outpouring of years of pent-up anger and frustration spread like wildfire, terrifying every Arab leader. What people might have spoken about behind closed doors was now in the open. The genie was out of the bottle. The floodgates had burst. If it could happen in Masr, or Egypt, then it could happen anywhere.

Many Syrians—aching to overcome decades of lies and terror—started dreaming of their own Tahrir Square in Damascus, a convergence point for millions. Citizens believing in an alternative to rule by one clan and party that controlled what they thought and spoke and how they viewed the world. People fed up with a state where rights, opportunities, and even human dignity depended on proximity to power and one’s place in the system. Men and women who simply wanted to liberate themselves from the regime’s shackles and find their own identities and voices.

Bit by bit, Syrians began testing how far they could go in fulfilling this dream.

It started in January 2011, with small gatherings in Damascus to express solidarity with protesters in Egypt and Tunisia. They were quickly put down, and the few who dared come out were beaten, insulted, and detained by regime forces and shabiha, or thugs.12 A protest against one of the monopolies of Bashar’s cousins followed on February 3, but it was crushed before it could even begin.13

On February 5, an anonymous call for a “Day of Rage” to protest against the regime, corruption, and Syria’s perpetual state of emergency spread on Facebook but ultimately failed to bring people out into the streets.14 Rumor had it that the mukhabarat itself issued the invitation to test how receptive Syrians actually were to such a call to action.15 This seemed plausible to a citizenry nurtured on fearing the regime and forcefed its disinformation, conspiracy theories, and propaganda.

Then on February 17, 2011, an incredible scene played out in Al-Hariqa, Damascus’s old commercial center. After sons of a textile merchant were insulted and beaten by policemen,16 shopkeepers shuttered their stores and together with day laborers, many from impoverished rural areas, took to the streets chanting “Thieves, Thieves!” and “The Syrian people won’t be humiliated.”17 The mukhabarat reports submitted to Bashar were wrong; Syrians were stirring.

Days after the Hariqa incident, a painter in his mid-thirties called Khaled al-Khani was among a few dozen people, mostly artists, actors, and creative types, who tried to protest outside the Libyan embassy in Damascus. They wanted to express solidarity with Libyans after Libya’s dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, ordered loyalists to hunt down protesters, whom he called “germs,” “rats,” “teenagers on hallucinogenic pills,” and “Islamist extremists.”18 Much of eastern Libya had fallen to rebels, and protests were spreading to the capital, Tripoli, prompting Gaddafi’s crackdown. Militiamen brandishing machetes and machine guns began attacking protesters.19

In a rambling, defiant, and at times hysterical televised speech from his Tripoli compound, Gaddafi laid out in no uncertain terms what Arab leaders must do if they wished to overcome what he called a conspiracy by traitors and foreign enemies. Notwithstanding his cartoonish persona, Gaddafi’s words were a precise roadmap for any dictator determined to stay in power at any cost: spread lies to sow confusion and manipulate the narrative, kill to illustrate the cost of defiance, and stoke paranoia to drive a wedge between people and make them fight each other. Keep the conflict going even if it means destroying the country: either the leader stays or the country burns.

“I have my rifle and I will fight to the last drop of my blood and with me the Libyan people,” shouted Gaddafi, wearing traditional tribal robes and repeatedly raising a clenched fist and banging on the lectern in front of him.20

The following day, February 23, 2011, Khaled and a group of almost fifty friends and acquaintances, all of them captivated by the promise of the Arab Spring, converged at sundown on the Libyan embassy on Jala’a Street in the Abu Rummaneh neighborhood. Jala’a was a busy two-way street with embassies, banks, boutiques, and cafés on both sides and, as Bashar’s diehard loyalists would say, proof of the leader’s reformist and modernist vision. As the street ascended, Mount Qasioun came into focus. Over the years, slums had invaded the mountain’s base like a marauding army. Thousands of lights twinkled on its slopes that evening.

As Khaled and the others congregated near the embassy, they were approached by a security officer.

“What are you doing here?” he asked.

“We want to protest, like yesterday,” Khaled and others answered.

“Not allowed,” he said.

“Why? It was okay yesterday,” they persisted.

Indeed, the day before, the mukhabarat had allowed a small group including an actor whose mother was Libyan to hold a brief candlelight vigil outside the Libyan embassy, but they kept the gathering tightly hemmed in while plainclothes mukhabarat agents whipped out their phones to document all those present before ordering the protesters to disperse.21

“Yesterday the leadership gave its permission, today there’s no permission, you must leave,” declared the officer to Khaled and his friends.

“Well, call the leadership and see if they’ll let us protest today, too,” they pleaded.

As the back and forth continued, they spotted a group of armed men charging down from Rawda Square, where Jala’a ended as it rose toward Qasioun. This was, after all, the perimeter of Bashar’s residence and office, and it was swarming with security personnel. Khaled and his group began running away, scattering in different directions. They were not giving up, though. They regrouped on a side street to plan their next move when they were approached by the same security officer with whom they had had the earlier discussion.

“The leadership said you could gather in the garden, provided you do not disturb people,” announced the officer. This was a small garden square at the corner of Jala’a and another street, two blocks away from the Libyan embassy.

“The Libyan people have said it: ‘Freedom is our quest, dignity is our demand,’” Khaled and a few dozen others chanted as they huddled in the small park on a winter night holding up candles and sheets of paper on which they hurriedly scrawled slogans.

“With our soul, with our blood, we sacrifice ourselves for you, O Syria!” they cried, purposefully omitting the president’s name from the familiar chant.22

They recited lines from a poem by Tunisia’s Abu al-Qasim al-Shabbi that became an anthem of the Arab uprisings that winter: “If, one day, the people wills to live, then fate must obey, darkness must dissipate and must the chain give way.”23

As the protest grew louder and more animated it spilled out on Jala’a Street.

“I was standing there with Qasioun in front of me, chanting for the first time in my life, ‘Hurriyeh, hurriyeh, hurriyeh’ [‘Freedom, freedom, freedom’],” recalls Khaled as his eyes well up. Khaled and his friends tried to move farther up Jala’a toward the Libyan embassy, but they were met by dozens of security force members in black fatigues wielding batons and shields. They looked like riot police. “They knew we were there to challenge them and the regime and that our chants were in reality directed at Bashar,” and not Gaddafi, said Khaled.

One of the black-clad men stepped forward. “If you do not turn back, I’ll set my shawaya dogs loose on you,” he said, referring to tribal folk from eastern Syria.24 Over the years, the term became a derogatory way to describe gruff persons of darker skin tone.

Within seconds the blows were coming from everywhere. Khaled and the others were struck with batons, shields, and fists. Those who fell to the ground were kicked and trampled on.

Khaled managed to get up and run away, but others were not so lucky.

“People passed us by and saw us being pummeled,” he recalled. “Nobody stopped to help.”

This was to be expected in Damascus. Besides deep fear from the regime, there was economic self-interest. The capital’s dominant bourgeois and merchant classes had benefited the most from rising living standards during the first decade of Bashar’s rule, and many did not want to see these gains endangered by protests and instability. On the face of it, Khaled, too, had little reason to protest. He was making a name for himself as an artist. He had exhibitions in Syria and abroad, and his work was acquired by the city’s rich and powerful. The president himself owned one of his paintings.

But Khaled had a deep well of anger from which to draw.

In 1982, when he was seven years old, Khaled’s home, his neighborhood, and much of his native city of Hama were leveled to the ground by Bashar’s father, Hafez. Manaf Tlass’s father, Mustafa, the defense minister at the time, signed off on the massacre that occurred, sending regime opponents to the gallows. Khaled’s father, Hikmat al-Khani, a well-respected ophthalmologist, was tortured to death by Hafez’s forces simply because he had treated the wounded during the regime’s assault on Hama.25 Dr. Khani was among the nearly 10,000 who perished, according to the lowest estimate of the death toll.26 Three of Khaled’s cousins were among the thousands who remained missing.

Hafez justified the massacre at Hama as retribution against “terrorists,” members of a militant Islamist insurgent group. His message to all Syrians, especially non-Islamists who had peacefully challenged his regime during the same period, was unequivocal: This is what will happen to you if you ever think of rebelling again. It worked. Syrians were terrorized into submission for three decades.

Khaled had grown up internalizing the rage and trauma from witnessing the massacre, unleashing it only in his art—paintings filled with deformed, faceless figures and masses subsumed to an ancient and mythical godlike leader. “We should have rebelled the moment Hafez died and power passed to Bashar but we were too afraid,” he said. “The Arab Spring was our best chance to try again.”

But not everyone was ready to take the plunge.

The older generation, remembering Hama and its aftermath, was more fearful of the consequences of rebellion than Syria’s youth. Although there were plenty of exceptions, members of minority groups like the Alawites, Christians, and Druze generally tended to see the current regime as their protector from the extremist tendencies they believed could emerge among the Sunni Muslim majority, which had long viewed the Assads and their Alawite sect as usurpers. After Hama, the regime enshrined the idea that Islamists were the agents of the nation’s “imperialist, Zionist, and reactionary” enemies. A Christian from the Hama countryside—born fifteen years after the massacre and fourteen years old at the Arab Spring’s start—grew up being told by his parents that the Hama massacre was necessary because it broke the Sunnis and supposedly made it safe for Christian women to venture into the city without being harassed for not wearing the veil.27

The biggest hurdle for those dreaming of change was transcending the socioeconomic, religious, and ethnic divisions that were exploited by the regime to protect itself while it pretended to be the defender of a secular and unified Syria.

There were of course those who truly loved Bashar and believed that Syria was on the right track at the start of his second decade in power, but the vast majority felt they had no choice but to accept the regime’s gradual and piecemeal reforms because the alternative in their minds was the war and chaos that engulfed their neighbor to the east, Iraq, after the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

For those like Khaled and many other Syrians who believed that change was long overdue and who could make the argument that the Arab Spring was a perfect opportunity, there was an even more basic issue to wrestle with that spring: How does a revolt even begin in a place like Syria, where the regime has for decades defined the national identity and imposed it on people? How do you rally Syrians around an alternative cause, message, and leader in a country where all expressions of opposition and dissent have been mercilessly crushed and where fear, lies, and mistrust have sustained the Assads’ rule?

Channeling the yearning for freedom among many disaffected and aggrieved segments of Syrian society into a movement with a vision for change and a set of well-articulated demands was what preoccupied human rights lawyer Mazen Darwish day and night in those early weeks of 2011 as he watched the euphoria of revolution spread around him. Overthrowing Bashar was certainly not one of these demands, at least in the beginning.

In late February, Mazen and a friend and colleague, Razan Zeitouneh, reached out to a Kurdish political leader and arranged to meet for lunch in central Damascus.28 They sat in a restaurant overlooking a giant bronze statue of Hafez alAssad in a business suit, raising his hand over passersby like a deity offering a blessing.

“Lower your voice—he might hear us,” whispered Mazen in jest.

As plates of hummus and tabbouleh were served, Mazen and Razan laid out their plan to the Kurdish leader Abdul-Hakim Bachar.

“Why don’t we join you in the Nowruz celebrations and use it as an occasion to call for change and reform?” Mazen suggested.

Nowruz, the Kurdish new year and the official start of spring, would fall on March 21. As they had done in the past, Syria’s Kurds were probably going to defy a regime ban on their celebrations and huge crowds would gather to light bonfires, picnic, sing, and dance. But beyond the merriment and festivities, every year the occasion has real political significance for the region’s Kurds who are scattered across Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. It’s a chance for them to come together and assert their identity and affirm their long-standing quest for independence—or, at the very least, more autonomy and rights in the states they reside. Syria’s Kurds, subjected to decades of Arabization policies and frequently denied citizenship, were considered the most repressed in the region.

Mazen and Razan argued that the grievances of the Kurdish minority aligned with those of all Syrians. Since the ruling Baath Party took power in 1963 and established a state of emergency upheld ever since by the Assads, all Syrian people, regardless of religious sect or ethnicity, were subject to the mukhabarat’s power to detain, hold incommunicado, torture, and kill anyone deemed a threat to the regime. Perhaps the Kurds would want to join their advocacy for lifting severe restrictions on freedom of expression, for the release of thousands of prisoners of conscience, and for the legalization of political parties outside the Baath and its partners.

The Kurdish leader smiled as Mazen and Razan eloquently made the case for unified action, but he had an answer at the ready: “We bore the brunt in 2004 and now you want us to be on the forefront again. Find something other than Kurds to ignite your protests.”

In 2004, four years into Bashar’s rule, at least thirty-six people were killed and 160 wounded, mostly Kurds, when the regime violently quelled protests across northern Syria following deadly shootings by security forces at a soccer match. More than 2,000 Kurds were arrested.29 Tensions persisted and several deadly incidents with Kurdish victims followed, including the last Nowruz celebration in 2010, when at least one person was shot dead by security forces.30 The feeling among many Kurds was that the rest of Syria merely watched from the sidelines as they died.

But the rebuff by the Kurdish leader was not going to deter Mazen and his friends who have been advocating for human rights and freedom of expression in Syria for the past decade at great personal risk and against all odds. As for many, Mazen’s commitment to the cause was deeply personal; his father had been forced into hiding after opposing Hafez alAssad’s coup in 1970, and his mother had been jailed for criticizing the regime. Mazen and other youthful activists believed this was their golden chance to achieve what had long eluded their parents, mentors and an entire generation of Assad regime opponents. Now, it seemed like the tide was beginning to turn all around them, and Syria would get swept up in the current soon enough. To Mazen, “it was not a matter of if but when in Syria.”

The mukhabarat, bracing for the same inevitability, began arresting some university students suspected of starting protests and summoning known political opponents and activists like Mazen for lengthy interrogations about their intentions.31

“We were looking for any pretext to take to the streets, even something like celebrating the national day of the Republic of the Congo,” said Mazen jokingly.

The first opening toward liberation for Mazen and his friends came on March 8, 2011, when, on the forty-eighth anniversary of the Baath’s takeover of power in Syria, Bashar issued a decree pardoning certain categories of prisoners. It excluded most political prisoners, some languishing in cells and dungeons for decades. Immediately word spread that thirteen political prisoners in Adra prison near Damascus had gone on a hunger strike to be included in the pardons.32

Mazen and his associates decided to release a statement expressing solidarity with these prisoners and announced their own protest on March 16 in front of the Ministry of the Interior to demand the release of all prisoners of conscience. They signed it with their real names and posted it on Facebook. “We wanted to move our activity from the clandestine and secretive to the open,” explained Mazen. “This is us and these are our real names and we are calling for a protest on a specific day and time regarding a Syrian matter—we the Syrian people.”33

On March 16, nearly 300 people showed up in Marjeh Square—once the site of public executions when Syria was ruled by the French and, before them, the Ottomans. The streets were lined with cheap hotels, office buildings, and shops selling everything from cell phones to baklava. Usually visitors from the provinces idled in the square while children chased pigeons. But they were absent that day as the crowd formed and security forces ringed the interior ministry building just off the square.

The moment protesters began to wave posters of the prisoners and banners calling for their release, hundreds of security force members and pro-Bashar irregulars in civilian clothes poured out from surrounding buildings.34 (They had been lying in wait in the stairwells all morning, Mazen later found out.) The regime enforcers charged toward the protesters, shouting with one voice: “With our soul, with our blood, we sacrifice ourselves for you, O Bashar!”35

Mazen and the other protesters tried to hold their ground and close ranks, chanting: “He who strikes his own people is a traitor!”

Within seconds, protesters were clubbed with batons, knocked to the ground, trampled on, and dragged on the pavement. Mazen watched in disbelief as Tayeb Tizini, a well-respected and elderly philosopher who was among the protesters, was hoisted up by two thugs and thrown against a lamppost again and again. Mazen and nearly two dozen other protesters were arrested and bundled into vans.

Two days later, Friday, March 18, Manaf Tlass strolled through Marjeh Square while on a morning walk, a near-daily routine. All seemed normal. There was more security than usual but otherwise nothing out of the ordinary.36 Manaf lingered in the square for a few moments, then looked at his watch: it was well past ten o’clock. He decided to head back home to shower and change.

Later that day, Manaf and his wife, Thala, drove out to their weekend house in the mountains west of Damascus close to the Lebanese border. It was a simple stone house nestled on the flank of a six-thousand-foot mountain between the resort towns of Bloudan and Serghaya. Cars could not reach the crest, so visitors had to park three-quarters of the way and hike up to the house.37 The Tlasses lived rather simply there: a family room, two bedrooms, and small kitchen powered by a private generator. Hand-woven Bedouin rugs covered the floor. The main attraction was the spectacular view from the outdoor terrace. Stretched out below were scenic valleys with farmhouses, streams, and apple orchards. One could see as far as the Lebanese city of Zahleh in the adjacent Beqaa Valley.

On this particular occasion, the Tlasses were hosting a lunch in honor of the Austrian manager of the Four Seasons hotel in Damascus, Martin Rhomberg, and his Mexican wife, Ana Luisa. It was intended as a farewell party for Rhomberg, who was being transferred elsewhere after three years in Damascus.38 The hotel had been a joint venture between the Four Seasons chain and the Syrian state, one that Bashar hoped would send a message that Damascus was now open for business under his dynamic and reform-minded leadership.

The guests started arriving at the Tlass weekend home, gathering on the terrace with their drinks. Given the warm, sunny weather, the Tlasses were planning a barbecue. Manaf, dressed in jeans and sporting a stylish army-green keffiyeh around his neck, held a glass of red wine in one hand and a Cuban cigar in the other as he chatted with his guests.

Talk before lunch drifted to the one question on everyone’s mind: How will the Arab Spring affect Syria?

“I was ready with the standard response and our talking points: I did not think we would be affected, because our young president was already carrying out reforms,” said Manaf.

His words proved to be false that same day.

Sixty miles south of Damascus in the city of Daraa, close to the Jordanian border, eighteen-year-old Sally Masalmeh was having breakfast at home with her parents and siblings. Since it was Friday, the beginning of the weekend, the whole family was gathered together to linger over plates of white cheese, olives, pickled eggplants, fried eggs, and hot bread—a typical Syrian breakfast.

As they moved to the living room to have tea after the meal, news from Al Jazeera, by then the Arab world’s most popular satellite news channel, streamed in on the TV. Millions across the Arab world followed the channel’s day-and-night live broadcasts of the cataclysmic events sweeping the region: Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and now potentially Syria.

“We are going to be next for sure,” said Sally with a mischievous smile.

She was a thin girl with dark, almond-shaped eyes and sharp eyebrows that stood out below her colorful headscarf.

“Be quiet, they will arrest us all if you keep saying that,” interjected her father. He was old enough to remember Hama.

Daraa was buzzing that day with talk of a possible protest planned after midday prayers by relatives of a group of teenage boys who had been arrested by security forces more than two weeks earlier for doing the unthinkable. Across school walls the boys had spray-painted: “Jayeek el dor, ya daktor”—“You are next, doctor,” referring to Bashar.39

“It’s going to be just like the other countries—twenty, thirty days maximum, and he’ll pack up his bags and leave,” Sally insisted. Bashar, she believed, would step down just like the presidents of Egypt and Tunisia.

“He’s no Mubarak or Ben Ali, he’ll kill all of you and he won’t leave—mark my words,” said her father as he got up to prepare to go to the mosque near the house, where he planned to pray. He wanted to avoid the central Omari mosque near where the protest might occur. Better to stay away from trouble.

After her father left, Sally helped her mother tidy up the house. Since the weather was nice, they were planning to go for a picnic when her father returned.

Suddenly, the sound of heavy gunfire filled Daraa.

As the sun started disappearing behind the mountains of Lebanon, some guests at the Tlass luncheon headed back to Damascus. It was getting chilly on the terrace. Manaf was tending to a few guests still lingering over dessert and coffee when his assistant pulled him aside with urgent news. There had been a protest in Daraa, he said, and it had turned violent and people had been killed.

Stunned, Manaf excused himself from the remaining guests and rushed to the base to try to piece together what had happened in Daraa. On Sunday morning he was still working to gather information when his cell phone rang. It was the president.40

“Hi, are you near a landline?” asked Bashar.

“Yes, I am at the base,” said Manaf.


Embracing the Clouds

The journey of the Assads and Tlasses to the spring that forever changed them and their country began six decades earlier. It was fall 1952 when Hafez alAssad and Mustafa Tlass first met at the military academy in the city of Homs.1

The budding Syrian republic that had recently gained its independence from France was eager to build its army officer corps and was calling for volunteers. It was a natural choice for poor, scrappy young men from the provinces like Hafez and Mustafa who were ambitious and politically minded. A ninth-grade education and an entrance exam were all it took to be admitted. Recruits were housed, fed, and paid a stipend.

Hafez had a baccalaureate, the equivalent of a high school degree, and was a bright student. He could have gone to university, but it would have been a burden on his large family. The Assads, like most inhabitants of the mountains of Syria’s western coastal region, were Alawites—members of what was generally regarded as an offshoot of Shia Islam whose adherents were branded heretics by many mainstream Muslims and persecuted throughout history. (While the veneration of Shiite Imam Ali and their own desire to fit in has linked Alawites to Shiism, Alawites regard themselves as distinct culturally and historically from other sects; some of their beliefs have been traced to Christianity. But in general, secrecy and concealment shrouds Alawite faith and practices, something that has protected them but has also been used against them by their enemies.)

The Alawites and other minorities did, however, enjoy some measure of autonomy during the French mandate over Lebanon and Syria—states carved out from dominions of the collapsing Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War. It was part of a French divide-and-conquer strategy predicated on preserving class and religious divisions and promoting regional separatist sentiments among local populations while keeping simmering nationalist fervor in check.2

Upon independence, Syrians sought to forge a modern state based on Western principles for a diverse nation whose constituents mistrusted one another and were swayed by long and deep-rooted traditions of feudalism and patronage. When Hafez and Mustafa entered the military academy a shift was underway, but most economic and political power was still in the hands of large landowners and urban elites who either belonged to the Sunni Muslim majority or were Christian.3 Society’s contrasts were breathtaking; many women in big cities dressed in the latest Parisian fashions, attended college, and worked in offices, while those in adjacent suburbs wore traditional attire and fetched drinking water in clay jars.

Mustafa was a Sunni, but like Hafez came from a rural and modest background. He was a farmer’s son from Al-Rastan in the Homs countryside. Families worked the land and raised sheep, and, like all of Al-Rastan’s women, Mustafa’s mother did the laundry on the banks of the Orontes River which passed through the town.4 During the Second World War, the Tlasses became so destitute that Mustafa’s father sold their ancestral home and moved to a smaller place, where he also ran a bathhouse to survive.5

Mustafa failed his baccalaureate but found work as a physical education teacher in a village in southern Syria, with a meager salary and small room for accommodation.6 Then he decided to enroll in the military academy, as becoming an officer was a path to better social standing for someone like Mustafa and possibly even a ticket to the pinnacle of power and glory. In the summer of 1952, just before Hafez and Mustafa went off to the academy, the entire Arab world was electrified by Gamal Abdel Nasser, the young lieutenant colonel who led fellow officers in deposing Egypt’s Western-backed King Farouk. The officers promised to unify Arabs, recapture Palestine from the newly created Jewish state, and eradicate vestiges of the feudal and colonial past. Turning ambition and rabble-rousing rhetoric into reality was an altogether different matter, however.

Before the academy, Hafez and Mustafa were youth leaders in the Baath Party, which was formed a year after Syria’s independence. The Baath was first and foremost an ideology—a curious fusion of European philosophies, socialism, Arab nationalism, and Islamic thought, whose theorists were Syrian graduates of the Sorbonne.7 Its core doctrine was that Arabs must undergo transformation and unification beyond just geographic and political lines; they must shed imperial-era influences and return to their pure essence and virtues. This demanded a rebirth and resurgence, or baath in Arabic. These concepts, along with social equality and redistribution of wealth, appealed to those sidelined by their economic circumstances, like Mustafa, or by belonging to religious minorities, like Hafez. Arab identity was supposed to transcend all cleavages.

In January 1953, Hafez, Mustafa, and another dozen cadets were transferred from Homs to the northern city of Aleppo, where they became the first class admitted to a new air force academy established by the young Syrian state. It was not much. There was a runway, a couple of hangars, six training planes, an old barrack that housed the cadets’ dorm, training officers’ quarters, and a common mess hall, where the food was “not even fit for donkeys,” according to Mustafa.8

Cadets risked expulsion if they broached the subject of politics, but Hafez, Mustafa and like-minded Baathists still found time in between pilot-training courses for animated political discussions. They voiced shared disdain for Adib al-Shishakli, a general nicknamed “the Arab Caesar,” who ruled Syria after three successive coups in 1949 and allied himself to Britain, Saudi monarchs, and the United States. To Baathist cadets, Shishakli was “America’s pet.” Instead, they wanted “a leader who challenges and confronts.”9

As they bonded over politics, Hafez and Mustafa found themselves drawn to each other by virtue of their different but rather complementary personalities. Hafez was a very serious, reserved, and hardworking young man determined to make something of himself. Mustafa, on the other hand, was handsome, gregarious, extroverted, and eager to talk about his romantic exploits. The dynamic of their relationship was clear from the start. Hafez was the leader, boss, and brains, and Mustafa his loyal, colorful, and funny sidekick—and the muscle when it was required.10 They practiced ambushing their dormmates for sport; Mustafa would grab a fellow cadet from behind like a wrestler so that Hafez could knock him on the head with his large forehead.11

While Mustafa and Hafez were still at the academy, their Baath Party merged with the Arab Socialist Party, founded by a charismatic lawyer who incited Syrian farmers to revolt against their landlords. The new entity, the Arab Baath Socialist Party, participated in an uprising that overthrew the pro-American Shishakli.

Mustafa did not make the cut as a pilot. He was deemed too temperamental and heavy-handed during training flights, so he switched to tanks while Hafez graduated as a pilot officer.12

The newly minted officers were faced with a country that, barely a decade after gaining its independence, was reeling from a series of successive military coups, assassinations, and an internecine struggle in the army over the direction Syria should take and its place in the geopolitical map of the time. There were factions pushing for union with Nasser’s Egypt. Their main opponents were those desiring unity with Iraq, ruled at the time by a king. These officers wanted Syria to be part of the so-called Baghdad Pact—a United States–backed organization that included Britain, Iraq, Pakistan, the shah’s Iran, and Turkey—against Soviet encroachment in the oil-rich and strategic Middle East. Communists were also gaining strength in the army and wanted to see Syria firmly anchored in the Soviet camp.

As in ancient times, Syria was at the crossroads of civilizations and ideologies.

Hafez and Mustafa were mere lieutenants but were in the thick of all the army intrigue, and like most Baathist officers they believed that survival meant throwing their lot in with the Nasserites against the others, especially after Nasser’s popularity surged following the 1956 Suez crisis.

In the fall of 1957, while Hafez was posted at the Mezzeh Airbase in Damascus, Mustafa was part of an army contingent sent to Aleppo as a show of force to dissuade Turkey from making an incursion into Syria. The Turks had amassed troops at the border at the behest of their American allies who, with Britain, hoped to assassinate key Communist and Nasserite figures in Damascus in order to install a Western-friendly government.13

While posted in the north, Mustafa befriended Adnan Jabri, a young army engineer from a notable local landowning family. Adnan had recently returned to Syria with his American wife after studying in the United States. He introduced his sister Lamia to Mustafa, who became close with his family.

During the many lunches at the Jabri country home near Aleppo, Mustafa met the US consul Roy Atherton, a friend of the Jabris.14 The United States was unsettled by the influence of the Soviet Union in northern Syria, and Atherton and others had been deployed to monitor the situation.15 Connections to ambitious Baathists like Mustafa could be useful in the effort to confront the Communists and Nasserites, whom the Americans regarded as a more worrisome and formidable force in the nascent Syrian army and state. The American-British 1957 plot was not carried through, but Mustafa’s acquaintance with Atherton later opened the door to crucial back channels in Washington as he and Hafez rose to the top. In Baath propaganda the Americans were supposed to be the enemy, but the power-hungry friends were ready to partner with the devil to get ahead.

Mustafa married Lamia in early 1958 after a short courtship. Their firstborn was a girl they named Nahed. Like becoming an army officer, marrying into the wealthy and landed Jabri family was a big step up for the poor young man from Al-Rastan.

Hafez opted for a similar match later in 1958, marrying Aniseh Makhlouf, an Alawite from one of his community’s wealthier families. Initially the Makhloufs objected, scornful of Hafez’s peasant background and membership to the Baath Party, whose panArab ideals they rejected.16

But that same year Egypt and Syria unified under the leadership of Nasser—the first step toward broader Arab unity. Egypt became the Southern Region and Syria the Northern in what was called the United Arab Republic. The Baathists were among those pushing hardest for the union, thinking it would neutralize their opponents in Syria and turn them into equal partners with Nasser.17 Their bet proved wrong almost immediately. Although Nasser appointed a Baathist as his deputy, his conditions for union were dissolution of all parties in Syria and exclusion of Syrian army officers from any role in political life. Nasser planned to rule with an iron fist and his position was significantly strengthened by the unprecedented outpouring of spontaneous popular support he received during multiple visits to Syria right after a unification referendum.18

“This is your people, Gamal!” screamed a headline on the front page of Syria’s Al Ayyam newspaper above a photo of the hundreds of thousands who clogged central Damascus to get a glimpse of the leader turned icon for millions of Arabs.19

Baathist leaders were envious of Nasser, but for most Syrians he was the savior of a society feeling aimless and fragmented twelve years after independence.20 The promise of stability, however, was fleeting. Through his local Syrian henchmen, Nasser brutally suppressed any whiff of criticism.21 Sweeping nationalization and agrarian reform triggered the flight of the country’s top industrialists and landowners, mainly to neighboring Lebanon. This powerful class began scheming to get Syria out of the union with Egypt.

Disillusionment and anger also set in among Baathists who felt cheated by Nasser. Baathist army officers seen as posing a threat to Nasser were transferred in 1959 to the provinces in Egypt, among them Hafez and Mustafa, who by then held the respective ranks of major and captain.22 Both eventually moved to Cairo, where their wives joined them. In 1960 the Tlasses had their second child, a boy they named Firas. That same year Hafez’s wife, Aniseh, gave birth to a daughter, Bushra. She, too, was their second born; their first baby girl had fallen ill and died upon their arrival in Egypt.23

In the spring of 1961, all indications were that the brief union with Egypt was going to unravel. Army officers, mostly from the Sunni majority and backed by wealthy families, plotted to grab power in Syria. These constituents were friendly to the United States and its allies. By then, Western powers were not only grappling with the Soviet-allied Nasser but also with a populist pro-communist Iraqi officer named Abdul-Karim Qasim, who toppled the monarchy in Syria’s oil-rich neighbor state to the east. There was so much hatred for the pro-Western Iraqi monarchy and its government that a mob disinterred the deposed prime minister and crown prince and dragged their corpses through Baghdad’s streets.24

As signs of the imminent undoing of the Egypt–Syria union mounted, Hafez joined a secret committee of Baathist officers in Cairo to assess their own chances of grabbing power. Initially the committee’s core members were Hafez, two other Alawites like him, and two Ismailis, members of another minority group. These men felt they could trust one another because, beyond dissatisfaction with the Egypt union, they shared the grievances of religious minorities. The Sunni Mustafa Tlass and others were brought in later. In order not to raise suspicion, the co-conspirators met at each other’s apartments under the pretext of social gatherings that included their wives.

At the end of September 1961, a group of Damascene army officers staged a coup in Syria and ended the union with Egypt. The Egyptians put all Syrian officers in Cairo under house arrest. Hafez was among those imprisoned for their suspected role in the coup even though he and other Baathists were at odds with the Damascene officers and ultimately wanted power for themselves.

Mustafa convinced the Egyptians to let him join the approximately fifty Syrian officers and their families eventually allowed to return to Syria. Mustafa brought his wife and children as well as Hafez’s wife, who was three months pregnant, and their one-year-old daughter, Bushra, safely back to Syria. More than 600 people crammed into a small passenger boat that left Port Said on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast for the Lebanese capital, Beirut. “We were herded into the ship as if we were sheep and goats,” said Mustafa.25

Hafez, who was released later in exchange for Syrian-held Egyptian officers, was forever indebted to Mustafa for escorting his wife and baby girl all the way to the safety of the Alawite mountains. Back in Syria, the Baath’s political leaders and party theorists were in full crisis mode: Do they endorse the new putschists even though they differed with them ideologically? Wasn’t the Baath all about smashing frontiers between Arab states? Or do they cooperate with the Nasserites again to restore the union, forgetting how bitter and marginalized they were during that short-lived experience?

But Hafez and his circle of army officers knew exactly what they wanted. It was power for themselves, and the sooner the better.26 They mounted a coup attempt in the spring of 1962, but things quickly went wrong as disagreements surfaced with a diehard Nasserite army faction. Hafez escaped to Lebanon but was later returned to Syria and placed in jail alongside Mustafa and other comrades. Hafez was interrogated and then released after a few days, while Mustafa and lesser figures bore the brunt of the failed attempt.

That spring Hafez’s first son, Bassel, was born. While Mustafa was in prison, his wife gave birth eight months later to a baby boy whom they named Manaf. In one of his letters to his wife from prison, Mustafa joked how Manaf was sent as help for his brother, Firas, to cope with their feisty and tough sister, Nahed, who was four by then.27

Hafez was cashiered from the army and given a civilian job in Latakia, but he continued to plot to capture power with his secret army committee.

In February 1963, Baathists in Iraq ousted Abdul-Karim Qassim, the populist leader who had toppled the monarchy a few years earlier. Exactly a month later, on March 8, 1963, Hafez and his comrades—with crucial aid from senior non-Baathist army officers with aligned goals—overthrew what they called “the secessionists,” those who had precipitated Syria’s separation from Egypt. Hafez and the others did not want to restore unity with Egypt, but appearing as if they were in favor of such a step would give them some measure of public support and legitimacy in the coup’s aftermath.

Many more lies would follow.

The power grab was swift. Tanks rolled into Damascus and occupied key facilities, including army headquarters and state broadcasting in the central Umayyad Square, while Hafez personally headed the unit that subdued a critical airbase near the capital.28 The Baathists declared their move a “revolution” and instituted martial law. A military council, formally known as the National Council for the Revolutionary Command and including Hafez and his comrades, ruled Syria through a government of their own creation.

Hafez was a step closer to the top.

“We were like wolves,” said Mustafa, now commander of an army division stationed in Homs. “We turned each military base that we took over into a citadel of the Baath.” Baathists seized most military bases and weapons depots to prevent countercoups by rival army factions.29

Within weeks the new junta began a purge in the army and all sectors of public life. Hundreds of officers and public servants were removed from their posts and replaced with loyal Baathists. Political parties, clubs, associations, and newspapers were shuttered under the guise of combatting enemies of the Syrian people, reactionaries, foreign agents, and opponents of Arab nationalism. An entire generation of political and community leaders was stripped of all civil rights. “Treason must be plucked out from its roots,” declared the junta.30

More industrialists and businessmen fled Syria, fearing the worst.31 The purge also provoked street protests and riots in Aleppo and Damascus between late April and early May 1963. Security forces were ordered in to control the situation, and calm was restored after some fifty protesters were shot dead.32

A second challenge came a few months later, when disaffected pro-Nasser army officers tried to carry out a rather clownish countercoup. They attacked the Ministry of Defense and state broadcasting buildings in central Damascus in broad daylight, triggering street battles with Baathists. Hafez, now a lieutenant colonel, was a prominent figure in the junta and the air force’s de facto commander. He and his associates ordered the distribution of assault rifles to all party members. They were told to take to the street to defend their March 8 revolution.33

Mustafa telephoned Hafez to ask if he should return from Homs to help.

“They’re just a bunch of mercenaries and we have crushed them already; stay where you are but be on high alert,” Hafez told him.34

The Baathists prevailed, but hundreds of people were killed or wounded in the clashes, many of them bystanders caught in the crossfire. Those connected to the botched coup were hauled in front of a military tribunal and executed on the spot by a firing squad. Similar tribunals were set up all over the country, with Mustafa presiding over the one in Homs.35

These bloody events effectively institutionalized the mindset of vengeance and reprisal in the regime’s fabric.36 And with every challenge, the regime honed its skills and perfected its manual for dealing with threats to its power. Survival and self-preservation at any cost were Hafez’s main objectives during all crises. Mustafa shared this thinking as he helped Hafez navigate his way to the top. He was ready to kill for him. “We had to terrorize the revolution’s enemies,” boasted Mustafa.37

There was more unrest in February 1964, when students in Homs and the coastal region demonstrated against the one-year-old Baathist regime. Mustafa sent tanks to the streets and issued death sentences against student leaders, calling them “Zionist and colonial agents.”

Two months later, Hafez and Mustafa were among those in the junta who took the hardest position against a more serious revolt in Hama. A firebrand Islamist preacher called Marwan Hadid had taken up arms and barricaded himself in a mosque along with his followers, mostly teenage boys. Hadid had been radicalized while studying in Egypt and had become disenchanted with what he saw as the passivity of his fellow Muslim Brothers in Syria in the face of “infidel” Baathists.38 The Brotherhood, which saw Islam rather than Arabism as the unifying force, was at war with Nasser in Egypt, and Hadid wanted the Syrian branch to follow a similar path of violent confrontation.

Hama was mostly opposed to Hadid and his methods, but when the Baath regime shelled the mosque to rout Hadid out, the city’s deeply conservative population revolted. Homs rose again in solidarity with Hama, while merchants in Damascus’s central market called for a strike. The regime mobilized the army and members of a newly created paramilitary group known as the National Guard. Relying on shock troops and militias to act as a check on the army would be a recurring regime strategy going forward.

Mustafa was personally at the scene in Homs, ordering one of his armored vehicles to smash open the main door of the historic Khaled Ibn al-Walid mosque to flush out protesters who had barricaded themselves inside.39 Not long thereafter, Mustafa presided over a military tribunal that sentenced Hadid and eight others to death. The regime hoped that the show trial would isolate and vilify all its opponents by casting them as fanatics like Hadid—a tactic to be deployed again in the future.40

The sentence was never carried out, however, and Hadid and his companions were released after Hama’s notables and clergy intervened with the junta’s figurehead president, General Amin al-Hafiz, a Sunni like them. The president was also backed by some in the junta who believed that the regime’s actions in its first year in power—the purges, shooting of protesters, summary executions, and mosque shelling—were highly provocative and dangerous.

Hafez and Mustafa, however, were among those arguing for even more firmness. They believed letting Hama off so easily and reversing the death sentences was a grave mistake that could encourage further insurrection.41 Regardless of the final outcome, the events of 1964 exposed the two major fault lines of religion and class that would underpin all future conflicts. Broadly, it was the conservative Sunni majority against the secular and, in its eyes, godless minority-led regime. Then there were the urban elites and prominent families against the humble countryside upstarts like the Assads and Tlasses who seized power.

The events also had a more immediate and consequential impact on the ruling military council. They ushered in a cycle of merciless culling in the council’s ranks, an intrigue-filled succession war brutal enough for ancient courts. First to be taken out was the figurehead president, al-Hafiz, who felt that too much power was in the hands of Alawites like Hafez alAssad and the army chief of staff, to the detriment of the Sunni majority. The president plotted with Baath Party founders to take power from the military committee. Hafez and Mustafa backed the army chief, Salah Jadid, a ruthless Marxist-influenced ideologue, who moved against the president and his co-conspirators when they tried to reshuffle the military command.

The president and his family surrendered on February 23, 1966, after a three-hour gun battle outside his official residence that left nearly fifty people dead.42 Hafez and his youngest brother, Rifaat, a newly graduated officer with a streak of savagery who commanded a special strike force, were among those leading the assault against the president and his loyalists.43 About 400 army officers and government functionaries, as well as one founding member of the ruling military council, were purged from their posts; some were tried and sentenced to death by hastily convened tribunals, while others went into exile overseas but, in some cases, were later tracked down and assassinated.44

Internal party struggle culminated in a split of the Baath, initiated by its Iraqi branch. After Syria’s military rulers got rid of their rivals in 1966, Jadid became de facto leader and appointed Hafez defense minister. Two Sunnis were appointed as figurehead president and prime minister.

There was barely time for the new government to settle in when, in June 1967, Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria, Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan, and Sinai from Egypt during the Six-Day War. It was akin to a second nakba, or catastrophe, for Arab masses, the first being the creation of Israel in 1948.45 Syria’s military leaders fretted that the crushing defeat could cost them power.

As the defense minister, Hafez felt most vulnerable. He was determined to neutralize threats from wherever they came. When two banished ex-comrades returned to Syria, Hafez moved quickly to arrest them on suspicion that they might act against the weakened regime. Hafez called Mustafa and urged him to sentence them right away.

“I’ll do it first thing tomorrow morning. It’s 8:30 p.m. now,” Mustafa responded.

“You have to do it this minute! You do not understand, the leadership is in real crisis, and there’s panic that the regime may fall,” Hafez insisted, stressing the impact of the Golan’s loss.

Mustafa immediately put on his military uniform and drove to the army theater building in Damascus, where a tribunal was hastily convened. Mustafa, now a lieutenant colonel, presided over the five-officer court. Proceedings were filmed to show the public that losing the Golan had nothing to do with the regime’s ineptitude or Hafez’s possible treason, as many Syrians were beginning to murmur, but was the result of a conspiracy by Jordan’s monarchy, the CIA, West Germany, and “enemies of the people” like the two disloyal Syrian officers, Salim Hatoum and Badr Juma’a, who were on trial.46

Hatoum, once a member of the ruling junta, was dazed and incoherent because of severe torture, but the lesser figure, Juma’a, confessed the explanation Mustafa was looking for: that they planned to topple the regime and put in place a government that was representative of all of Syria’s political currents, including Baathists.

Mustafa adjourned for ten minutes and called Hafez to update him. He would issue the death sentence and carry it out instantly, and afterward he would deal with the formality of getting it approved by the junta’s figurehead president.47

“Good job, and you won’t be responsible for this on your own—I and all the comrades in the leadership are with you,” Hafez assured him.

At three o’clock in the morning Mustafa sentenced his two former comrades to death by firing squad on charges of grand treason. Several reports emerged afterward that Mustafa had personally taken part in the torture and impalement of Hatoum and that Hatoum was already dead when he was dragged to the prison’s shooting range.48

Hatoum’s horrific execution did little to stem the disarray, recrimination, and backstabbing following what became known as the naksa, or setback, of 1967—Israel’s swift defeat of Syria and other Arab states. To close ranks, Hafez installed Mustafa as army chief of staff. In the span of eight months, Mustafa had been promoted from lieutenant colonel to major general, a spectacular leap in rank and a long-due reward for absolute loyalty. Now the two friends worked to weaken and isolate Salah Jadid, Hafez’s main competitor. They started purging figures in the army loyal to Jadid and then moved against his allies in the military committee, the core group of army officers that first conspired to carry out the 1963 coup.

Hafez signaled to crucial allies like the Soviet Union that he, not Jadid, was the winning horse and that they should strengthen him and supply him with advanced weapons in order to confront the United States and its allies in the region.

When Soviet defense minister Field Marshall Andrey Grechko visited Damascus in 1968, Hafez asked Mustafa to organize a dinner at his home for him and the Soviet guest. Mustafa’s wife, Lamia, was part of the charm offensive, preparing kibbeh Aleppo style (patties of cracked wheat and meat stuffed with minced meat and pine nuts) for the Soviet commander.49

Mustafa later wooed Grechko by throwing him private parties with attractive teenage girls.50 Soviet military aid to the Syrian army and especially the Hafez-controlled air force doubled from 1968 to 1970, the period of the final showdown between Hafez and Jadid.51

Jadid moved against Hafez and Mustafa at a Baath Party emergency national congress in late October 1970. During marathon sessions lasting almost two weeks, Hafez was held responsible for the shameful retreat in the 1967 war, accused of maintaining backchannels with “the imperialist West,” and denounced as a defeatist who was going to ruin the party and gut its revolutionary ideology. For Jadid and his allies, the proof of Hafez’s treasonous ties to the West lay in his refusal to mobilize the air force to help Palestinian guerrilla fighters in their battle against the US-backed King Hussein of Jordan during what became known as Black September in 1970. Jadid had sent tanks into Jordan to help the Palestinians and almost provoked war with the Jordanians.

Jadid proceeded to strip Hafez and Mustafa of their army ranks and positions, but Hafez had by then laid the groundwork to move against Jadid.52 He had a lot to bolster his case. Syria’s economy was in ruins after extensive nationalization. Central bank reserves stood at 50 million lira ($14 million), enough to cover state expenditures and civil servant salaries for a month or two at the most.53 Hafez cast Jadid as scapegoat for the decision to confiscate private companies and property after the Baathists seized power in 1963, a move that resulted in capital flight to the tune of $1 billion during the ensuing two years.54 Hafez argued that Jadid failed as party leader as well and that his foray into Jordan almost brought disaster.

Behind the scenes, Hafez gathered wide support by promising to ease Syria’s isolation from its Arab neighbors (and, for that matter, most of the world), discard Jadid’s unpopular Mao-and Trotsky-inspired revolutionary model, jumpstart the economy, loosen the regime’s grip on society, and reclaim the Golan Heights. As the party congress came to a chaotic end, Hafez and Mustafa, in league with their loyalists in the army and intelligence services, began to execute the plan they had at the ready.

Jadid, the figurehead president, along with the prime minister and their allies, were rounded up one by one and taken to prison, where most remained until they died. As Hafez was finalizing his power grab, Muammar Gaddafi, a zealous young army officer who had seized power in Libya the previous year, arrived in Damascus. Hafez went to greet him at the airport and tasked Mustafa with broadcasting an announcement of the “Corrective Movement” to the people.55

“Your comrades have formed a temporary leadership out of a sense of responsibility to protect the party and the revolution,” said Mustafa. “Your party is the party of workers, farmers, soldiers… the party of the poor and dispossessed.”

A patriotic Baath song played at the end of his speech. “From Qasioun, I look upon you my homeland and I see Damascus embracing the clouds… and the Baath sprinkling meteors over it!” crooned a female vocalist.56

At the end of his visit, Gaddafi, who was twenty-eight years old at the time, told Syrian media he was “comforted” by Hafez’s coup.57

A few days later at the Tlass residence in Damascus, the family’s youngest member was getting dressed. Eight-year-old Manaf was a thin, quiet boy. He was different from his brother, Firas, two years his senior, who was chubby, outgoing, and constantly fighting with their sister and the eldest, Nahed. Nahed was tough but always kind to her younger brother Manaf.

The Tlasses moved from Homs in 1968 after Mustafa Tlass became the army’s chief of staff while his friend Hafez alAssad was still defense minister. They settled in an apartment on a quiet, leafy side street in the upscale Rawda neighborhood.

On that day in late November 1970, Manaf was escorted by one of his father’s aides to the nearby office of Hafez alAssad, now Syria’s most powerful man. It was within walking distance, up Jala’a Street and past Rawda Square, in a nondescript bunker-like building.

Hafez wore a military uniform and sat behind his desk reviewing documents when Manaf was brought in. Hafez got up, smiled, and approached Manaf. He kissed him on both cheeks.

“My dear, this is Bassel. He’s your age and you two go to the same school,” said Hafez as he put an arm around his son, who was eight months older than Manaf and a grade higher. “Your dad and I are friends and the two of you must also become friends.”


Creation and Punishment

The mustachioed army general and his men arrived at a pole with a flag at half-staff. The general grabbed the flag—red, white, and black with a hawk in the middle1—and displayed it to the crowd with a smile. Then, raising it to his lips, he kissed the fabric.2

“Hafez, Hafez, Hafez!” the crowd shouted wildly.

It was late June 1974 and Hafez alAssad was in his early forties. He wore a khaki army uniform, a kepi, and black leather shoes; his epaulettes were decorated with a hawk, two stars, and two crossed swords. He was commander of the army, president of the republic, secretary-general of the ruling Baath Party, and now he was on his way to becoming a living legend—paramount leader, the nation’s father, maker and giver of everything, and defender of the Arabs. There were other pretenders to this last title, including next door in Iraq where the equally ruthless Saddam Hussein aspired to similar grandeur under the mantle of a splinter wing of the Baath.

At Hafez’s side that day in June was his faithful companion and defense minister Mustafa Tlass. Next to the men were two twelve-year-old boys in matching mop-top haircuts and khaki uniforms. Hafez’s son Bassel and Mustafa’s son Manaf were friends—exactly as Hafez had decreed.

An aide showered Hafez with flowers as he hoisted the flag amid frenzied cheering and clapping. Bassel carried a camera and snapped photos of his father and the euphoric scene.3 Hafez and Mustafa stood shoulder to shoulder saluting the flag after it was raised. They had dreamed of this moment for two decades, having worked their way to the top with raw ambition, intrigue, and a trail of blood.

Hafez reached into his pocket and pulled out a folded piece of paper as the two boys looked on with anticipation. He began reading a speech.

“The people’s will can never be subjugated… We must continue preparations to drive the enemy out of every inch of our occupied Arab land…” A nearby camera caught this made-for-TV moment. The ruling party said that more than 300 foreign journalists came to hear Hafez.4

“These masses will forever be the shining light of freedom… and dignity,” Hafez added.

Party officials, soldiers, and average Syrians gathered together to watch history in the making. Peasant men in red-and-white-checkered headdresses and women in flower-patterned garb jostled to catch a glimpse of the leader. They had crammed into the back of dump trucks with their children for the journey to Quneitra, a largely demolished and dusty town on the edge of the rocky Golan Heights plateau southwest of Damascus.

As Hafez concluded his speech, Mustafa turned with a smile to his son and Bassel. “When you boys grow up and become officers, you too will fight Israel,” he said proudly.5

That day in Quneitra was immortalized by the Syrian state as “Liberation Day” and Hafez became “Hero of Tishreen.” Tales of the Syrian army’s bravery under the great leader’s command would be taught in schools and commemorated year after year.

“Our masses live the joy of liberation,” pronounced the party’s daily on its front page.6

It was more like the lie of liberation that the Assads would use to subjugate Syrians.

Less than a year earlier, Hafez made the decision on October 6, 1973, the month of Tishreen al-Awal in Syria, to join Egypt, then under the leadership of Anwar al-Sadat, in launching coordinated attacks against Israel in the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights. The two leaders had divergent interests from the start. Sadat wanted closer ties with Washington and ultimately a deal with Israel to return the Sinai to Egypt. Sadat believed war or at least pretense of war was necessary to expedite such an outcome.7 Hafez needed war for his own reasons. He had assured the army officers who backed him in the November 1970 coup that he would reclaim the Golan and he intended to make good on that promise, in part to finally quiet those who blamed him for losing the territory to Israel in 1967.

War brought two crucial things that Hafez required to cement his grip on Syria: lots of weapons and military aid from the Soviet Union and cash from oil-rich Arab states to replenish state coffers and prop up the floundering economy. Hafez was also tempted to believe that war in 1973 could turn him into a hero of all Arabs like Sadat’s tall and charismatic predecessor, the beloved icon Gamal Abdel-Nasser, who had died a few weeks before Hafez’s 1970 coup.8

Assad and Nasser could not have been more different. Hafez was short and boxy-looking, with a protruding and expansive forehead, an aquiline nose with a somewhat bulbous tip, and unusually large ears. Public speaking was not his forte; he came across as cold and aloof. Hafez was in general conservative and risk-averse. He was a grand schemer who hated surprises and calculated every detail of all his moves.9

In what he hoped would be a Nasser-like moment, Hafe