Hands of Power: The Rise of Syria's Assad Family

The conflict in Syria has drawn in major global powers, some supporting and some opposing President Bashar al-Assad. The Assad family has ruled Syria for more than four decades, but how did they rise to power?

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Giant images of Bashar al-Assad and his late father Hafez al-Assad at the Damascus hotel. Photo by Getty Images.

Giant images of Bashar al-Assad and his late father Hafez al-Assad at the Damascus hotel. Photo by Getty Images.

Hafez al-Assad was the architect of modern Syria. Following decades of coups and counter-coups in Syria, Hafez used the network he had built in the posts of commander of the Syrian air force and minister of defence to seize power in 1970.

To maintain his position, Hafez created a system of divide and rule and personalized his power to such an extent that it was he alone who held the state together. His successor would inherit a weak government and state institutions.

It was Hafez’s eldest son, Bassel, that was groomed for power. But Bassel’s death in a car accident in 1994 thrust his brother Bashar to the fore. When Bashar al-Assad assumed the presidency in 2000 following Hafez’s death, many expected him to be a chip off the old block, but this has not proved to be the case.

When Bashar took over, he was obliged at first to work with his father’s coterie of revolutionary leaders - many of whom had headed the state’s key institutions, such as the security services and military, for decades. But, in order to assert his independence, he slowly pushed them aside in favour of his own close set of advisers.

In most cases, key ministries and state agencies had been under the purview of Hafez’s trusted allies since the 1970s.

Although these institutions were politically weak, they had served as important vehicles of patronage and provided an essential link between the presidency and its support base. As such, state institutions engendered a strong sense of loyalty among their employees and beneficiaries and, in doing so, became sturdy pillars of the state.

By pushing his father’s peers aside, Bashar imposed his own urban elite on society and undermined the integrity of key institutions.

Hafez rose to power with a generation of leaders that had emerged largely from rural provinces and retained close links to their constituencies. Bashar’s inner circle, on the other hand, essentially comprises children of the elite - a generation raised in the city, with no constituency other than their own concentric networks of influence.

The extent of Bashar’s control was the subject of much debate right up to the beginning of the uprisings in March 2011. There were questions over whether Bashar was subject to the undue influence of powerful ‘barons’ and family members, including his sister, Bushra, her late husband, Asef Shawkat, and his brother Maher.

Many concluded that Bashar was a natural reformer and had every intention of opening Syria up, but was constrained by his father’s clique.

This was a simplistic assessment of Bashar’s character; Bashar carefully cultivated a number of Western journalists, academics and policy-makers to help him appear accessible, sympathetic and thoughtful.

Four years later, such a debate is moot.

This article is published in partnership with BBC News.