The history of the al-Assad regime is ridden with violence and massacre. The al-Assad family is a part of the Alawite minority in Syria and has attempted to suppress the majority of its population, the Sunni Muslims. For the last 40 years, al-Assad forces have conducted several massacres. Since the rule of Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, Syrians have been subject to human rights abuses. After taking power through a military coup in 1970, Hafez received aid from the Soviet government to build up Syrian military forces and suppress the masses.
After a reportedly failed assassination attempt by the Muslim Brotherhood, Hafez al-Assad responded by killing hundreds of prisoners, comprised primarily of Muslim Brotherhood members. While the exact death toll is unknown, it is believed that 600-1,000 were killed under the direct control of Rifaat al-Assad. The government denies that the incident ever occurred but instead claims that the deaths at Tadmor were the result of prison riots. Faraj Beraqdar, a Syrian poet who spent five years at Tadmor, described Tadmor as “the kingdom of death and madness.” In August of the same year, more than 200 people were killed in the span of two days during the Eid al-Adha massacre. Some estimate that during the massacres at Aleppo nearly 1900 were killed.
Similarly, Hafez is responsible for the Hama massacre. On February 2nd 1982, Syrian military units bombarded the city, which they believed to be fostering Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated gunmen. The Syrian government shelled the city for several weeks, cutting the town off from the rest of the world. Then, after sending troops in on the ground, many civilians were arrested. During this time, 20 to 40 thousand residents of Hama were killed after a little more than three weeks. The event has since been called “the single deadliest act by any Arab government against its own people in the Middle East.”
During Hafez’ rule, he began to groom his oldest son, Bassel, to be the military leader of Syria while largely neglecting his younger son, Bashar. Bashar attended school in Britain and was Westernized, while his older brother oversaw Syrian military intelligence. After Bassel died in a car accident in 1994, Bashar was forced to prepare to assume power once his tyrant of a father died. Bashar was arguably unfit to rule Syria in the way his father had ruled. Bassel was groomed to oversee a tyrannical government like his father’s but Bashar’s Western education gave many Syrians hope for reform and a gradual liberalization of society. When Bashar first came into power, he promised economic liberalization and political reforms but rejected Western democracy as an alternative to Syrian authoritarianism. Despite these early convictions Bashar has amounted to be as oppresive as his father.
The current crisis in Syria began in March of 2011, when protesters called for the release of political dissidents. The largely peaceful protests were met with ruthless violence from the Syrian government. The violence continued throughout the summer of 2011, with many Syrians claiming that the government was conducting arbitrary arrests, torture and the use of indiscriminant violence against its own people.
Since the Syrian uprising began the al-Assad regime has been unrelenting. According to a 2013 Human Right Watch estimate, 34,346 civilians have been killed in the Syrian conflict. Hundreds of thousands have been internally displaced, as well as displaced across borders. The refugee situation has placed additional stress on Syria’s neighboring countries. Combined, Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan have taken in more than 341,000 refugees. According to witnesses, Syrian forces have placed landmines near the borders of Lebanon and Turkey in an effort to dissuade those who might try to escape.
The Syrian government has since continued a practice of human rights abuses. The government has subjected thousands to arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, torture and even death. These acts have been carried out by Syrian Forces, the Shabiha (armed gangs paid off by the Syrian government) and the Mukhabarat (Syrian intelligence). Many of those who have been arrested are peaceful protestors, activists, lawyers and journalists. The majority of political activists have been held in incommunicado detention. A statement made by a researcher for Amnesty International, Donatella Rovera, speaks to the gross violence: “The peaceful demonstrations I witnessed in different parts of the city invariably ended with security forces firing live rounds at peaceful protestors, their reckless and indiscriminate shooting often killing or injuring bystanders as well as demonstrators.” The Syrian government has also endangered civilians by forcing them to march in front of its forces during troop movements, arrest operations and attacks on villages and towns.
Additionally, the Syrian government forces have practiced sexual violence and abuse as a war tactic. During raids and military sweeps, children as young as 12 have been raped and sexually abused. The government has exploited its children and subjected them to violence in other ways as well. Many times, the government uses schools as a military base in towns which it is raiding. This then turns the school into a military target and children are held hostage while the gunfire unfolds around them. Teachers and children have reportedly been arrested and beaten when this occurs.
Some of the other crimes against humanity committed by Bashar al-Assad’s regime include repression of freedom of assembly and violations of freedom of information, public humiliation and torture as a means of intimidation, restriction and denial of access to hospitals, and collective punishments against the population at large. The list of human rights violations by the Syrian government is long and extensive. Throughout the last 40 years, the majority of the Syrian population has been persecuted by the government. It is unlikely that these circumstances will change without significant regime change at the end of the current crisis.
– Kelsey Ziomek
Sources: Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Local Coordination Committees, Asharq Al-awsat, The Guardian, Responsibility to Protect, Student World Assembly, International Federation for Human Rights