The Devastation of Syria's Legacy

Col. (res.) Pesach Malovany traces the actions of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during his years in power and explains how Bashar ravaged the legacy of his father, Hafez al-Assad

צילום: AP

Admittedly, the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, attempts to uphold the legacy of his father, President Hafez al-Assad, who was compelled to bequeath his position to his son Bashar after the person designated for that position, Bashar's eldest brother Bassel, had been killed in a traffic accident. Bashar's father must have known him well and realized that he was less qualified for the position – and Bashar has proven him right ever since his ascent to power, through his decisions and actions, particularly since the outset of the civil war in Syria.

One of Bashar's erroneous decisions was to order the assassination of the charismatic Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafik al-Hariri, on February 14, 2005, following a dispute over Hariri's objection to the Syrian intent to extend the tenure of the pro-Syrian Lebanese President, Émile Lahoud. This position of al-Hariri, one of the leaders of the anti-Syrian opposition in Lebanon, was gaining growing support from the Lebanese public. According to the leader of the Druze faction in Lebanon, Walid Jumblat, who made a public announcement after the assassination of al-Hariri, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had threatened al-Hariri in August 2004, in no unequivocal terms.

Following al-Hariri's assassination, massive demonstrations erupted in Lebanon against Syria and its continued presence in that country (the so-called "Cedar Revolution"), which gained extensive international support and led to the USA exerting pressure on Syria and to UN Resolution 1559 of late 2004, which demanded that Syria withdrew its forces from Lebanon. Indeed, the Syrian regime was compelled to comply with that resolution, only to avoid facing sanctions and other harsh measures against it, and withdrew its troops – about 14,000 to 15,000 men – from Lebanon by April 27, 2005, following which the pro-Syrian Lebanese government was deposed.

This was a historic move for both Syria and Lebanon. President Hafez al-Assad, Bashar's father, had ordered the Syrian Army to invade Lebanon in June 1976. The Syrians dominated Lebanon on the pretext that they came to put an end to the civil war that had erupted there a year earlier, to prevent the splitting of the country and assist nationalist resistance elements in Lebanon in their struggle against Israel. This was one of very few Syrian military successes and one of the most important political achievements as far as the Syrians were concerned. Hafez al-Assad endeavored, throughout his years in power (until his death in June 2000) to consolidate his hold on Lebanon, where Syria had, for many years, benefited from substantial economic gains, as well as to fortify Syria's political status in the region. This became evident through Syria's ever-intensifying relations with her allies – Iran on the one hand and Hezbollah on the other hand. In 2003, US President George W. Bush referred to this alliance as the Axis of Evil.

A Chain of Strategic Errors

Bashar al-Assad's decision to eliminate the Lebanese Prime Minister, which led to the withdrawal of the Syrian forces from Lebanon and to the loss of this major Syrian asset after 29 years of effective Syrian control over its neighbor, must have caused Hafez al-Assad to turn in his grave owing to the irresponsible and reckless decisions and actions of his son and heir, Bashar.

Incidentally, two interesting points should be noted in this context. Firstly – the domination of Lebanon by the Syrian Army (following some fierce combat encounters with Lebanese forces that actually resisted the Syrian invasion) never met with an international response of the same intensity as the response that followed a similar move, made 14 years later, when the Iraqi Army under orders from another evil ruler, Saddam Hussein, occupied Iraq's minute neighbor, Kuwait. This led to a war against Iraq, in early 1991, under the leadership of the USA, and to the forced removal of the Iraqi forces from Kuwait.

Secondly, the Syrians had invaded Lebanon contrary to the position of Syria's friend and ally, the USSR. The Soviet Prime Minister, Alexei Kosygin, traveled to Syria in an attempt to convince Assad to avoid that move, which at the time was highly inconvenient to the Soviets. Hafez al-Assad ignored the Soviets' advice, and this created some tension between the parties. The Soviets expressed their disapproval of the Syrian move in Lebanon by stopping their arms shipments to Syria in an attempt to press the Syrians to pull out. In response, Assad ordered a reduction of the Soviet presence in Syria, and within months numerous Soviet advisors and specialists were sent home. The Syrians had probably even considered the possibility of restricting the docking rights for vessels of the Soviet Navy at Syrian ports. As part of the counter pressures exerted by the Syrians, they imposed restrictions on the Soviet naval presence at the port of Tartus, and according to one source, Syria asked the USSR, in January 1977, to remove their submarines and auxiliary vessels from the port of Tartus.

Although eventually the Soviets failed to convince Hafez al-Assad to discontinue his involvement in Lebanon and pull his troops out of that country, a while later the relationship between the two parties was restored to normal, and Hafez al-Assad won his calculated bet against the USSR in this matter.

The erroneous moves and decisions made by Bashar al-Assad since the outbreak of the civil war in Syria in March 2011, on the other hand, had a devastating effect on other important projects in which his father had invested considerable efforts during his years in power. Bashar's first major error concerned the downfall of the Syrian military.

One of the primary enterprises of Hafez al-Assad was the development of a new military, different to the one that existed until the Six-Day War of 1967, which had been based primarily on the principles of the Ba'ath party and prepared to execute all of the national and Pan-Arab missions, notably the war against Israel.

Bashar's decisions to respond as he did since the outbreak of hostilities in his country in March 2011, in the context of what had been termed, at the outset, as "The Arab Spring", led to the destruction of the enterprise of Bashar's father, in which he invested so much, mainly after Egypt had pulled out of the military effort against Israel pursuant to the signature of the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement. The Syrian Army performed miserably in the fighting against the opposition and rebel forces (to which the regime refers as terrorists), and the prolonged fighting, which has been going on for the past six years, has exhausted and devastated it. Numerous servicemen deserted, its forces sustained defeats and losses and its over-all scope has been reduced significantly. Consequently, the Assad regime was compelled to seek assistance from its allies – Hezbollah, the Iranians and the Russians – so as to avoid the complete collapse of the Syrian military, despite the fact that the Syrian Army had employed against the rebels, and in particular against the civilian population within which the rebels operate, the entire range of its resources and military capabilities, including air power, ballistic missiles and even their doomsday weapon – chemical warfare agents.

The civil war that broke out in Syria, and which led to the devastation of the Syrian military, the crowning achievement of his father's enterprises and legacy, was the result of Bashar's stupidity and arrogance. Instead of opting for a dialog with the non-violent demonstrators who demanded social justice during a severe economic crisis, Bashar ignored them. When the demonstrations throughout the country grew more intense, Bashar responded differently from the former President of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak. He refused to resign and ordered his military to open fire against the demonstrators – the citizens of his own country. Mubarak saved Egypt from the destruction of its cities and military, while in Syria, Bashar believed, complacently and haughtily, that he was on the right side of the equation, fighting against evil, thereby leading to the destruction of his country and the Syrian military.

Assad's Chemical Warfare

Another important enterprise in which Hafez al-Assad had invested considerable efforts was the production and acquisition of unconventional weaponry, as a sort of solution for potential unconventional threats on the part of Israel (as well as on the part of Iraq). Hafez al-Assad regarded this as a first-rate deterrent against a major concern – the potential employment of a nuclear weapon against Syria by Israel. In this context, the Syrian regime had established, during the reign of Hafez al-Assad, an advanced infrastructure for the development and production of chemical warfare agents of various types, like mustard gas and various types of nerve gas, fitted into artillery rockets, aerial bombs and warheads for the ballistic missiles of the Syrian Army.

Bashar al-Assad, probably finding himself helpless in the face of the success of the various rebel and opposition forces, made the erroneous decision of employing chemical weapons against them in order to deter them from continuing to fight against him. Indeed, since 2012 a steadily growing number of reports has indicated the employment of such weapons, mainly the lethal nerve gas Sarin, against defenseless civilians – which is strictly forbidden by international treaties, but what does Bashar al-Assad have to do with such treaties?

This issue came to a head following the massive employment of Sarin gas at settlements in the Damascus basin (Ghouta) in August 2013, which led to 1,400 civilian deaths, including children, women and the elderly, plus hundreds who were "only" injured. Once again, the world came face to face with horrendous atrocities of the kind seen following the Iraqi attack against the Kurdish town of Halabja in March 1988, during the war against Iran, under orders issued by the other evil ruler – Saddam Hussein. It should be noted that the employment of this type of weaponry is not an act or a decision by any local commander. Such actions are sanctioned by the country's supreme political and military echelon. Bashar al-Assad, just like Saddam Hussein at the time, is, indeed, the most senior political echelon in Syria in his capacity as President, and the most senior military echelon in his capacity as commander general of the Syrian armed forces, at the rank of Feriq (in Syria – the equivalent of Field Marshal). Consequently, he is personally responsible for this act, just as he is fully accountable for his other decisions, like the assassination of al-Hariri and the fighting against the rebels and the various opposition elements.

Bashar al-Assad has learned nothing from the experience of Saddam Hussein who, after the war in 1991, was forced by the UN Security Council to disarm Iraq of the chemical weapons it had possessed. Bashar made the decision in this matter despite an explicit warning by US President Barack Obama that set a 'Red Line' where a Syrian employment of chemical weapons would lead to a US military strike against Syria. Bashar, as stated, has no regard for international treaties, nor did he take the American warning seriously. Consequently, he was compelled to exchange the threat of an American strike for the relinquishment of the chemical weapons in his possession. He did that through mediation by his friends and allies, the Russians, who opposed the American strike but agreed to the compromise suggested by the USA, according to which the Syrians would submit their chemical weapons to international supervision and subsequent disarmament. Once again, Bashar agreed to undermine one of his father's major achievements and enterprises by relinquishing (allegedly) a strategic asset that had been very important to Syria.

American Intervention

Admittedly, Bashar had fulfilled his part of the deal by having the chemical weapons in his possession transferred to the UN authorities, who subsequently destroyed them, but it was always suspected that he kept a residual capability and that not everything was actually transferred and exposed to the international authorities. Bashar could not resist the temptation and continued to employ chemical weapons against his opponents, and especially against the civilian population in his own country, mainly by using a substitute for the military-standard chemical weapons submitted and destroyed, in the form of drums filled with chlorine gas. This item had not been included in the list of weapon types covered by the chemical warfare treaty which Bashar had been forced to sign when he undertook not to employ chemical weapons in the future. This loophole in the treaty he had signed enabled him to continue dispatching his aircraft and helicopters, which continued to drop these improvised weapons on Assad's opponents as a matter of routine, without Syria and its leader being internationally condemned for it.

Moreover, the Syrians claimed emphatically that they were not employing chemical weapons in their war against their domestic enemies, and this claim was backed up by their Russian and Iranian allies, who were definitely aware of the activities of their Syrian ally. The Iranians, who had experienced the horrors of chemical warfare when the Iraqis employed such weapons against their troops during the Iran-Iraq war, have since then maintained a sanctimonious, hypocritical policy that opposes the employment of chemical weapons on the one hand, while on the other hand neglecting to condemn or act against the atrocities committed by their Syrian allies. Apparently, the party against which these chemical weapons are currently being employed consists of the Iranians' infidel Sunni enemies, against whom they had fought for eight bitter years (in the war against Iraq) and against whom they are once again fighting inside the territory of Syria – so in this case, the employment of chemical weapons must be proper and legitimate.

This state of affairs has also led to the recent incident of the Syrian aerial chemical attack of April 4, 2017 against the town of Khan Shaykhun in the Idlib Governorate, dominated by the Sunni rebels. In this attack, the Syrians once again employed a chemical warfare agent which, according to reports that are yet to be confirmed, was Sarin gas of which they had kept a residual inventory. The attack resulted in dozens of deaths and hundreds of injuries. It shocked the world and triggered angry responses from every direction, despite the Syrians' official denials and the support they received from the Russians and the Iranians, who once again defended them.

This time, however, the Syrian atrocity met with a prompt, decisive and appropriate response by the USA under newly elected President Donald Trump, who ordered a US strike against Syria for the first time since the outset of the Syrian civil war. The American strike was aimed at the Syrian airbase in Shayrat, to the south of Homs, out of which the aircraft that executed the recent chemical attack had reportedly departed. This makes Bashar accountable for a serious blow inflicted on yet another asset that was the apple of his father's eye – the Syrian Air Force, which Hafez al-Assad commanded in the past and which served as a stronghold of his political and military power for many years, even before he had become the President of Syria. This strike was a signal from the USA to Syria and her complacent president, to the effect that in the future, other Syrian assets that still remain intact, and that had been established laboriously by Bashar's father, like Syria's airbases, might be destroyed if Bashar continues to make erroneous decisions in his on-going war. From now on, Bashar should be concerned of the possibility that American Tomahawk missiles might seek him personally in the context of a renewed US Shock and Awe operation (as was the case with Saddam Hussein in 2003), thereby settling the score with him for the support and assistance he had provided to the Iraqi opposition elements that operated against the US forces in Iraq following its occupation. It should be noted that even back then, the Americans had initiated various actions against Bashar, but he was not deterred and continues to serve as an important link in the Shi'ite Axis of Evil in the region. He has been responsible for the destruction of Syria, for the slaughtering of more than half a million of his own citizens, for the fact that millions of Syrians became refugees, for creating a humane problem of international proportions, mainly for the countries accepting those refugees, in the region as well as in Europe. The decisions and actions of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad compromised the assets his father had developed and achieved during his years in power for the benefit of Syria, and subsequently bequeathed to his son, and could even lead to the termination of the reign of the Assad family in Syria.


Col. (res.) Pesach Malovany has served in various positions within the IDF Intelligence Directorate, specializing in intelligence gathering and analysis. Today, he is an independent researcher focusing on Arab militaries

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