Looking back at half a century of iron-fisted Assad rule over Syria

As Arab nations appear poised to welcome Bashar Assad back into the fold, a timeline of his and his father’s decades of dictatorship

Syria's President Hafez Assad with soldiers, 1973. (The Online Museum of Syrian History)
Syria's President Hafez Assad with soldiers, 1973. (The Online Museum of Syrian History)

As Arab nations prepare to meet in Saudi Arabia to discuss rehabilitating Syrian President Bashar Assad, AFP looks back at more than 50 years of the Assad dynasty’s brutal rule.

1970: Hafez takes charge

Hafez Assad, Syria’s defense minister and the father of Bashar, takes power in a military coup on November 16, 1970.

Assad, who leads the Syrian branch of the pan-Arab nationalist Baath Party, is elected president on March 12, 1971. He is the only candidate. He is Syria’s first head of state from the Alawite Muslim sect, a minority that makes up 10% of the population.

1973: War with Israel

Egypt and Syria launch a surprise attack on Israel on October 6, 1973, in a bid to win back territories they lost in the Six-Day War of 1967, but they are pushed back.

Top IDF officers look at a map during the Yom Kippur War in October 1973. (Israel Defense Forces/Defense Ministry Archives)

A disengagement agreement for the Golan Heights — formerly held by Syria — is signed in May 1974, officially ending the war.

1976: Lebanon intervention

A month later, in June 1974, US president Richard Nixon visits Damascus and announces the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Syria, frozen since 1967.

Two years later, Syrian troops intervene in the Lebanese civil war after an appeal by embattled Christian forces.

For three decades, Syria will be a dominant military and political force in Lebanon.

1982: Crackdown

The Syrian regime viciously cracks down on an armed uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood in the city of Hama in February 1982. Between 10,000 and 40,000 people die.

Then-Syrian president Hafez Assad (R) with his younger brother Rifaat at a formal reception in 1986. (AFP)

The Brotherhood had previously been accused of a 1979 Aleppo attack in which 80 military cadets, all Alawites, were killed in a hail of gunfire and grenades at their academy.

Courting the West

Syria’s ties with the US begin to thaw in 1990-1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, to which Damascus was allied.

Syria joins the US-led coalition against Saddam Hussein after Iraq invades Kuwait.

2000: Bashar takes over

Hafez al-Assad dies on June 10, 2000, aged 69.

Parliament amends the constitution to lower the minimum age required to become president from 40 to 34 — a tailor-made change for Bashar who was born in 1965.

Former Syrian president Hafez Assad with his family in the early 1970s. Left to right: Bashar, Maher, Mrs Aniseh Makhlouf, Majd, Bushra, and Bassel. (Public domain/Wikipedia)

A month later, Bashar Assad becomes Syria’s new head of state, winning a referendum with 97 percent of the vote. He is the only candidate.

‘Damascus Spring’

In September that year, 100 intellectuals call for the lifting of martial law, in place since 1963, more freedom and political pluralism. This becomes known as the “Damascus Spring.”

But the period of apparent openness is short-lived. Assad’s government cracks down on dissent and arrests opponents in July 2001.

2011: Arab Spring

A decade later, the Arab Spring of uprisings against autocratic rulers reaches in Syria.

A protester holds a cartoon depicting Syrian President Bashar Assad, left, and Libya President Moammar Gaddafi, during a gathering in Paris, in April 2011, to support Syria protests (photo credit: AP/Francois Mori)
A protester holds a cartoon depicting Syrian President Bashar Assad, left, and Libya President Moammar Gaddafi, during a gathering in Paris, in April 2011, to support Syria protests. (AP/Francois Mori)

In March 2011, protesters take to the streets calling for civil liberties and freedom for political prisoners.

Civil war

The protests, brutally repressed, become an armed rebellion which sparks a full-blown civil war, with several regional and international powers getting involved, as well as jihadists.

The Islamic State group takes advantage of the war to proclaim a caliphate in parts of Syria and Iraq where it imposes a reign of terror before eventually being defeated by US-backed Kurdish-led forces in 2019.

Assad clings on to power with massive military backing from Russia and Iran, and manages to win back most of the territory his regime lost.

The war kills more than 500,000 people, displaces half the country’s pre-war population and makes Assad a global pariah.

A Syrian woman with her children, who were displaced by the Turkish military operation in northeastern Syria, wait to receive a tent and other aid supplies at the Bardarash refugee camp, north of Mosul, Iraq, October 17, 2019. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

The Arab League suspends Syrian membership in response to the bloody crackdown and calls for sanctions against the regime.

Pariah no more?

In December 2018, the United Arab Emirates reopens its embassy in Syria, seven years after breaking ties.

In February 2023, a devastating earthquake strikes Turkey and Syria, prompting Arab outreach to the internationally shunned Damascus regime.

In April 2023, Saudi Arabia hosts Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad in the first such visit since war broke out, ahead of a meeting to discuss Syria’s return to the Arab League.

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