After 13 Years in Syrian Prisons, I Knew Assad Would Win

A former longtime political prisoner of the Syrian regime explains the cruelty, corruption, and sectarianism keeping it in power

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After 13 Years in Syrian Prisons, I Knew Assad Would Win
Illustration by Joanna Andreasson for Newlines

In late November 2011, I wrote an essay predicting the victory of Bashar al-Assad over the Syrian people at a time when many observers, political analysts, and even politicians agreed that the regime was on the verge of collapse. But I knew this regime from the inside. I knew its savagery and criminality. I pointed out its extreme cruelty and the ease with which it kills; its arrogance and constant resistance to any concession, no matter how small; its brutal revenge against those who did manage to force any change, no matter how tiny. Many could not understand my argument because they did not go through what I and others went through.

I have been in regime prisons several times, starting when I was in ninth grade, perhaps 14 or 15 years old. Initially, these stints in prison were brief. That first, teenage experience was for just a few days. But because of my continued political activism against the Baath regime, which came to power in 1963, I soon became a regular visitor to intelligence agencies.

After 1970, when Hafez al-Assad became president, my political opposition became more serious and mature. I was jailed in 1979 and released after nearly a year. But in late 1981, I was arrested and kept in prison for 13 years, where I suffered frequent and brutal torture. I left prison in 1994 with nothing: I was deprived of every civil right. I was a graduate of law but banned from practicing law, or indeed any profession. I was also banned from travel outside the country. I was under intensive surveillance and summoned to the intelligence agencies on a regular basis. Every summons could have resulted in jail, but there was no political decision to arrest me again.

This situation of constant surveillance and harassment lasted until 2005, when I managed — through a herculean effort, and making sure I got my family out ahead of me — to get a “single exit visa,” the type issued for extenuating circumstances, such as the need for medical treatment. It was genuinely a single exit for me: I have never returned. By this point I had written “The Shell,” a novel with details of my time in the prisons of the Assad regime, but publishing it while living in Syria would have been the same as issuing my own death sentence.

In “The Shell,” the narrator (who combines my story and that of my friend) is a Christian Syrian (as is my friend) who returns to Syria in the wake of an Islamist revolt against the regime. Upon arrival, he is absurdly accused of being a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and promptly detained, disappearing in the black hole of al-Assad’s prison system. “The Shell” is a story of savage repression, but it is also the story of the Kafkaesque nature of the Assad regime, its arbitrariness and lack of transparency. It depicts a country run not by a disciplined dictatorship but by a rotten nexus of corruption and paranoia. The character is lost in the system, and no attempts worked to persuade his torturers of the absurdity of their accusation: that a Christian could be a Muslim Brother. The horrors of being a political prisoner in Syria are unfathomable, not just for outsiders but also for Syrians who know about the regime’s repressive machinery yet have not experienced the full scope of its creative ways of humiliation and torture.

I knew the regime well: I knew the extent of its savagery and the lengths it was prepared to go to survive.

After I left Syria, I went to the United Arab Emirates. I lived there for six years until I was granted political asylum in France, where I am writing these words. This was when the Arab spring was first stirring. No person can capture the exact feeling in that moment, but I felt that everything I had fought for over the past 30 years became possible. I had struggled for freedom and dignity for all these decades, and when the Syrian uprising broke out, there was a glimmer of hope. The feeling was a mixture of this hope with joy and ecstasy, but coated with fear and an anticipation of failure because I knew the regime well: I knew the extent of its savagery and the lengths it was prepared to go to survive.

This was visible in the very first stages of the protests in 2011. They began in a cautious, apprehensive manner, fearful of the reaction of the regime, and demands were initially limited to freedom and dignity. These early protests implicitly indicated that people would accept the Assad regime if it improved their quality of life in Syria, but the regime’s response was bloody: It can brook no dissent, no challenge, however limited. In the face of this brutal response, and seeing how the protests spread throughout the country, people began demanding the overthrow of the regime after perhaps six or seven weeks. This is when we began to witness a broad popular revolution aimed at changing the entire regime and building an alternative one, a civil democratic or citizenship state. And al-Assad has resisted with all the power at his disposal.

We are witnessing the end of the 10th year of this “great Syrian eruption” that blew up everything in Syria. It seems that some of the dust is settling, the regime is claiming victory in exactly the way I predicted in 2011, and calls abound to try to understand what happened. Is it not the right and the duty of those who have been burnt by the flame of this explosion to begin again to ask the questions that were the subject of intense disagreement among Syrians, even among those on the same side of the conflict? Shouldn’t this questioning be done in a calm and objective manner? What happened is so momentous, intertwined, and complex that it will take a lot of ink, paper, and research to cover satisfactorily.

The foundation for what unfolded in the past decade was what I’d call a silent civil war, a state during which the parties do not engage in open conflict because the dominant power has the monopoly on the means of violence.

In a society like Syria, which contains many strongly rooted, subnational identities (ethnic groups, religions, and sects), there will be conflict among the parties over the distribution of power and wealth. This conflict may take different forms, including civil war, and can arise in one of the following cases: either when one of the parties considers itself treated unfairly, believing that its share of power and wealth is not commensurate with its size or potential, or when one of these parties decides to seize power and wealth, flouting the rights and shares of other parties.

The latter situation happened in 1966, when a group of officers belonging to three minority communities (Alawite, Druze, and Ismaili) seized power. This does not mean this happened because of a decision made by their sects or leaders; in fact, the opposite may even be true. They formed a new government, which the public called the “ADS” Government (an Arabic acronym made in mockery because the acronym also means lentil, or adas, and connotes arbitrariness in colloquial Syrian Arabic). They controlled the country not through direct violence but by virtue of their position in the army; the violence was implied but not used. They took over the state institutions of the military and armed forces, marginalizing the Sunni majority and practically removing them from power. After they succeeded, conflict emerged between them, until Hafez al-Assad resolved matters — in his favor — in 1970. Regardless of whether al-Assad himself was sectarian or not, since this date the Alawites have gradually gained power, and subsequently wealth, and they have ruled the country through repression and corruption. This did not change when Hafez’s son, Bashar, came to power in 2000.

Thus, we are now facing a very different civil war from the traditional one, where the outcome is decided at the end of the conflict. The outcome of this civil war was determined from the beginning.

Sectarianism, as properly understood in the Syrian political context, is the war that the Assads and their gang have waged and are waging on Syria. The silent civil war. This is not how we came to hear about it in the past decade, with claims that the rebels were reacting to the regime because of old sectarian hatreds. Rather, it is because Hafez established a minority rule that grew into the sectarian political order we see now, which the revolution demands to be overturned in favor of a truly nationalist project. If not pursuing such a nationalist, inclusive agenda, the conflict will only prolong, even entrench, the civil war — either latent as it has been since the 1960s, or active as we saw after 2011, as well as briefly in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Worse, while exploiting the poverty and marginalization of the Alawites through history, the ruling class only threw crumbs to this minority

And so, we must view the conflict through the monopoly of the Assad Gang because in Syria, a family gang rules. Period. They rule like the Italian Mafia that used to operate in the United States, able to maintain power through the historical grievances of a minority. Worse, while exploiting the poverty and marginalization of the Alawites through history, the ruling class only threw crumbs to this minority. They widened the involvement of ordinary Alawites and turned them into a whip used against all Syrians.

The Alawite minority itself is a victim of this sectarian disorder. All three machines of persecution the regime were drawing on to suppress the revolution were majority Alawite, a decision made by the regime for reasons of trust stemming from existing allegiances such as family ties: the elite forces in the Syrian army under the leadership of Maher al-Assad; the security services; and the shabiha divisions, armed thugs organized into militias seemingly without rules, signaled by their name that means “ghost.” It should be noted here that these three wings became remarkably similar on the organizational level as well as the professional or ethical level. The shabiha, which used to be separate groups with each group under a leader who would do anything, legal or illegal, in pursuit of their aim, have become a single bloc and are organized like a military militia. The other two wings — the military forces and the security services — quickly stooped low, engaging in killing, looting, and robbery, and their organizational structures deteriorated to become more like militias.

And what about ordinary Alawites? Some of this tiny sect benefited disproportionately over the past 60 years, and they have been protected from the more horrific aspects of the conflict, but they are now a minority without men — the toll of war. They have paid a high price for their loyalty to al-Assad. Estimates are hard to come by, but most agree that they lost tens of thousands of their youth and men. The minority is small, and the cost enormous.

The silent civil war existed in Syria throughout the period that I called the foundation stage. Had the Syrian revolution been successful in its first phase — from March 2011 and beyond mid-2012 — the civil war that already existed in the country would have ended. Instead, the conflict gained another aspect in the form of a counterrevolutionary force.

This marked the second phase of the conflict, when the opposition became increasingly weaponized. Reality became more complex; what started in the first phase as a tyrannical regime against revolutionary movements that sought to establish a civil state now had a third party that became increasingly more powerful. This was the Islamist wing, including the Islamic State group and Jabhat al-Nusra (formerly al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, currently known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham), that did not and does not believe in the revolution’s plan or objectives. This party, although against the Assad regime, certainly does not belong to the revolutionary camp, as seen in its behavior on the ground when it waged a brutal war against all the revolutionary forces of civil and media activists. It seemed like there was some form of agreement between them and al-Assad, as both considered the revolutionary forces to be the number one danger.

This counterrevolutionary element, separate from the regime but even more sectarian and just as deadly to human life and to the revolution’s aims, proved useful to the regime in more ways than merely military: It gave truth to al-Assad’s claims, made from the very start of the uprising, that he was fighting “terrorists.”

The answer to the question of whether al-Assad won depends on the position of the questioner, but it holds a bitter paradox for both Syrian factions, that is, those both pro- and anti-regime. Among supporters of the Assad regime, a considerable proportion justifies their support of a dictator, whose criminality and ruthlessness the entire world has observed for the past 10 years, by saying their position stems from concern for the state and its institutions, and the regime is a pillar of this state. To overcome moral embarrassment, they say that their position has nothing to do with the dictator, his oppressive regime, or sectarianism, but simply for the state of Syria.

These supporters, if they look now at this state with its various elements (people, land, power, and sovereignty), will find the Syrian people, including al-Assad loyalists, are either dead, imprisoned, displaced, emigrants, or hungry. Needless to say, this pillar of the state has been destroyed. As for the land or geography, we can say that every speck of dust in Syria is under occupation, and so the second pillar is also destroyed. As for power and sovereignty, we see a weakened authority where Russia and Iran control Syria in a blatant and offensive manner. Do these supporters, who constructed their anti-revolutionary stance on the claim of preserving the state, see victory when they witness the wreckage of the Syrian state?

On the other hand, most, if not all, of the opposition did not see the Assad regime as a real political system but as a mafia gang that lacks legitimacy and whose real power comes from its permanent ability to inflict harm, specifically on its subjects, using its security arms and corruption networks. Although it is true that the state has been destroyed, the Assad regime has maintained its ability to harm and intimidate Syrians, and the duality of repression and corruption continues to rule. This situation should prompt the opposition to admit that al-Assad has won.

After the Russian intervention, particularly after 2015, al-Assad began to recapture territory. We started to see a scene that has since been repeated frequently in al-Assad’s media: entire houses and cities completely destroyed. We see al-Assad’s forces carrying a new flag and placing it either on a destroyed wall or on a pile of rubble. In the scenes there is a stark contrast between the shiny new flag, bright under the sun, and the whole scene of destruction, devastation, and dust. Al-Assad’s victory is like this scene, triumphantly standing on a country of dust and rubble.

For the past 50 years, this scorched-earth policy has been the foundation of both Assad regimes; Bashar was never going to accept anything short of a total restoration of the “wall of terror” built by his father in the 1970s and 1980s, of which I was one of the direct victims. No peace negotiations or reconciliation processes will ever change this reality, which has been built on fear and enforced with sectarian weapons. So, without the triumph of the original and nationalist goals of the revolutionary forces, the silent civil war, enacted through imprisonment and torture I know so well, is here to stay.

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