In early March, just days before the eighth anniversary of the 2011 revolt against Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian regime organized a boisterous celebration in the main square of the southern city of Daraa to unveil a new bronze sculpture of Bashar’s father, Hafez.
It depicts a youthful-looking Hafez fused from the waist down to a large rock atop a pedestal, with a series of steps leading up to the monument. The sculpture of Hafez, an army general who seized power in 1970 through a coup against his own Ba’ath Party comrades and ruled Syria with an iron fist until his death in 2000, looks immovable, indestructible, and above all, eternal. He’s a half-human, half-rock demigod gazing ahead coldly and resolutely, with his hands resting on the shoulders of two awestruck children pressed against his waist and clutching stalks of wheat—the main crop in the largely agricultural Daraa province.
The new statue, erected next to the local governor’s mansion and guarded around the clock, replaced one torn down by an angry crowd in March 2011, after security forces shot and killed unarmed protesters on the streets as well as others holding a peaceful sit-in at a Daraa mosque. The people of Daraa had chanted for freedom and dignity, dared to breach the fear imposed by the Assads’ security apparatuses, and inspired the rest of Syria to rise up. The violent response was ordered by Bashar’s younger brother Maher and his cousin Hafez Makhlouf with the Syrian dictator’s full knowledge, according to new evidence revealed in my book, Assad or We Burn the Country: How One Family’s Lust for Power Destroyed Syria.
Ruling Syria is very much a family affair—it has been so for nearly five decades, and will remain so as far as the Assads are concerned. Assad or We Burn the Country was the graffiti that loyalist militias sprayed on the walls of devastated and ransacked neighborhoods and towns retaken from the opposition, one by one, since 2012. That year, many Western leaders had bet on Bashar’s demise, but he clung on with crucial military and political support from Iran and Russia. The regime and its allies reclaimed much of Syria in scorched-earth campaigns that have spared no civilians, hospitals, or schools. This scenario is repeating itself now in the last rebel-held province of Idlib. The regime’s motto seems to be: “If the price of preserving Assad family rule is destroying the country, then let it be.” The graffiti and now the statues, including the one in Daraa, are a reminder of this brutal logic in the crudest and most blatant way.
Hafez’s statue was also returned, in October 2018, to the center of the eastern city of Deir Ezzor after being removed by the regime in 2011, for fear it would be smashed by protesters. In August 2018, Hafez’s statue in Homs was feted by regime loyalists after it underwent a major refurbishment that included installing new lights and water fountains around it. The city, once called “the capital of the revolution,” reverted to the Assads in 2014 following a crippling siege and military campaign that left much of central Homs in ruins and emptied of its original residents. On April 15, a new bust of Bassel al-Assad, Bashar’s older brother and Hafez’s handpicked successor who was killed in a car crash in 1994, was unveiled in Deir Ezzor; this one was smaller than the one of him riding a horse that was toppled by protesters in April 2011. There are no statues yet of Bashar, who inherited power from Hafez in 2000, but billboards of his face along with defiant slogans are plastered everywhere in Syria.
Bringing back the statues and the billboards is the Assads’ way of telling once-rebellious communities that any further resistance is futile. Their return affirms the message that the Assad family prevailed despite the enormous cost: more than half a million dead, massive destruction and population displacement, an economy in tatters, a fractured country and society, and a regime that can only survive with the support of foreign patrons like Iran and Russia.
“The message is very straightforward,” Steven Heydemann, the director of the Middle East studies program at Smith College and a leading Syria expert, told me. “We are back.”
Heydemann called the reinstallation of the statues “an expression of triumphalism on the part of the regime” that was “enormously demoralizing” for its opponents. “It’s a very powerful, very telling strategy,” he said.
Using statues as expressions of power, control, and hegemony is not unique to Syria; it is a mainstay of practically all authoritarian regimes, including the former Soviet Union, North Korea, and many Central Asian republics. But while there’s an attempt in these places to rally the nation around a symbol or a leader, in Syria the intent seems to be different: The statues are meant to reinforce fear of a regime crackdown on dissent, especially during and after a crisis. The closest parallel is neighboring Iraq, where statues of Saddam Hussein multiplied in the 1980s and ’90s as he faced internal and external pressures.
In Syria, Hafez al-Assad sought to construct a cult of personality from the moment he grabbed power, but his statues became more ubiquitous only after he emerged victorious from a grueling battle in the late 1970s and early ’80s against peaceful protesters, political opponents, and Islamist insurgents, no different from what his son faced starting in 2011. A Hafez statue went up in Hama, a city where his forces massacred at least 7,000 civilians and leveled entire neighborhoods. And Bashar followed this playbook in 2011. Like his father, he first crushed those protesting his regime, fueling militancy, extremism, and ultimately an armed conflict. Bashar was driven by the same desire to collectively punish all those living in towns and cities that resisted. Cowed and subdued, people in these communities had to chant for Bashar the same way their parents chanted for Hafez after he reasserted himself. Then Bashar brought back the statues for the same reason Hafez had erected them in the first place: humiliation.
Manaf Tlass, Bashar’s childhood friend and a former Republican Guard general who defected in 2012, had his own take on the return of the statues. “Bashar has declared victory, but so far he has not been able to harvest its fruits,” Tlass told me when I met with him in Paris, where he has lived for the past seven years. Tlass points to the fact that the European Union and the U.S. recently increased—not relaxed—sanctions on Assad’s regime, as well as the widespread domestic discontent among large segments of the population over miserable economic conditions and recent fuel shortages. “[Bashar] knows in his heart of hearts that he has not really won, and the statues are a way of convincing himself otherwise.”
In all areas reclaimed by Bashar, including Tlass’s hometown in the Homs countryside, people are scared, demoralized, and grappling with privation, but they have little choice but to remain. “People are afraid of everything, even of one another,” one Damascus resident told me, requesting anonymity for fear of retribution for speaking out. “The statues are proof that the regime is determined to continue ruling us with the military boot over our heads.”
In the past, Bashar, even as he projected the image of a reformer, told his friends, including Tlass, that Syrians could “only be ruled with the shoe over their heads.” Now there seems to be little pretense.