Syria: The Rise and Fallout of the House of Assad

Autocrats enjoy holding onto power. That's kind of what they do. Kim Jong Un. Vladimir Putin. Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Well, he's trying anyway. And sometimes that longevity is a family affair. Just ask Raul Castro. Same is true for Kim. But what about Syria? After five million Syrian refugees and 500,000
dead Syrians, Bashar al-Assad has won his country's civil war. We don't talk about it very much here in the
media and the United States never really considered Syria a priority in the same way Russia, Turkey
or Iran had and do. But there's more to it than that. The Assads have real staying power. Remember, Papa Assad ruled his country for
almost 30 years and he may have passed on the “burn it down” approach to power that
his son Bashar adopted. Hello and welcome to GZERO World. I'm Ian Bremmer and today I'll sit down with
a man who's as plugged into the Assad family as they come – and lived to tell about it. He was the only journalist for a major Western
newspaper permanently based in Damascus during those first years of the Syrian civil war. I'm talking about Sam Dagher. Then, I've also got your Puppet Regime. Hey, s’up guys? Sorry I'm late. Can I get in? But first, a word from the folks who help
us keep the lights on. This is a family that's been in power for
50 years. The father had his coup in 1970 and then he
bequeathed power to his son in 2000. So this is their motto, I would say. Either they stay in power or the country burns. Where have you seen this plot before? A dominant boss with criminal ties hands over
power to his reluctant and mild-mannered son, who then rules with an iron fist, eclipsing
his father's brutality with a whole new scale of violence. I'll tell you where: that was The Godfather. If Clemenza can figure a way to have a weapon
planted there for me… Then I’ll kill ‘em both. Bashar al-Assad is Syria's Michael Corleone. His eldest brother Basil is Sonny. Both were supposed to be the boss. Both died after driving in a car. Assef, the brother-in-law, is Fredo. Both were rumored to have been killed by their
brother, the new top capo after being suspected of going against the family. And the father Hafez, a man of the old school,
was Vito. There's a long family history with the Assads that dates back to 1970 when Hafez first grabbed power. Born into an impoverished Sicilian – actually,
Alawite – family, he resurrected the Baath Party in Syria and built up its military with
the help of the Soviets. When he died in 2000 his son Bashar, the British-trained ophthalmologist – you didn't see that in The Godfather – reluctantly took over. He was seen as a potential reformer right up until March 2011, when pro-democracy demonstrations were met with brutal government force. Fast forward to today. There are reports of Russian special forces
and the Iranian Quds force fighting on the ground alongside government troops to help
Assad finish the job. Syria's last opposition bastion of a bloody
eight-year war is surrounded and with U.S. forces largely withdrawn, Americans have all
but checked out. Syria is not a U.S. priority. After wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that are
seen by most American citizens as failures, nobody prioritizes the idea of “Assad must go.” That was of course Obama who promised that one. Under Trump, America First, said no new wars
would start. And while he was willing to engage in some
pinpoint bombing to stop the Syrians from hitting their citizens with chemical weapons,
after that it was left to Assad. As a consequence, hard to see Syria as getting
America's attention anytime soon. I'm delighted to be here with Sam Dagher. Writes for The Atlantic and also a fairly meaty tome that just came out, “Assad or We Burn the Country.” You were there. You were even imprisoned for a while. This was not your title. This was someone else's title. When’d you see this? This is the regime's slogan. I saw it on the walls of the opposition towns
and neighborhoods that had been retaken by the regime with the help of Iran and Russia. So what would happen after they would reconquer
these areas, the militias would go in, loot all the homes and set them on fire, and then
spray this graffiti on the walls, “Assad or we burn the country.” And I think it really distills the mentality
of this regime over a 50-year period. So you have – I mean you have to keep in
mind, this is a family that's been in power for 50 years. The father had his coup in 1970 and then he
bequeathed power to his son in 2000. So this is their motto, I would say. This is their guiding principle. Either they stay in power or either the country
burns and it's the way they deal with their own people and the way they deal with the
outside world as well. And having spent a lot of time on the ground
and experienced this revolution and war, what surprised you, what's the principal message
that the media was not covering, that the average person watching this show doesn't
actually understand? Few people know this, that the father faced
a similar challenge in the late 70s and early 80s. It wasn't only Islamist insurgents. I mean, people – when people think of that
era they immediately think of the Muslim Brotherhood and its armed wing that was challenging the
regime but there was actually, you know, a secular protest movement against the regime. But like his son, you know, 30 years later,
he went after the peaceful protesters first. He wanted to get those people out of the picture
and then say, I'm fighting a war on terrorism. Exactly as his son did. For me, that was like the most revealing aspect of it. And was it equally effective? Were the tactics similar? Very similar. Very similar. But obviously the devastation under the son
was way – I mean, you could say 100 times more. With the father it culminated in one massacre
in Hama, a town called Hama, where estimates range anywhere from 7,000 to 10,000. But with the son basically you've had you
had a Hama in every neighborhood, in every town that rose up against the regime. You know, I remember when the power was transferred
to Bashar and no military background. Eye doctor. Certainly the hope was that he would be more
oriented towards the West. Question I would have is how does the fact
that he didn't have that military loyalty, that military command – hadn't come through
the ranks – how did that affect the brutality? How did it affect the autonomy of individuals? And also where you got your information for
the book, right, was one of his colleagues from the military. Absolutely. His childhood friend from the Tlass family. So the Tlass and the Assads practically built
this regime together. It was, you know, the fathers. You had Hafez al-Assad and Mustafa Tlass,
they built this regime. But to go back about how Bashar, you know,
ended up where he did without having the military background, yes, I mean obviously he didn't
work for that power. The father did. And the father just handed it over to the son. But initially the heir was the eldest son
called Bassel al-Assad and he was killed in a car crash in ‘94. So basically – and you see that in the book,
I mean I devote an entire chapter about the making of the heir, of the new heir Bashar. So he's summoned from London and he has to
go through this grooming process and the first order of business is to actually enroll in
the military academy even though he, as you said, he has zero background, zero inclination,
and obviously a lot of the regime insiders, the hardliners were like, hold on a second. I mean, what are you doing? Why does it have to go to this son of yours? Maybe we understood the eldest son, who had
like military experience and the military aptitude. Yes, but this son, who was marginalized, who
was on the fringe? In fact, he wanted to stay in London. He was studying to be licensed, to actually
work as an ophthalmologist in London and suddenly like he's summoned back and he's prepared
to be the heir. And yes, I mean you have to remember the context
of this period, the 90s, the Clinton administration. I mean, Bill Clinton thought that Hafez al-Assad,
it would be through Syria and his – I would say partnership because that's how he kind
of framed it at the time – that he would be able to have comprehensive Arab-Israeli
peace and obviously we all know that the talks that were going on between the Israelis and
the Syrians. So in that context, Hafez was sending the
message to the Americans chiefly like, you know, let me take a take care of my own power. I will engage in peace talks but don't interfere
in what I'm doing domestically. And I think the Clinton administration went
along with that. In fact, at the funeral of Hafez al-Assad,
the dad, when he died in 2000, Madeleine Albright was there and you see that there's a scene
in the book and she meets with Bashar al-Assad for 15 minutes and then she comes out and
declares to the media, I'm comforted by the fact that he's going to be – he's going
to take the same path as his father. And the regime insiders, the people from the
Tlass family, who are the main characters in the book, Manaf Tlass and his father, they
breathed a sigh of relief. They said well, this is U.S. benediction to
the transfer of power to the son. Yeah and of course, you know, that didn't
go so well for them. When the uprisings started, on the one hand,
this is coming on the back of all of these Arab Spring uprisings. On the other hand, as you say, the Syrians and Bashar Assad's father had been through this before. So how does the regime think about it? How did they respond? How is it different from what we saw in Egypt
for example and the ouster of Mubarak? Well, immediately they gave the shoot to kill orders. They wanted to scare people off the streets
and there's new information in my book that the shoot to kill orders were coming directly
from Bashar al-Assad, from his brother Maher, who heads the 4th Division. This is like an elite division of the army. And also their cousin Hafez Makhlouf, he's
an intelligence chief. So the orders were coming directly from these
people saying, you know, shoot and kill because that's the only way to scare people off the streets. Shoot to kill the unarmed civilian demonstrators. Absolutely. Which did indeed happen. Absolutely. And the demonstrations were kind of snuffed
out in relatively short order. Absolutely. I mean every attempt by the protesters in
Damascus, in other major cities like Homs, like Daraa, to actually occupy a square because
they were like looking to Egypt and saying to themselves, we want a Tahrir Square, just
like in Cairo, where we'd be able to protest, and every attempt by them was snuffed out
with bullets and blood. There were a couple of attempts in Damascus. There was absolute carnage. I mean, they just opened fire on unarmed civilians
who were just trying to occupy a square in Damascus. They did the same thing in Homs. And the orders were coming from the family. And then, if you remember, there was a period
when they actually occupied a square in Hama and the U.S. and the French ambassadors visited
and the protesters thought that maybe that would offer them some protection. But he ended up, you know, assaulting the
people who were in the square and killed a few hundred people and then Obama came out
and said he has to leave, you know, at that moment. Bashar al-Assad must go. Must go, yeah. Still there. Obviously. What was your experience there on the – we
always hear the talk about the support that was given to the regime by the Russians. The support that was given to the regime by
the Iranians. What was your experience of that? How did you see that when you were on the ground? Well, when I was on the ground it was mainly
the Iranians because I went in the fall of 2012. If you remember, in the summer of 2012, the
Americans and the Europeans were saying it's over. In fact, Hillary Clinton said the writing
is on the wall. Now we have to figure out which country is
going to take him. I mean, you'll see a scene in my book where
they're debating in Geneva whether a Latin American or an African country will take Bashar. But obviously that's where the Iranians entered
into the picture. They took the lead in defeating this rebel
offensive on Damascus in the summer of 2012. And then it culminated in the killing of Bashar’s
own brother-in-law. And I have evidence that the killing of the
brother-in-law was ordered by Bashar because his loyalties became suspect, that maybe he
was working out a deal with the West to be an alternative to Bashar. I mean, when they decide that they're going
to just go hard and immediately against their people and it works and they have clear support
from the Iranians on the ground, they have clear diplomatic support and soon military
support from the Russians. What do you think – I mean, if you were
advising the Obama administration at that time as someone who's been inside this country,
what do you say we should do? Back then? Yeah. I think the least we could have done is to
have some sort of safe haven in the north. I think that would have been a sound idea. It would have perhaps given people – A no-fly zone. A no-fly zone. I think that would have been doable. It would have stemmed this tide of the refugees
that were going into Turkey. At least they would have had a safe zone in
northern Syria. I think that was doable. But again, I think the thinking in the Obama
administration at the time was that this was a slippery slope towards an Iraq-like intervention. Now you've been on the ground in the
Kurdish-controlled north since. Do they feel friendless? Do they feel forsaken by everyone? Do they feel like they have a shot at, you
know, sort of stemming the Assad regime in any way? I mean, again when we talk about the Kurds
I think we have to be very careful because… there were a fair number of Kurds that were
actually with the uprising in the beginning, particularly when it was mainly peaceful. The Kurds you're referring to are the YPG,
which are in effect an affiliate, an extension of the PKK in Turkey. And the Turkish government considers them
to be terrorists. Exactly. But we saw them as the most effective force
in the fight against ISIS back in 2014. And they continue to be nominally allied to
the United States. Yes but for them, I mean – I was actually,
I would say I was one of the first reporters to go into the area when the Americans started
supporting them. If you remember there was that offensive on Kobani in 2014 and they dropped weapons by air to them. And there were women fighting. Exactly. People showed that. Yeah, of course. And I met with a lot of their leaders back
– this was like really, really the very, very early beginning of it. And they were quite frank with me. They said look, you know, we cut a deal with
the regime with Bashar al-Assad. In fact, they cut a deal with Bashar and Iran. You have to remember Iran is like in the regime
so they were involved in every key decision that was made, 2011 onward. So they cut a deal with Iran and Bashar to
manage their own affairs in this oil-rich corner of north – northeast corner of Syria. And in exchange they promised the regime to
allow the flow of oil to the regime from that region. And also the regime kept the airport in that area. I mean till this day the regime is still at
the airport and also a security presence in one of the major cities there called Qamishli
in northeast Syria. So that was the bargain because Bashar in
fact at the time was facing so many challenges on so many fronts, a number of cities were
up in arms against him. So he wanted to focus on Damascus, defending
Damascus, defending Aleppo, the big cities, and he was saying like ok, I'll come back
to this area later. So the Kurds took over and they saw an opportunity
basically to team up with the Americans because everybody was against them. It was the Turks, the rebels were against
them, the opposition, because they saw them as puppets of the regime or stooges of the regime. And so everybody was against them. So they said why don't we team up with the
Americans to fight ISIS in the hopes of this partnership eventually allowing us to have
our own autonomous zone. And that's what they told me. They said this – we're in it, you know,
in the hopes that eventually we'll have our own cantons, they call them. So we've been through this extraordinary humanitarian
collapse with half of the country fully displaced, with towns and cities in some cases destroyed. Now that Assad has re-established control
over almost all of the country, can you normalize? What's the process of rebuilding and what's
the process – I mean, can people move back that had been chased out by this regime? People are moving back. But do they support the regime? No. I mean the majority are just realists. They say he's being defended by the Russians
and the Iranians militarily. The Americans and the Europeans for all intents
and purposes want him there. And again, that's the perception on the part
of the Syrians that, you know, he's gassing people, he's committing massacres, he's targeting
hospitals as he and the Russians have been doing the past few weeks, and nobody's
coming after him. He has some sort of – again, in the eyes
of a lot of Syrians, he has immunity so… Tacit support. Tacit support. So they say like, what can we do? It's not up to us. So they've kind of reconciled themselves to
the fact that there's nothing they could do. And for them they see what Syrians who left
the country had to go through, the indignity, the humiliation, particularly in the region,
in countries like Lebanon, Jordan, and also in Europe. I mean, the – And the danger. And the danger. So they say, maybe we should just stay home. And yes, the regime is back. The regime is awful. It's worse than before. One resident of Damascus told me the regime's
military boot is on top of our heads again. I mean, there's nothing we can do. It's the same fear that we were living under before. People are being arrested. In a lot of the areas that are reverting back
to regime control, anyone who is suspected of having protested or taken part in any anti-regime
activities being arrested again. So no prospects of meaningful social stability
going forward. It's a fractured country and a fractured society
at the moment. And I think the only hope we have is if we
have meaningful justice and accountability, some sort of process of where people who've
committed war crimes – mainly the regime and also others – you know, pay for these crimes, are made to be held accountable for these crimes. I think that's the first step – Is there any reason to believe that that is
remotely plausible? At the moment, no. I mean you see the Russians and the Iranian – sorry, the Russians and the Chinese blocking any attempts in the Security Council to refer
the regime to the International Criminal Court. There's these – there are these cases now being brought against the regime in Germany and France. But again, there is a limit how far these
cases can go. Sam Dagher, thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you. And now for something completely different:
I've got Your Puppet Regime. So Mr. Kim, what's it like between you and
the old Axis of Evil crowd these days? Well, it's been different. Hey, sup guys? Oh, sorry I'm late. Can I get in? Hey, what…? Sup, Kim? What? I don't know. Why don't you tell us what? Yes, Mr. I-am-best-friends-with-great-Satan-now. What?! Oh no, no, you don't understand. It’s – You changed, man. No! No, don't you see? You see like uh… Tell him how this movie will end. Two years Kim, I give it two years. And then one day America will just walk out on you. Death to America! What – no, I – Why can't you guys just be happy for me? Axis of Evil isn't about being happy, Kim. It’s about being evil! You're either with us or against us. He's right, man. You have to choose. Well then, I choose… That's our show this week. We'll be back next week, which is in exactly
seven days, so you can like get ready. You can put it on your calendar. You can say GZERO World, why would I miss that? Because that's why we're here. But in the meantime, if you like what you've
seen, check us out on gzeromedia.com.

Glenn Chapman


  1. Terrible documentary
    Can’t get past 5 minutes. Biased and full of shit

  2. The 16 likes are from the film crew that made the documentary any one with a brain knows fake news out side of the usa lol

  3. Crazy how this man destroyed everything to be King of Rubble. GOT-Esq

  4. I was a UN peacekeeper in the Golan Heights and had the opportunity to see Syria first hand. This documentary is full of misleading statements. This is basically BS. The "revolution" was a Saudi infiltration and manipulation. The Saudis dumped billions into an "uprising" that wrecked Syrian's society.

  5. Funny the same thing would happen in places like Bahrain or Saudi Arabia but with the backing of the West, the democratic movements have been shut

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