National Geographic : 2009 Nov
• Roman-era walls, is a large white billboard with a photograph of Syria s rst postmodern presi- dent, waving. Bashar is shown with a buoyant grin on his catlike face, squinting over his whis- kers into a bright sun. "I believe in Syria," the billboard says reassuringly. But it will take more than a smile and a slogan to reinvent his coun- try, and he knows it. "What Syria needs now," Bashar told me, "is a change in the mentality." of the Assad family, Al Qardahah, sits on a mountainside facing west, sheltered and aloof as hill towns o en are, yet so close to the Mediterranean that on a clear day you can see the shing boats of Latakia, Syria s largest port, and the seabirds circling like con- fetti in the western sky. A modern, four-lane expressway rises like a ramp from the coast and delivers supplicants to the remote moun- tain village, where the streets are paved, houses upscale, and off-duty regime officials---large men in their 50s and 60s who carry themselves like Ma a dons on vacation---pad around town in their pajamas. Hundreds of years ago Al Qardahah was an enclave of destitute Shiites who followed the Prophet s son-in-law and successor, Ali, so fer- vently that centuries before they d been declared heretics by other Muslims and driven into the mountains of northwest Syria, where they came to be known as Alawis. en in 1939, one of their own---a whip-smart, nine-year-old boy named Hafez---was sent down the mountain to get an education. He lived in Latakia while attending schools run by the French, who had taken over this part of the Ottoman Empire a er World War I, in the great carving up of historic Syria (which included present-day Israel, Palestinian territories, Jordan, Lebanon, western Iraq, and southern Turkey) that Brit- ain and France had plotted in the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. Quiet and tall for his age, Hafez was driven to succeed and ultimately to rule. A er Syria gained its independence from France in 1946, he joined the Baath Party, a secular Arab nationalist movement that would seize control of Syria in 1963. Hafez rose through the ranks of the air force and was eventually appointed defense minister. From that position, in 1970, he mounted a bloodless coup with a trusted coterie of military o cers, many of them fellow Alawis. Since then, followers of this tiny Shiite sect have managed to hang on to power in this complex, ethnically volatile nation of 20 mil- lion people, 76 percent of whom are Sunni---a scenario that one diplomat likens to the Beverly Hillbillies taking charge of California. Hafez al Assad survived by becoming a world-class manipulator of geopolitical events, playing the weak hand he was dealt so clev- erly that Bill Clinton called him the smartest Middle Eastern leader he d ever met. Inside Syria, Hafez was a master at downplaying the country s potentially explosive religious identities and building an adamantly secular regime. He discouraged the use of the term Alawi in public and changed the name of his home region to the Western mountains; it is still considered impolite to ask about a Syrian s religion today. He also went out of his way to protect other religious minorities---Christians, Ismailis, Druze---because he needed them as a counterweight to the Sunnis. Hafez was ruthless toward his enemies, espe- cially the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni Islamist movement eager to remove the apostate Alawis from power and make Syria an Islamic state. To counter them, he built an elaborate in- ternal security apparatus modeled a er the com- munist police states of Eastern Europe. When the Brotherhood launched a series of attacks in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Hafez sent his air force to bomb densely populated neighborhoods in the group s stronghold in Hama. His army IT WILL TAKE MORE THAN A SMILE AND A SLOGAN TO REINVENT HIS COUNTRY, AND BASHAR KNOWS IT.