Moshe Ma’oz has spent his adult life studying Syria. He advised Israeli Prime Ministers Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin on how best to make peace with the regime headed Hafez Assad, the father of the current president, Bashar Assad, who faces protests across the country. The rebellion is clearly triggered by the revolts known collectively as the Arab Spring. But in Syria any insurrection is shadowed by the memory of Hama, the town Assad’s father ordered bombarded in 1982 to crush a revolt led by the Muslim Brotherhood. At least 10,000 Syrians died.
That thousands dare to go into the streets despite the memory of Hama says much both about the level of outrage in Syria — “The spillover from other countries gave the push; the reasons wer there for a long, long time,” says Ma’oz — and about the difference between father and son. Human Rights Watch says at least 73 people have been killed by government forces since protests began earlier this month. But even death tolls are relative, and Ma’oz, a historian, sees a huge difference between the air force lieutenant who fought his way to the top of the Baath Party, and the son who grew up in a palace and just wanted to be an ophthamologist until his older brother, who was groomed to succeed Dad, died in a car wreck.
“Bashar is not a killer,” Ma’oz says. “His father was a killer.”
Still, he’s an Assad. In Arabic, the word means “lion.”
“In my opinion, he’s going to fight till the end. Maybe like Gaddafi, though he’s not as brutal as Gaddafi.”
Ma’oz, a professor emeritus of Islamic and of Middle Eastern Studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, briefed international journalists for more than an hour on Monday. He judges the Assad regime as vulnerable not only for the reasons driving revolts across the region — a dictator’s insults to dignity; lack of jobs; the security state — but but also for religious reasons. The Assads are Allawites, an obscure faith practiced by just 12 percent of Syrians, but counted as heretical by many conservatives in the Sunni Muslim majority. Both father and son have proved adept at balancing the interests of a challenging demography, building mosques by the hundred, and keeping Christians safe. But top positions in the secret police and military went to Allawites.
“Bashar himself is not totally hated, maybe because of his wife,” Mo’az says. “She was a very good choice. She’s beautiful. She’s intelligent — she’s Sunni.”
“I’m not going to bury him yet.”
“In military intelligence we would say: ‘King Hussein isn’t going to last a year because of A, B, C… Forty six years!”