Syria: The Roots Of Tyranny tells the story of Abdul Hamid al-Sarraj, a military intelligence chief who used fear and torture to turn 1950s Syria into a police state, a decade or so before the al-Assad regime rose to power.
When Syria gained independence from France in 1946, the country’s institutions were based on those of its former protectorate. It had an elected parliament, multi-party politics, freedom of the press and the right to protest, according to Radwan Ziadeh, executive director of the Syrian Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
“The 1950 constitution was one of the most advanced in the Arab world.” There were three coups in 1949 but “the state’s infrastructure, its democratic, pluralist and civil institutions didn’t change,” explains Ziadeh.
Al-Sarraj rose to prominence in the military in the mid-1950s, and was put in charge of a section of Syrian military intelligence, le Deuxieme Bureau, meaning the Second Office.
“The first challenge al-Sarraj faced … was when Adnan al-Maliki was assassinated [in 1955],” explains journalist Kamal al-Taweel, who interviewed al-Sarraj later in life.
When Colonel Adnan al-Maliki, the deputy chief of staff of the Syrian army, was killed by a member of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), al-Sarraj swiftly rounded up SSNP members.
“The assassination of al-Maliki fuelled hatred and resentment between the Syrian nationalists and Baathists. This unleashed al-Sarraj on Syrian intelligence,” says former Lebanese Interior Minister Sami el-Khatib.
The crackdown after al-Maliki’s assassination consolidated al-Sarraj’s relationship with the nationalist, populist and socialist Baath Party.
As its influence increased, so did the power of al-Sarraj and the Deuxieme Bureau. It closely monitored al-Sarraj’s fellow army officers and put them under surveillance.
“Syria wasn’t a bloody country, despite all the coups, there was no torture, killing or revenge,” says Walid Elsaka, a former Syrian army officer.
“[Sarraj] used torture, police rule, killing and nail extraction to oppress the Syrian people and officers. Syria became a terror school.”
Sarraj did not join any political party, but made sure he cooperated with whoever was in power. An ardent Arab nationalist, he actively supported Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser’s stand against Western colonialism and Israel, including the Suez War in 1956.
The United Arab Republic
When the formation of the United Arab Republic (UAR) between Egypt and Syria was declared in 1958, al-Sarraj was appointed interior minister of its northern province. Egypt was the republic’s southern province.
But the new republic did not bode well for the future of democracy, civil liberties or freedom of expression in Syria.
Nasser dissolved all political parties and the multi-party system, and limited press outlets. “We entered a kind of a junta rule with a single party in charge,” says Ziadeh.
Al-Sarraj became Nasser’s main man in the Syrian province.
“In al-Sarraj, Nasser found a courageous personality, smart in strategic thinking. He gave him information about Syria and Syrian people,” explains Elsaka.
“More importantly, he gave him information about Syrian army officers.”
However, his ruthless policing made him deeply unpopular.
Read more: https://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/aljazeeraworld/2017/03/syria-roots-tyranny-170313062353299.html
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