Syria's heads of state over the past century: An interactive research tool [i]
Karam Shaar & Samy Akil*
Last updated: 20 September 2020
In the early 1920s, and after a brief period of self-rule, France and the United Kingdom imposed their mandate over the newly established Kingdom of Syria. By 1922, the colonizing powers had carved out Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine. What was left of Syria, which broadly resembles today’s borders, fell under the French mandate. The interactive timeline above provides a research tool to aid those interested in the background of Syria’s heads of state and how power has changed hands since 1922.
Insights into the Ongoing Conflict
This article uses the timeline above to draw insights into the ongoing 2011 conflict. We open by highlighting the longstanding asymmetries in the distribution of power and later zoom in on the past half-century of al-Assad family rule. We conclude with a look into the future.
Marginalization of Women
Despite sluggish improvement over the past century — as is the case with the history of much of the rest of the world — power in Syria remains concentrated in the hands of men. Select the button labeled “gender” above and the timeline will turn all one color; modern Syria has never been headed by a woman.
The underrepresentation of women goes beyond the country’s highest executive position, however. In the parliamentary elections of July 2020, women won just 14 percent of the seats.[ii] In government, which plays a more meaningful role in running the country, the share of females is only 10 percent.[iii] This is despite successive heads of state boasting about modernity and gender equality, romanticizing Queen Zenobia as a national icon. Images of the third-century Palmyrene queen are even printed on the country’s banknotes.
According to Dr. Rahaf Aldoughli of Lancaster University, who has researched gender inequality in Syria, “This gender bias or exclusion of women is a reflection of a masculinist state that glorifies the role of men as soldiers and defenders of the state.” She added, “Because so much of Syria’s politics has revolved around defense and militarism, a militant construct of national identity and belonging has elevated men to much more central roles — while women have remained marginal to the national discourse.”
The longstanding marginalization of half of Syrian society can partly explain the continuation of the current conflict. According to UN Women:
" For sustainable peace in Syria, women’s leadership, engagement, and full participation in peace talks and peace-building efforts must be ensured by international actors and development partners. Evidence shows that when women are able to influence the process, the likelihood of reaching a peace agreement and sustaining peace is significantly higher."
Since women are less empowered, they’re more vulnerable to human trafficking, forced marriage, and domestic violence, bearing more of the brunt of the conflict. While females are under-represented in regime-held areas, the situation is worse in areas under the control of various opposition groups in the northwest. The only part of the country where women may be enjoying more equality after the 2011 uprising is in the Kurdish areas of the northeast. However, concerns have been raised that these efforts are tokenistic and largely designed to attract Western support.
Neglect of the Northeast
Of the 27 heads of state that have governed Syria since 1922, not one has come from the country’s northeast (Raqqa, al-Hasakah, and Deir Ez-Zor). The region has long been marginalized politically, and consequently has tended to receive less attention in terms of economic and social development. Even the oil extracted from the northeast is refined in the western region, moving needed jobs out of the northeast. The neglect of the region applies to both Arabs and Kurds alike.
This disenfranchisement was quickly reflected in the region’s engagement in the 2011 uprising. While many Kurds sought autonomy, extremist groups, such as ISIS, were able to exploit the historic grievances and expand rapidly among the Sunni Arabs in the region.
Underrepresentation of the Kurds
While Syria has had three heads of state with Kurdish ancestry, none of them came from the Kurdish heartland in the northeast, and all ruled prior to the mid-1950s.[iv] The underrepresentation of Kurds in power has been manifest in their inability to protect their basic rights.
Contrary to popular belief, discriminatory policies against the Kurds started before the Ba’athist coup of 1963. In 1962, under the rule of Nazem al-Qudsi, nearly 20 percent of Syria’s Kurds were stripped of their citizenship under a new census in al-Hasakah governorate. During the early years of the rule of Hafez al-Assad, the government began to manipulate the demographics of Kurdish areas by building new Arab settlements and giving Kurdish villages new Arabic names to suppress Kurdish nationalism.
Combined with the unequal distribution of wealth discussed earlier, the unjust treatment of Kurds for decades can explain at least part of the reputed widespread desire for autonomy as the conflict broke out.
Fifty Years of the al-Assads: Tyranny for Stability
In the nearly half a century between 1922 and 1970, power changed hands 28 times. Over the subsequent half century under the rule of the al-Assads (1971-2020), power changed hands twice. Something is different about the way the al-Assads run the country.
Between Syrian independence and Hafez’s military coup (1946-70),[v] there were 16 transitions of power, seven of which took place by means of a military coup. Three of those seven were carried out by Ba’athists, like the al-Assads. Pre-1970, the average period in office for each head of state was less than 18 months. While supporters of the current regime tend to focus on the military coups and political instability of the pre-al-Assad era, regime opponents exaggerate the country’s genuine democracy during that time by focusing on the democratic transitions alone.[vi]
The truth, as is often the case, lies somewhere in between.
While the country certainly was not Switzerland in terms of its democratic maturity, various signs highlight the vibrancy of political life prior to the al-Assads. For example, before Hafez’s 1970 coup — or, in fact, the first Ba’athist coup in 1963 — six heads of state assumed power more than once,[vii] a testament to the more tolerant political atmosphere.
The al-Assads consolidated their power by going to previously unseen lengths. Initially, Hafez did so by arresting his own Revolutionary Council colleagues in a 1970 military coup branded as the Corrective Movement. He later changed the country’s constitution, creating the illusion of political pluralism under the umbrella of the Ba’ath-led National Progressive Front. Except for his economic policies, Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s current head of state, has very much continued on his father’s path. It was only under the al-Assads that individual freedoms were suppressed and civil society was severely constrained.
Military dictators, such as Adib al-Shishakli, had in the past succumbed to public pressure — he resigned, citing a desire to not drag the country into civil war. This has not been the case under the al-Assads. The mass use of violence and the systematic killing of civilians were normalized in the 1980s under Hafez and are being repeated on a larger scale by his son today.
What Will Syria’s Next Power Transition Look Like?
The al-Assads’ approach to ruling has been different from prior presidents — most notably in its brutality. At some point the Syrian people had to react, and react they did. The regime’s cruel response to the peaceful 2011 uprising dragged the country into what has become an ongoing nine-year conflict, rendering Syria uninhabitable for most of its people. Over 90 percent of the country lives in poverty, and the recent outbreak of COVID-19 has only added to people’s misery.
While to some Bashar al-Assad’s hold on power seems secure, in reality, it is far from it. A May 2020 poll in regime-held areas — allegedly conducted by a pro-Russian polling company — showed that only 32 percent of respondents would approve of Bashar’s re-election in 2021. That share is likely to have fallen even further given the recent deterioration in economic conditions. Additionally, Moscow has ramped up its support to the rebels-turned-soldiers of the 5th Corps, who remain at odds with al-Assad. Thirty percent of the country’s territory and much of its natural resources are outside the regime’s control.
In short, Syria’s political future remains uncertain. The most sustainable path to ending the conflict is one that addresses generational grievances, such as gender equality and ethnic underrepresentation.
An internal coup — similar to that in 1949, which resulted in the execution of Husni al-Za'im — is not out of the question, especially as divisions within the armed forces become increasingly visible.
International pressure on Bashar al-Assad to flee the country voluntarily seems quite unlikely to succeed, as al-Assad knows he will not be immune from prosecution wherever he goes. His uncle, Rifaat, was recently sentenced by European courts for his role in Syria in the 1980s. Worse still, Bashar might face the fate of al-Shishakli, who fled to Brazil only to be assassinated by a fellow Syrian, who was orphaned as a result of his military campaign against Jabal al-Druze. Bashar’s ongoing atrocities dwarf those of al-Shishakli — and there are likely to be far more potential assassins with him in their sights.
Please note that some of the information included in this study may be inaccurate: History is subjective and sources do not always agree, even on the same events. While we have tried to be as accurate as possible, there may still be some mistakes. If you see any in this study, please let us know and we'll make the necessary amendments.
[i] Note that this study covers only the official heads of the executive branch, for the sake of simplicity. For example, Fawzi Selu, Ahmad al-Khatib, and Abdul Halim Khaddam were all figureheads, but looking into the actual power behind them would open the door to subjectivity.
[ii] 34 of the 250 members of Parliament are female, based on our assessment of the likelihood of the name of each MP belonging to a male or a female. The actual share may be different, as some names are gender-neutral.
[iii] 3 out of 30 ministries are headed by women as of 2020.
[iv] The three heads of state with Kurdish ancestry are Ata al-Ayubi, Husni al-Za'im, and Adib al-Shishakli.
[v] Although Hafez’s coup was in 1970, he didn’t formally assume the office until 1971, appointing a figurehead in the interim.
[vi] Of the 11 presidential elections since Syria gained its independence in 1946, only three preceded the al-Assads — one of which was the 1958 referendum on creating the United Arab Republic.
[vii] Taj al-Din al-Hasani (1928-1932, 1941-1943), Shukri al-Quwatli (1943-1949,1955-1958), and Hashem al-Atassi (1936-1939, 1949-1951, 1954-1955) have each held the post three times; Adib al-Shishakli (1951-1951, 1953-1954) and Maamoun al-Kuzbari (1954-1954, 1961-1961) have both officially been head of state twice.
* Samy Akil is a Syrian analyst originally from the city of Aleppo and currently a postgraduate student at the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (CAIS) at The Australian National University. He is also locally engaged at a Canberra-based diplomatic mission.