Filmmaker: Mohammad Jameel

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] used torture, police rule, killing and nail extraction to oppress the Syrian people and officers. Syria became a terror school.

Walid Elsaka, former Syrian army officer

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.

The man who introduced the police state to Syria

Al-Sarraj was appointed minister of Social Affairs and then president of the Syrian Executive Council in 1960. At 35, he became the most powerful Syrian in the UAR. His influence even began to extend beyond Syria's border into Lebanon. He wanted to rid Lebanon of anti-UAR sentiment, including the pro-Western Lebanese President Camille Chamoun.

In an interview with journalist Kamal Al Taweel later in life, al-Sarraj said he believed Syria was in danger if it didn't have decision-making power in Lebanon. He said that while he never interfered internally in Lebanon, he simply wanted their intelligence services to be in line with his.

"We didn't want our opponents to be influential partners in ruling Lebanon," he said. "Camille Chamoun had to be eliminated by any means," he claimed. "So we did."

Iraq also became a target for Nasser and al-Sarraj.

In July 1958, an Iraqi army officer, Abdul Karim Qasim, staged a coup in Iraq, in which the entire royal family was killed.

Nasser and al-Sarraj decided that Qasim had had the support of the Communist Party - and their opposition to the Communists and to Soviet influence had been one of the main reasons for founding the UAR. Nasser declared war against Abdul Karim Qasim and the Communist Party, accusing them of serving Soviet interests.

The Communist Party was outlawed in both the Syrian and Egyptian provinces of the UAR and a campaign was launched to arrest party members.

Farajallah el Helou affair

A popular, leading figure in the Syria-Lebanon Communist Party, Farajallah el-Helou, also suffered at the hands of al-Sarraj's machine, in a UAR jail.

"I tried my best to ask about this. It was a sensitive subject for al-Sarraj," tells al-Taweel. "After the 'usual' physical violence, el-Helou collapsed because of the heart problem everyone knew he had. Then he died."

Al-Sarraj said they'd had el-Helou under surveillance because they thought he was trying to re-activate the Communist Party in Syria, but that his death was an accident.

Leaders of the Non-Aligned Movement - such as Russia's Nikita Khrushchev, Yugolsavia's Josip Broz Tito and Indonesia's Sukarno - lobbied Nasser for el-Helou's release, says Karim Murrawwah, a former member of the Lebanese Communist Party.

"But we later discovered he died the same day he was arrested."

His body was first buried in a secret location, but fearing exposure of the crime, it was dissolved with sulphuric acid and disposed of in a Damascus sewer.

Al-Sarraj's fall from grace

Pressure was eventually exerted on Nasser to curb al-Sarraj's power.

In October 1959, Nasser gave his Egyptian Vice President Abdel Hakim Amer full power over the Syrian province, above al-Sarraj.

At the same time, Syrian army officers were increasingly unhappy with way the UAR province was run and felt marginalised. They objected to their treatment by Egyptian officers and of being 'transferred' or 'retired' if they complained.

"Nasser heard about how the Syrian officers got tired of al-Sarraj's actions. So he asked al-Sarraj to ease his grip on the army officers and civilians," says Elsaka.

In August 1961, Nasser decided to appoint him vice president of Syria - but relocated him to Cairo, marking the beginning of the end for al-Sarraj.

Abdul Hamid al-Sarraj 

A month later, Nasser merged the two branches of the National Union Party, depriving al-Sarraj of his position as leader of the Syrian branch; and when Egyptian Vice President Abdel Hakim Amer dismissed one of his closest associates, al-Sarraj submitted his resignation.

Jail and prison break

On September 28, 1961, there was a coup in Damascus by disaffected Syrian army officers.

It was led by Abdul Karim al-Nahlawi, the head of Abdel Hakim Amer's office in Syria. They declared Syrian independence from the UAR and effectively dissolved the republic.

Al-Sarraj was arrested and jailed in the Mezzeh military prison in Damascus.

With the help of Lebanese and Jordanian intelligence, Nasser devised an escape plan to bring his former supporter, al-Sarraj, to Cairo via Beirut. It succeeded in May 1962 and al-Sarraj arrived in Egypt to make his peace with Nasser. But this was to be the end of his political career.

Al-Sarraj lived as a private citizen in Cairo for 50 years. He died in 2013, at 88.

When al-Sarraj died, Syria was two years into the civil war that had begun in 2011 with protests against Bashar al-Assad's authoritarian regime - which had arguably remained in power using many of the tools of repression introduced by al-Sarraj nearly 60 years before.

Source: Al Jazeera