Perhaps it’s the mournful gaze, or the starched Western suits, or the quiet reticence of a middle son who grew up in the shadow of a more dynamic brother. There might even be a trace of the eager-to-please manner of the ophthalmologist he seemed destined to become. Whatever it is about his demeanor, powerful men and women chronically underestimate Bashar al-Assad.
With Congress weighing whether to approve a military strike against Syria and begin an unpredictable new chapter in the conflict, it’s important to understand the man now at the center of the narrative. How Assad will respond to U.S. military force, or to alternatives such as placing his chemical-weapons stockpiles under international control, is a key question on the minds of many lawmakers. In interviews, observers who have spent years watching Assad say they now see a tyrant in full bloom, an expert propagandist at the peak of his powers, shrewd beyond the recognition of many of his contemporaries—and utterly cynical.
But the narrative was far different even 10 years ago. When Assad assumed the presidency of Syria after his father’s death in 2000, extending three decades of hereditary dictatorship, he was feted in Paris and lauded by Jacque Chirac, then the president of France, as the vanguard of a new generation of more-modern, reforming Arab leaders. Noting his apparent meekness in comparison with his tyrannical father, Hafez al-Assad, one European diplomat remarked that Syria would become “a dictatorship without a dictator.”
In 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell traveled to Damascus to seek Assad’s counsel as a leader the United States could do business with. In March 2011, at the onset of the Arab Spring uprisings, then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton insisted that the United States had no intention of intervening in Syria the way it had in Libya. “There is a different leader in Syria now,” she said. “Many of the members of Congress from both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he’s a reformer.”
Now, with the blood of more than 100,000 Syrians on his hands and the White House saying definitively that his regime recently gassed more than a thousand men, women, and children to death in the suburbs of Damascus, it’s clear that those formidable leaders, all expert judges of character, somehow fundamentally misread Assad.
They might argue instead that he has fundamentally changed, that once again absolute power had corrupted absolutely. But Assad, for one, is having none of it. He has already begun publicly defending his actions, including an interview with CBS’s Charlie Rose that aired this week in which he argued there was little evidence that chemical weapons were used and that he had done nothing to earn his reputation as the Butcher of Damascus.
“The imperative question is: Has the nature of this person changed? The media can manipulate a person’s image at a whim, yet my reality remains the same. I belong to the Syrian people. I defend their interests and independence, and will not succumb to external pressure. I cooperate with others in a way that promotes my country’s interests,” Assad told France’s La Figaro newspaper recently. “This is what was never properly understood; they assumed that they could easily influence a young president, that if I had studied in the West I would lose my original culture. This is such a naive and shallow attitude. I have not changed; they are the ones who wished to identify me differently at the beginning.”
A Family Affair
Assad was just 17 years old when his father introduced him to the family business. The year was 1982, and a Muslim Brotherhood-inspired uprising of Sunnis had taken place in the city of Hama. The ruling Assad family is part of the Alawite sect of Shiite Islam, which accounts for only about 11 percent of Syrians, while Sunnis account for roughly 75 percent of the population. Such an overt challenge to the Assad’s minority rule by the sectarian majority would not be tolerated.
Hafez al-Assad, famous for wearing military uniforms and dark sunglasses, dispatched his younger brother Rifaat al-Assad, who commanded the elite Alawite security force responsible for defending the regime. Rifaat’s forces leveled whole swaths of Hama with artillery barrages, killing an estimated 25,000 people. The Muslim Brotherhood was driven underground, and young Bashar internalized some of the lessons: Blood is thicker than water; tribe and sect trump nationalism; and dissent must be met with an iron fist.
“Hafez al-Assad was utterly ruthless in crushing the Muslim Brotherhood … and he was successful in silencing them,” said former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Richard Murphy, now a scholar at the Middle East Institute. “And there’s no question that the son Bashar has adopted his father’s code.”
That same year, Assad graduated from high school and began studying medicine at the University of Damascus. After completing his residency in ophthalmology, he moved to London in 1992 to practice. Quiet and reserved, Bashar lived in the shadow of his more flamboyant and dynamic older brother, Bassel, who after being trained in the Soviet Military Academy was commissioned in the Syrian special forces. Everyone understood that the oldest son was the heir apparent, but Bassel died in a car wreck in 1994. The baton passed to Bashar.
After running unopposed as the leader of Syria’s Baath Party, receiving 97 percent of the “vote” in a referendum, Bashar was nonetheless heralded as the vanguard of the next generation of Arab leaders, one who would bring modernization and much needed economic and human-rights reforms to Syria. The lengths to which Assad would go to advance that narrative were revealed in February 2011, when Vogue published a glowing profile of his wife, Asma al-Assad, under the title, “A Rose in the Desert.” Even as the regime was beginning its brutal crackdown on protesters, the magazine referred to the couple as urbane, well traveled ,and “wildly democratic,” with Asma described as “glamorous, young, and very chic—the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies.”
A few weeks later, Vogue removed the article and all references to it from its website, and The Hill reported that the lobbying firm Brown Lloyd James had been paid thousands of dollars to help arrange for its publication.
Indeed, for all the talk of reform in Syria, Damascus remained a hub for extremist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah. The State Department and various human-rights groups also continuously noted that Syria was still a police state that routinely imprisoned, tortured, and killed Assad’s political opponents. When a United Nations commission found in 2011 that the regime had responded to initially peaceful protests with torture and other “crimes against humanity,” Assad reacted by advancing Syria as a candidate for the U.N. Human Rights Council, even though he disparaged the world body as a farce.
“You do not believe the United Nations is a credible organization?” Barbara Walters posed to him in a December 2011 interview.
“No. Never. It’s not just my generation. It’s something we inherited as a concept. As a belief,” Assad said.
“[But] you have an ambassador to the United Nations.”
“Yeah,” Assad said. “It’s a game we play. It doesn’t mean you believe in it.”
What Assad clearly believes in is solidifying the intricate web of connections that has always formed the tight core of the family dynasty. Taking a page directly out of his father’s book, Assad has given his hotheaded younger brother. Maher, the job of regime enforcer, as a commander of the Republican Guard and the elite 4th Infantry Division. In 1999, Maher reportedly shot his sister’s husband in the stomach in a fit of anger, and a number of experts suspect that he was behind the recent chemical-weapons attack (possibly in retaliation for a rebel attack on Bashar al-Assad’s convoy, which is said to have infuriated the dictator).
As the current crisis has intensified, experts say the decision-making that once included significant input from Hafez al-Assad’s old cronies in the military has been tightened. Assad admitted as much in a recent interview with a French journalist, when he was asked whether military commanders or someone from his inner circle could have given the order to use chemical weapons without his knowledge.
“Regardless of whether or not we do or do not possess such weapons, in any country that does possess these weapons, the decision to deploy is usually centralized,” Assad replied.
“The Assads rule very much like a Mafia family, with decision-making increasingly centralized into the hands of Bashar and a few key family members,” said Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow in the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and a coauthor of the recent report on the Assad dynasty called “All the Tyrant’s Men.”
Unlike in Egypt, Tabler notes, the Syrian military and security forces are tightly controlled by members of the Alawite minority who are not pledged to protect the Syrian state, but rather who see their fate as being tied directly to the fortunes of the Assads.
“Unfortunately, nothing we or anyone else has done has been able to crack the cohesiveness and unity of that ruling elite,” he said.
A Tyrant in Full
Assad has mastered the trick of the dictator’s circular logic: The very fact that he has survived as president through two and a half years of a brutal civil war is proof that the Syrian people are behind him. His minority coalition of Alawites, Christians, and Druze (another religious sect) has remained remarkably resilient precisely because the Assad regime has now committed so many atrocities that retribution killings are inevitable in defeat. The rebel ranks are full of “terrorists” because Assad has done everything in his power to transform a secular uprising by disaffected Arab youth into a sectarian fight to the death to which extremists are attracted like moths to fire.
“Assad has successfully turned protests against a half-century of authoritarian rule into a sectarian civil war with radicals on all sides, in part by releasing Sunni jihadis associated with al-Qaida in Iraq from his own prisons so they could join the opposition,” said Murhaf Jouejati, a professor at the National Defense University’s Near East and South Asia Center for Strategic Studies. “That advances his narrative that the regime is the beating heart of Arab nationalism and resistance to the West, waging a battle for secularism against Islamic extremism. Which, quite frankly, is bull.”
Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Bin Jabr al-Thani, who until recently was the prime minister of Qatar, experienced Assad’s penchant for cynicism and circular logic firsthand.
“Remember that what happened in Syria started out as not as a revolution but with peaceful protesters asking for a few reforms, and on the first day 160 of them were killed,” Thani said at a Brookings Institution conference earlier this year. “I went to see Assad, and we had a long conversation. He promised to give an important speech to his parliament, and instead he cracked jokes as if nothing was happening, while blood was running in the streets! He agreed to meet with the opposition, and we saw that, too, was a joke to him! Other promises were made and not kept. As chair of the Arab League, we took the matter up with our friends and tried to solve it by sending a monitoring team to Syria to try and talk to him. And, finally, we concluded that Bashar al-Assad was just buying time to execute his one true strategy, which is to kill, and kill, and kill until he wins.”
Indeed, what makes Assad so dangerous is that he has a worldview and a strategy—and the instincts of a survivalist. After a decade of unpopular war in Iraq and Afghanistan, he senses acutely that the West is war-weary, and the recent debates in London, Washington, and Paris over limited air strikes have reinforced the notion. After watching Saddam Hussein on the gallows, Hosni Mubarak in chains, and Muammar el-Qaddafi executed beside a drainage ditch, Assad understands that, for him, this fight is existential. He told CBS that a U.S. strike on Syria “is going to support al-Qaida.”
Assad also knows that his friends in the region and his allies on the U.N. Security Council are more committed to the fight than his opponents. Qatar and Saudi Arabia send money to the rebellion, while Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah have both put boots on the ground in Syria. The United States wrings its hands over supplying small arms to the rebels, while Russia supplies the high-tech weaponry of a modern state. Assad told CBS that the U.S. should “expect every action” in retaliation, if a strike is carried out.
Assad’s worldview and strategy of victory at all costs suggest he will be undeterred from slaughter by a limited U.S. cruise-missile strike meant to show resolve where none exists, experts say. Serious negotiations over a peaceful resolution that might eventually land him in a war-crimes tribunal or at the end of a rope are likely out of the question.
If Assad cannot win outright, he almost certainly will try to make good on his threat to turn Syria’s civil war into a region-wide conflagration, the better to carve an Alawite rump state out of the chaos and perpetuate the dynasty.
Brian Michael Jenkins, a longtime analyst with Rand who returned from the region recently, said he believes Assad’s fallback strategy is to slice an Alawite/Christian/Hezbollah state out of Syria’s corpse, leaving Sunni and Kurdish rebels to fight over the remains. “Syria is now like the Italian Peninsula during the Renaissance,” Jenkins wrote in an e-mail.
Jouejati of the National Defense University said, “Assad has said all along that he will set the region on fire before he falls, and if he can’t crush the rebellion outright I think his Plan B is to carve out an Alawite stronghold along the coast stretching from Homs to Damascus, which would suit his Iranian allies as a continuing conduit to [Lebanese] Hezbollah. So I fear that each day this crisis continues, the sectarian fissures will deepen and widen, and the less likely it will be that Syria is ever again a unified state.”
Assad Warns Retaliation: 'Expect Every Action'
This article appears in the September 10, 2013 edition of NJ Daily as Who Exactly Is Bashar al-Assad?.