Bashar al-Assad: A Tyrant in Full

FILE -- In this undated file photo, released Monday, Aug. 26, 2013, by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian President Bashar Assad gestures as he speaks during an interview with a Russian newspaper, in Damascus, Syria. Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime has a host of options if the United States launches military strikes against it. It could directly retaliate with rockets or unleash allies like Hezbollah against Western targets. Or it could do nothing -- and score propaganda points as a victim of "U.S. aggression." The regime's choice, analysts say, will likely depend on the magnitude of the U.S. military action -- the bigger and more sustained the strikes, the more likely the government in Damascus will feel compelled to respond.
National Journal
James Kitfield
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James Kitfield
Sept. 9, 2013, 4:33 p.m.

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.”

The Dyn­asty

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.”

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