At the center of the violent unrest in Syria stands President Bashar Assad, the man who has ruled the country since 2000. Today Assad is almost universally seen as a bloodthirsty tyrant. He unleashed his army against his own population after the Arab Spring over a year ago, and since then has presided over thousands of civilian deaths. His name is grouped with other recent—and notorious—Arab dictators who have been overthrown, such as Khadafy, Mubarak, and even Saddam Hussein.
But he wasn’t always seen this way. Assad came to power amid hope and anticipation, with many Syrians and outside observers believing he would be a leader who could help loosen up the inert, stultifying Syrian system. Although it seems shocking now, his arrival ushered in a time of openness dubbed the “Damascus Spring.” Assad had a far different pedigree than the men he has come to resemble: He was, relatively speaking, normal, an ophthalmologist educated in London, the second son of Syria’s longtime ruler Hafez Assad. Bashar was an intellectual, not noticeably ambitious, even a bit of a computer nerd.
I should know because I met with him on a regular basis between 2004 and 2009, spending more time face-to-face with him than perhaps any other American. I witnessed his transformation first-hand, as he evolved from a potential agent of reform to a repressive dictator with his own people’s blood on his hands.
His story, and the recent hardening of Syria’s government against its own people, offers a stark illustration of how autocrats can ultimately be captured by the systems that they notionally control. And to understand how the conflict looks from within the regime—the view from Bashar’s seat, as it were—suggests a very pessimistic outlook for the peaceful kind of resolution the international community hopes to bring about.
As the world watched Bashar harden into a legacy autocrat, I saw something else: a gap opening up between how he saw his actions, and how the rest of the world did.
When Assad officially took the constitutional oath of office on July 17, 2000, in Damascus, he delivered an inaugural speech that was remarkably enlightened by Syrian standards. His father had ruled Syria for 30 years by building a security state that controlled virtually all aspects of society. Bashar’s speech was clearly intended to change some elements of this, especially economic ones. Remarkably, it directly criticized some of his own father’s past policies.
Hafez had been the quintessential Middle Eastern strongman, having seized power in a coup and then built up his country’s military-security apparatus to maintain himself, his cronies, and his Ba’ath party in power. In doing so, he tacitly offered (or demanded) a Faustian bargain with the Syrian people: In return for their subservience, if not obeisance, he would provide domestic stability of a kind that Syria had not experienced in its politically turbulent past since independence in 1946.
Bashar wasn’t supposed to be the successor at all. His older brother, Basil, was the putative heir being groomed to succeed the father. Bashar, on the other hand, was the licensed ophthalmologist who had studied in London. When Basil died in a car accident in 1994, Bashar returned from London and nurtured a relationship with elements of the Syrian intelligentsia. Bashar was chairman of the Syrian Computer Society; he reveled in the technological toys of the West and liked Western music. He brought into the government a number of members of the computer society, Western-friendly technocrats who were generally thought to be reformers.
His inaugural speech conveyed clear ideas on how Syria could move forward: The economy and educational system needed an extensive overhaul to help the country find a niche in the international economy. It was ambiguous, even evasive, on the prospects for political reform along a more democratic model, but it was still greeted with enthusiasm by people hoping for more political openness.
And the openness did follow. The seven to eight months after Bashar took office—the period dubbed the Damascus Spring—were a time of a noticeably more open political environment marked by general amnesties to political prisoners of all persuasions, the licensing of private newspapers, a shake-up of the state-controlled media apparatus. Bashar discarded the personality cult that had surrounded the regime of his father, and allowed political forums and salons in which open criticism and dissent were tolerated.
The regime, however, appeared to be caught off guard by just how fast things changed. Civil society organizations and pro-democracy groups arose, and the level of criticism directed at the government grew quickly.
Diplomats in Syria and analysts at the time believe that an old guard still in the regime—stalwarts loyal to his father, Hafez, especially in the military-security apparatus—warned Bashar that too much of this openness would endanger his power base. By the time I met Assad for the first time in 2004, the Damascus Spring had given way to a winter of retrenchment, at least politically. The newspapers had been shuttered, the political salons closed, and a number of prominent pro-democracy activists had been re-imprisoned. Bashar was still promoting economic modernization, but pointed out that it was difficult to reform a political system quickly in an environment as threatening and unstable as the Middle East.
We met extensively while I was researching a book, “The New Lion of Damascus: Bashar al-Asad and Modern Syria” (Yale University Press, 2005). After the book was published, I continued to meet with him, at his request, as a kind of unofficial liaison between Syria and the West. Syria had become internationally isolated following its opposition to the US invasion of Iraq, and then the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in February 2005, for which many held Syria responsible.
Assad was a welcoming personality, gregarious and even self-deprecating. Though he was clearly putting his best foot forward for my benefit (and his), he didn’t seem false about it—he seemed sincerely to want to lead a nation that was more engaged with the rest of the world. Others I’ve spoken to who met Bashar in person during that time came away with the same impression. This, of course, is the polar opposite of his profile today, and many people have a hard time reconciling the two Bashars, if you will. How could a relatively normal ophthalmologist turn into the person who gave orders that led to more than 10,000 of his countrymen being killed?
As the rest of the world watched Bashar harden from a would-be reformer into a legacy autocrat, I saw something else at work as well: a gap opening up between how he saw his actions, and how the rest of the world did.
For instance, early in Bashar Assad’s presidency, he decreed the elimination of military uniforms in primary and secondary schools. At the time, Western media, officials, and analysts dismissed, even ridiculed, the change as emblematic of how little Assad was actually doing to reform his country. But Assad himself genuinely believed that it mattered, and that he had taken a risk to make it happen: In a system almost immune to change, he saw it as an important step in redirecting Syria’s operational philosophy away from the symbols and trappings of martial indoctrination.
An even bigger gap existed in how Syria saw itself with regard to the rest of the world. His father’s regime, reaching back decades, was driven by a very powerful sense of foreign conspiracy—a fear bordering on paranoia. Some observers place the blame on imperialist conspiracies of the past when Syria was constantly subject to interference from larger powers. Others see it as having roots in the tortured regional politics around the Arab-Israeli conflict. In large measure, one could also see it simply as a function of living in a dangerous neighborhood where real threats are indeed often just around the corner.
As Bashar settled into power, he became less a man of the world, and more a creature of this worldview. Following the Hariri assassination, Bashar confided to me that he was convinced that the West and its regional allies were “out to get him” one way or another, either through force or diplomacy.
In March 2011, when Assad gave his first speech in response to the protests in his country inspired by the Arab Spring, he blamed the unrest on terrorists, conspirators, and armed gangs. This is how he still talks about it. To observers outside Syria, this looks like blatant misdirection, pointing away from the real socioeconomic and political problems that brought the Arab Spring to Syria. But within Syria—and especially within the regime—the perception of the threat is vastly different. Many Syrians readily believe such exhortations. It’s quite possible—even probable—that one of them is even Assad himself.
It’s not hard to see these conceptual gaps at work in some of his stranger pronouncements. Late last year, in an interview in Damascus, Assad told Barbara Walters—who had asked him about the Syrian military—“They are not my forces; they are military forces belong [sic] to the government....I don’t own them. I am president. I don’t own the country, so they are not my forces.”
Watching it, I could understand what this statement meant to him—it has always been deeply important to him to depict his country as a modern, working state with strong institutions. He cannot just arbitrarily act. But to a world horrified by the crackdowns in Syria and looking for a statement from its leader, it was also evidence of something else: a man whose view of the world has tragically separated from the reality of what he is governing.
I got to know Bashar Assad fairly well, and to this day do not see him as an eccentric, bloodthirsty killer along the lines of Moammar Khadafy or a Saddam Hussein. People I know who have met all three readily agree with this assessment. Bashar was different from the typical Middle East dictator, and I admit that I was one of the people who had hoped for something new.
But Bashar, from all the evidence, has become captured by the system he had hoped to change. Hafez Assad constructed an airtight and stultifying family, tribal, and sectarian-based patronage system that produced loyalty and stability, but little else. Domestically, it is a regime deeply suspicious of its own people: As Peter Harling, an astute Syria observer on the scene in Damascus, wrote: “For the regime, its supporters and its allies, Syria’s is an immature, if not disease ridden society. They posit—with evidence both real and invented, and generally blown out of proportion—that Syrian society shows sectarian, fundamentalist, violent, and seditious proclivities that can be contained only by a ruthless power structure.”
Bashar, over time, has succumbed to the alternate reality orchestrated around any autocrat. He started to believe regime propaganda, and the sycophants who surrounded him, that the well-being of the country was synonymous with his well-being. Within the country, he is referred to by his most ardent supporters as a “savior” or “prophet,” almost divinely sent to lead the country.
“After he became president, when people showered him with compliments and inflated his ego, he became totally different—as if he was chosen by God to run Syria,” said Ayman Abd al-Nour, a prominent Syrian commentator, now exiled, who went to college with Bashar and got to know him well as a friend.
The Syrian system is not geared to respond to people’s demands—it controls people’s demands. And it is not geared to change, but to maintain the status quo and survive. As the Arab Spring has unfolded, and Syria’s people—sometimes entire towns—have rebelled and called for change in the regime, Bashar and his loyalists have consistently treated it as a security problem rather than a political one, violently putting down domestic unrest in a typically convulsive response. In Bashar’s world, the violence unleashed by the regime is a necessary means to an end.
Syria’s internal paranoia means that outside groups, even supposedly neutral brokers, look more like threats than allies. The Syrian leadership is tremendously suspicious of any brokered agreements, especially if they are mediated by the Arab League or the UN—both of which it sees as controlled by anti-Syrian states.
In the past year, Bashar has lifted the emergency law that has thoroughly squelched dissent since 1963, provided for Kurdish citizenship to those Kurds designated stateless since the early 1960s, created political parties in what has been in essence a single party political apparatus dominated by the Ba’ath since coming to power in 1963, and passed a new constitution that would sanctify political pluralism. Once, these changes would have been viewed as significant. Now, amid increasing unrest and violence, they are seen as self-serving, after-the-fact, and insufficient.
To do more—to reform more deeply and rapidly, and most importantly to stop the military forces that are firing on Syria’s own people—would likely spell the end of the Assad regime itself. And that is the one thing that it appears beyond his powers to allow.