June 15, 2012 7:42 pm

Bashar al-Assad: behind the mask

He was an unpromising youth who gained power by accident. Today he’s the Arab world’s most notorious dictator. But who really is this man?
Bashar Al-Assad©Rex

'The domino that refuses to fall': Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, May 2012

They burn his effigy in towns drenched in blood by his security forces. They dance to the tune of chants demanding his execution. And they lampoon him in a satirical web series where he is “Beesho” [“baby Bashar”], his elongated neck represented by a wooden stick, with a distorted head spewing disdain at the Syrian population. Across the country, Bashar al-Assad, once revered as the Lion [“Assad” in Arabic] of Damascus, has been ridiculed in Syria’s revolution as a giraffe and is now dubbed a duck, the nickname his wife Asma lovingly bestows on him.

Assad’s personality cult has been demolished in the 15-month uprising that has gripped Syria and left more than 10,000 people dead. The complex myth of a nice guy with an elegant wife trapped in a brutal, corrupt regime that instils fear into the hearts of Syria’s 20 million people has collapsed, along with the wall of terror erected over decades.

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Roula Khalaf

The 46-year-old Bashar is stubbornly hanging on to power: he is the domino that refuses to fall, however fierce the winds of the Arab awakening blow through Syria. Entrenched in Damascus, where he lives in an apartment in the posh, leafy neighbourhood of Malki, he can still look out of the window and watch a fake normality, confirming to himself that not much has changed – and that whatever has can still be recuperated and restored. Yet, for however long Bashar al-Assad survives, for millions of Syrians there is no going back to the past. “History has gone beyond Bashar,” someone who knew him as a young man told me, expressing a visible anger that I should even be profiling the Syrian leader. “The physical transition in Syria is a matter of time. It could take months, it could take years, but psychologically people are looking beyond Bashar. He is part of Syria’s past.”

Since he inherited the presidency in July 2000, after his father Hafez died, Bashar al-Assad has been a frustrating puzzle for both his people and the outside world. He has worn the mask of a modern leader, encouraging the world to engage with him and Syrians to wait endlessly for his reforms, while in practice behaving like a thug. “A con artist,” is the conclusion of one prominent Syrian businessman.

To be sure, Assad appears to have a split personality – the result, perhaps, of the sudden turns in his life journey, from the child on which the least expectations rested to the leader of one of one of the most pivotal and complex countries in a treacherous Middle East.

Protests in Yabrud, Syria©Emma Suleiman/Demotix

Yabrud, Syria: Assad’s militias struck here in 2011, but the protests continue

Assad was born in September 1965, the third of five children (only three now survive), into what would soon become one of the Arab world’s most formidable families. His father Hafez, a ruthless but shrewd political tactician, was a leading figure in the pan-Arab, socialist Ba’ath party which had seized power in Syria in 1963. In Syria’s ethnic mosaic, a country where a majority Sunni Muslim population has lived alongside several minorities, he came from a poor family of Alawites, a sect born out of Shia Islam that accounts for slightly more than 10 per cent of the Syrian population. The Alawites were a disadvantaged group, so poor that they sent girls as young as 12 to work as maids in neighbouring Lebanon. Soon after Assad’s birth, his father would become defence minister and air force commander, and within five years he would seize power in a coup.

Bashar (on swing) in 1974 with his father Hafez, brother Majd and sister Bushra©Alexandra De Borchgrave/Liaison

Bashar (on swing) in 1974 with his father Hafez, brother Majd and sister Bushra. Friends say they rarely saw their father

In The New Lion of Damascus, a sympathetic book in which Assad co-operated with American academic David Lesch, the Syrian leader describes his upbringing as “normal,” insisting he played soccer with neighbourhood children, ping-pong with his father, and his friends’ mothers came home to chat and cook meals with his mother Anisa. “We had two very caring parents, and our happiness derived from having these two caring parents,” Assad tells Lesch. But to what extent was Bashar telling the truth, and what did normality mean to him? “There was nothing normal about their life,” quips a family friend. “The children rarely saw their father, and they were always protected by bodyguards.” Abdelhalim Khaddam, the former vice-president who resigned and left Syria in 2005, says the Assad children grew up in “an atmosphere where they were targets, but also felt as if they owned the country”.

While Assad was growing up, his father was securing his rule by creating a dreaded web of overlapping intelligence and security agencies to watch over Syrians as much as each other. Though some of the major political figures in his regime were Sunni Muslims, the Alawites’ numbers swelled in the military academy and eventually dominated the middle to higher echelons of the security services and spy networks. “Hafez had woven his regime like a canvas, and when the time came all you had to do was screw Bashar in,” says an Arab commentator who knew the father well.

Hafez Al-Assad©Getty

Hafez in 1973

Hafez’s Ba’athist ideology had kept Syria a backward country, but through a mix of astute politics and violent tactics he had established it as a power to be reckoned with in the Arab world. In Assad’s early childhood, he lived through two Arab-Israeli wars. He was 16 when his father ordered the bombing of the city of Hama, a massacre that is estimated to have killed 20,000 people and followed a violent insurrection by Islamists. He was 19 when his father sent Rifaat, his own younger brother and presumed successor, into permanent exile. Rifaat had attempted to seize power when Hafez suffered a heart attack a year earlier.

. . .

The person Assad is said to have looked up to was his brother Bassel, three years his senior and the chosen heir until he fatally crashed his Mercedes outside Damascus in 1994. Bassel was following in his father’s footsteps – he was a parachutist, a ladies’ man and an accomplished athlete, who many say was genuinely popular among Syria’s youth.

Bashar’s father Hafez (right) in 1984 with his brother Rifaat©Getty

Bashar’s father Hafez (right) in 1984 with his brother Rifaat, later exiled for trying to seize power

“Growing up, Bashar was overshadowed by Bassel,” says Ayman Abdelnour, a former adviser who got to know Assad during his university years. “That seemed to be a complex – he didn’t have the charisma of Bassel, who was sporty, was liked by girls and was the head of the Syrian Computer Society.” Bashar was “shy; he used to speak softly, with a low voice. He never asked about institutions or government affairs.”

Assad was also close to his mother, Anisa Makhlouf, whose family played a central part in the regime. “A mama’s boy more than a papa’s boy,” is how one western politician describes the president. Mohamed, Anisa’s brother, known as “Abu Rami”, was a financial middleman, whose son Rami would monopolise many of Syria’s economic sectors during the young Assad’s presidency. But while Assad has spoken about his strong relationship with his mother, saying he calls her several times a week and dines with her at least once, tales of her overwhelming influence are exaggerated. “The power of Anisa is revolution talk,” says a friend of the family. “When the siblings fight she intervenes, but that’s it. She was devastated by the death of Bassel and then her husband died. And in the last few years she has been very ill.”

Although even some of Assad’s fiercest critics acknowledge that he has a sharp mind, Assad has admitted that he was an average student at the private school he attended in Damascus. But like many sons of privileged families, he went to Damascus University’s medical school and chose to specialise in ophthalmology, then worked at a military hospital before going off to London for a training stint at the Western Eye Hospital.

It was Bassel’s death in 1994 that devastated the family and dramatically changed Bashar’s trajectory. Recalled from London, after having spent less than two years there, Assad underwent a crash course in military and political affairs and a successful image-making exercise that would make him palatable to Syrian society. He inherited Bassel’s friends, Bassel’s office in Mount Qassioun overlooking Damascus and even the Syrian Computer Society – a critical tool that would help him create an image as a man who could bring progress to a country that seemed stuck in the 1970s. “Bashar disappeared from view; we only started seeing him again in 1996 and he had changed, even his voice had changed,” recalls Abdelnour. “He was more confident, more muscular in his appearance.”

Bashar in 1997©Getty

Bashar in 1997, now the heir apparent: 'Even his voice had changed. He was more confident'

Hafez was said to be suffering from a form of leukaemia as well as diabetes and heart problems, so he worked overtime behind the scenes to prepare for a smooth succession. He was quietly elevating a new generation of officials to head the web of security and intelligence agencies. It was left to Bahjat Suleiman, one of the spy chiefs who had been close to Bassel, to market Bashar as the “hope” of Syria, the description written under his portrait in Damascus at the time. Between 1996 and 2000 the young heir quickly built relationships with businessmen eager for change to the socialist economy, and with political activists hungry for a whiff of freedom of expression. Bashar al-Assad became a vociferous critic of bureaucratic corruption and those he recommended were placed in key positions in government.

It was during this period that I first met him in Damascus, a few months before his father died. He was casual and inquisitive, particularly interested in whether living abroad had diluted my Arab roots. He spoke about the scourge of corruption and Syria’s economic stagnation, and was sympathetic to the cause of an outspoken businessman who was being harassed by the regime for his political and anti-corruption views. It was impossible to know whether he was sincere.

Hafez passed away on June 10 2000 and, after a month of paving the way, state television declared that “Assad was gone, long live Assad”. Many Syrians, numbed by decades of oppression, had no choice but to hope that despite their country having become the first republican monarchy in the Arab world, they could look forward to a better future. “We thought that betting on him was in the national interest,” says a former associate. “Despite all the problems with the way he took over, he was at least part of a young, more open generation.”

Maher, Assef Chawkat and Bashar©Reuters

(From left) Maher, Assef Chawkat and Bashar at Hafez’s funeral, June 2000

If Assad as a young man lived in the shadow of Bassel, it was the ghost of Hafez that would haunt him when he came to rule. “Bashar lives in his father’s shadow,” says an Arab commentator who has known both men. “But his father had massive experience in politics… he took power in a coup and got rid of everyone else who threatened him.”

People who worked with Bashar al-Assad at the start of his reign say his lack of experience manifested itself in a sense of insecurity. Former associates say Assad is an anxious man by nature, with a nervous laugh and sudden mood swings. “In his early years, he was learning on the job and he wasn’t confident,” says one. “He spoke about some of his father’s aides as enemies and he didn’t have his own advisers – the security people would tell him it would be a threat to him because they wanted to control him.”

In his first year, Syria did appear to be on a new path. Political prisoners were released and discussion forums thrived in a rare bout of free expression that became known as the Damascus Spring. Technocrats were brought into the government, as were European advisors to help reform the administration. But the Damascus Spring was stillborn and the economic change remained superficial. When I asked Assad in a meeting with journalists in 2002 about the crackdown on democracy advocates whose cause he had once championed, he was visibly displeased, his aides later chiding me for raising the question.

But Assad appeared to be concealing his insecurity with an overt arrogance that was on full display in annual Arab League summits, where he would lecture his older, more experienced peers about Arab nationalism, speaking in a rhetorical style that irritated the audience. And at home, too, Assad was not listening to the technocrats. Says a young Syrian who worked for the government at the time: “Bashar used to go to the economic committee in the government and wanted to give lessons to the economists.” Abdelnour says Assad did want to change Syria, so long as he continued to rule it. “If Syria became a great country, if it attracted 20 million tourists and had a civil society, then he would be the president of a great country. But nothing could happen that would threaten his chair.” Assad “had no visions and no opinion of his own”, adds Abdelnour. “He could say yes one day to one thing and no to the same thing the next day.”

. . .

Over the security structure that underpinned the regime, Hafez al-Assad had built a façade of power that included senior aides he trusted, many of whom were Sunni. To secure his own rule, his son pushed aside the remaining “uncles” and narrowed the inner circles to the family. On March 15 2010, when the tribes in Dera’a, the southern province, sparked the Syrian revolution with mass protests (they were demanding the release of 15 children arrested for scribbling anti-regime graffiti), it was Atif Najib, a maternal Assad cousin and head of the security directorate, who added fuel to the fire, insulting the tribes and then allowing his forces to fire on the crowds.

As the revolt spread, one of its main targets was Rami Makhlouf, the wealthy Assad cousin who was said to require a share of business deals and is estimated to have dominated as much as 50 per cent of the economy. Makhlouf’s alleged corruption was devastating politically, too. Samir al-Taqi, who ran a think-tank affiliated with the foreign ministry, says in the days of Assad’s father, the regime was like a “chocolate fountain”, with a range of politicians close to Assad and security officials who ran their own mafias, spreading the corruption across the country and buying loyalty. Rami Makhlouf, however, was not a politician and could not generate loyalty in politics.

Another leading target of the protests has been Maher, the younger brother of Assad and commander of both the elite Republican Guard and the best-trained and best-equipped 4th division of the army. The more thuggish of the brothers, Maher has been described to me as “an average guy”, but one of whom the children of other members of the regime were always afraid.

The real “brains” behind the regime, many say, is Assef Chawkat, Assad’s brother-in-law, who served for many years as head of intelligence and is now deputy chief-of-staff of the army. Said to be charismatic and intelligent, Chawkat, now in his early sixties, is also ruthless, and he was critical in ensuring that no one dared oppose Bashar’s succession after the death of Hafez. Chawkat was disliked by Bassel, and legend in Damascus has it that he was shot in the stomach by Maher in 1999. After Bassel’s death, however, Bushra, Bashar’s older sister, prevailed in her determination to marry Chawkat. A pharmacist by training, Bushra is a strong-headed woman who was known to intervene in government affairs. “She is the militant of the family, the one who’s the real Ba’athist – very anti-Israeli, and very anti-Islamist,” says a person who knows the family well.

The Assads with former French president Sarkozy©AFP

The Assads dining with former French president Nicolas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni at the Elysée Palace, December 2010

Chawkat’s relationship with Assad has been the subject of endless rumours that regime loyalists say are overblown. He appeared to be sidelined in 2008, but people who know him say it was less because of a rift with Assad than a dispute between his wife and Asma, the first lady, whose profile was by then rising at record speed.

Asma married Assad in a quiet ceremony in late 2000, at the age of 25. She was the outsider in the Assad household but perhaps more important than most, helping to soften the hard image of the dictatorship and perpetuate the myth of Assad as a reformer.

She was certainly an unlikely Arab dictator’s wife, having grown up in Ealing, a west London suburb, in an upper-middle-class family, attended private school and Queen’s College, and worked as a banker at JP Morgan. Her mother was a diplomat at the Syrian embassy and her father was a cardiologist who came from the city of Homs and belonged to a Sunni Muslim family. “Asma is a very intelligent and very ambitious. She saw herself living that life, saw that she would be a queen and she grabbed it,” says a former associate. “She knew many Arabs in London who were extremely wealthy and she fell in love with the concept of wealth, of power, of glory.”

Asma Al-Assad©Getty

Asma in 2010. Initially popular, leaked emails have cast her as a modern 'Marie Antoinette'

Apparently driven by a desire to rival Queen Rania of Jordan, Asma immersed herself in social work and the promotion of culture. When the Syrian revolution erupted, she was busy working on her biggest project – a museum that would tell the country’s history from prehistoric times to the 21st century. “A Rose in the Desert” was the title of a flattering portrait in Vogue which appeared a month before the outbreak of the unrest, and seemed all the more embarrassing when leaked emails published by The Guardian this year revealed her as a modern version of Marie Antoinette, on an internet shopping spree for diamonds and Christian Louboutin shoes. The same emails suggested the couple had a loving relationship, and put an end to the rumour mill that suggested Asma had fled to London with their three young children – sons Hafez and Karim and a daughter, Zein.

Asma appealed to Syrians because she was, as one young woman who admired her says, “trendy and made Syria look closer to the outside world”. Indeed, one of Asma’s major accomplishments was to act as a bridge with the west. “Assad didn’t want to be part of the west, but he wanted to be part of the scene in the west,” says the former associate.

Assad needed all the help he could get. He had learnt from his father that domestic policy mattered less than foreign policy, and that Syria was too important to be ignored. There would be no Middle East peace without Syria, whose Golan Heights plateau was occupied by Israel, and there could be no stability in Lebanon, the smaller neighbour whose 1975-1990 civil war Syria had helped to pacify, before effectively ruling over the country with 30,000 troops. Just a decade after the massacre of Hama, Hafez had been courted by the US and joined the first Gulf war coalition that ousted Saddam Hussein from Kuwait.

A year into his inheritance, Assad faced a monumental storm in the form of a Bush administration determined to remake the Middle East in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. Convinced that he was next in line for regime change when the US invaded Iraq in 2003, Assad tried to bog down American troops in the quagmire of Iraq by siding with the insurgents, even though Syria and Iraq had been bitter enemies. “Bashar would get paranoid and that created extreme panic and merciless reactions because he is so self-centred,” says a former government adviser.

However, Assad’s most dangerous adventure was in Lebanon, where he resolved to tighten his grip. He faced accusations of involvement in the 2005 assassination of Rafiq Hariri, the former prime minister and opponent of Syria – a killing that forced Assad into a humiliating military withdrawal from Lebanon. It was around that time that Assad – reported by some foreign visitors eager to promote Syrian-Palestinian peace to be charming and engaging – showed his menacing side. According to Hariri’s aides, before the killing, Assad had threatened to “break Lebanon over Hariri’s head”.

For many Arab leaders, already incensed by the disappearance of Hariri, also troubling was the way Assad threw himself into the arms of Iran – a marriage of convenience that his father had only cautiously embraced. “Bashar’s father always balanced the relationship with Iran – they needed him as much as he needed them. Bashar became dependent on Iran, like a hostage,” says a Lebanese politician with ties in Damascus.

A poster mocking Bashar as a giraffe©Getty

A poster mocking Bashar as a giraffe

Whether in the Arab world or beyond, Assad perplexed his interlocutors: he came across as someone who was willing to listen, yet rarely delivered. “Assad and his people lie openly – even when it is obvious that what they are saying cannot be true,” says a former diplomat who has dealt with Assad. People who were involved in foreign policy say deceit was one of the main tactics used by Assad to deflect pressures. Al-Taqi, for example, recalls that in talks with the European Union on an association agreement, he was instructed to “always say yes”. “We were told that it was important for the other side to feel everything is going well… and that it should take them six months to find out that it was not.”

Assad, however, survived the Bush administration and the UN investigation into the Hariri killing (in fact, his influence in Lebanon rose again in recent years). So while Arab autocrats shuddered through the first months of last year, as two presidents, in Tunisia and Egypt, were swept from office, and a third, Muammer Gaddafi, lost nearly half the country to Libyan rebels, Assad was confident, even cocky. In public, as in private, he maintained that he was different, his steadfast attitude towards Israel earning him the respect of his people. Moreover, since the 2006 war in Lebanon, in which Israel failed to crush Hizbollah, the militant group Assad passionately backs, his ego was further inflated: he acted like a hero in the Arab world. “Assad always believed that he is fighting an existential battle for the resistance front to Israel,” says an Arab analyst who knows the president. “He felt he had beaten Israel with the use of a non-Syrian army and non-Syrian territory.”

He was also finding his way back into the good graces of the west, which had failed to tame him with pressures and was now attempting engagement instead. In 2010, he was hosted at France’s Elysée Palace and courted by US senator John Kerry, while Asma mingled with celebrities such as Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.

The irony is that within Syria, too, Assad had popular support, with many still buying into the illusion of a well-intentioned leader shackled by a more sinister regime. So fickle was this popularity, however, that it quickly dissipated after Assad spoke to the nation two weeks after the people of Dera’a rose against the regime. “We thought he was going to ride the wave of protests and become the leader of the Arab world. But instead of apologising, firing people, he disappointed us by saying if you want to fight we are ready,” says a Syrian businessman.

Syrian checkpoint©Getty

Footage uploaded on YouTube of an alleged army checkpoint after a series of clashes in Damascus, March 2012

However, Assad’s handling of the uprising was not surprising. “That’s what they do, they kill,” says a person close to the government. “And when some people in the regime say we should make concessions, the security people tell the president that the situation is on its way to being resolved.”

The Syrian dictator has been in denial, refusing to see the uprising as a popular movement for change, but rather, as he has often stated, as a foreign conspiracy in association with the Muslim Brotherhood, designed to weaken his defiant attitude and ultimately to be resolved through deals with outside powers. That people should die is collateral damage in the greater cause of regime survival. “When a surgeon in an operating room... cuts and cleans and amputates, and the wound bleeds, do we say to him your hands are stained with blood or do we thank him for saving the patient?” Assad asked the nation in his most recent speech, delivered after the massacre in Houla that had provoked outrage across the world. Speculation that he would remove Maher, or that Chawkat, his brother-in-law, would remove him, has been rife, but the family has, until now, remained united. “They are all one man,” says the family friend.

Such is the fear the regime instils that there have been no other precipitous defections among senior officials, confirming to Assad that he can prevail. Minorities, too, have remained on side – particularly the Alawites, mobilised into militias to fight alongside the regime, and terrified into believing that they would be slaughtered by the mostly Sunni provinces that have risen against Assad – and Christians fearful of an Islamist takeover. According to dissidents, Alawite former regime figures were threatened when they backed last year’s initiative of Mohamed Salman, a former information minister, to bring an end to the crackdown and promote a political transition.

Syrians burying their dead in Houla©Corbis

Syrians burying their dead in Houla, May 2012. The massacre, carried out by the army, provoked outrage across the world

Turkish, Qatari and European mediators who headed to Damascus in the early days of the uprising to recommend specific reforms heard the same thing – that Syria was unprepared for protests, had no police or crowd control and was, in any case, on the path of political liberalisation. Assad told one visitor that he should help dispatch a team to train Syrian police in crowd control. In the same meeting, the Syrian leader was also keen to portray himself as the man in control, saying that his brother Maher, blamed by the protestors more directly for the violence, was only in charge of Damascus. After spending 10 months trying to persuade Assad to end his security solution to the uprising, Ahmet Davotoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, concluded that there was “a vicious circle in his [Assad’s] mind”. Assad believed that if he could be given more time he would prevail, and then he could implement reforms.

As the country slides into a civil war, much of the world, including the Arabs who once embraced Assad, is desperately looking for ways of removing him. Large parts of the country have slipped outside of the regime’s control, making it unlikely that even if the president hangs on, he would ever rule over a united Syria. Much of what his father left him is already gone. “Under Hafez, Syria was a player in the region. Now Syria is a playground for neighbours,” says a Lebanese politician.

Worst of all for Assad, among the die-hard supporters of the ferocious campaign against the revolution, it is his brother, with his hand on the trigger, who is being held up as a hero. Opposition activists say a curious slogan has been heard in some Alawite villages of late: “Bashar ilal iyada wa Maher ilal kiyada” – Bashar to the clinic and Maher to the leadership.

Roula Khalaf is the FT’s Middle East editor.

To comment on this article, please email magazineletters@ft.com

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All the president’s family

Hafez Al-Assad

Hafez al-Assad Father. Became president of Syria in 1971 after seizing power in a coup. Ruled until his death in June 2000.

Rifaat Al-Assad

Rifaat al-Assad Uncle. A powerful military figure in Hafez’s regime and the alleged architect of the Hama massacre in 1982. Effectively exiled from Syria in 1984 and now lives in Europe.

Bassel al-Assad

Bassel al-Assad Older brother. Was groomed to take over from Hafez but died in a car accident in 1994.

Anisa al-Assad

Anisa al-Assad Mother. Little known to the nation during Hafez’s rule, but belongs to the Makhlouf family, which has established itself as the financier of the regime.

Maher al-Assad

Maher al-Assad Brother. Commander of the elite military forces and the Republican Guard, with primary responsibility for protecting the Syrian capital, Damascus.

Bushra al-Assad

Bushra al-Assad Sister. The pharmacist is a powerful and ideologically driven member of the family.

Assef Chawkat Brother-in-law. Essential military pillar of the regime. Deputy chief-of-staff of the armed forces and former head of military intelligence.

Rami Makhlouf Maternal cousin. A childhood friend, Syria’s top businessman and symbol of the regime’s corruption.

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