We imagine brutal dictators as sadistic men dressed in military gear, hunkered down in their bunkers and plotting murderous strategies.

In the Middle East, the cruellest strongmen, the likes of Saddam Hussein and Muammer Gaddafi, fed this image into our imagination, projecting fear through their every word and action. They were unstable and psychopathic; their families were dysfunctional and their children misbehaved.

Then came Bashar al-Assad, the modern dictator. He is, like other tyrants, detached from reality, oblivious to the suffering of Syrians in their year-long revolution. But he is also a jeans-clad young computer nerd who lives a seemingly normal life with his glamorous British-born ex-banker wife.

According to the emails published by the UK’s Guardian, which purportedly belong to the couple, the 46-year-old Mr Assad’s forces could be shelling civilian areas while he is ordering his favourite music on iTunes or sharing songs with his wife. If these emails are genuine, it seems he cares little about the reforms he has announced, referring to the “rubbish laws of parties, elections, media”.

Asma al-Assad, whom many Syrians assumed to be alienated from the regime, seems perfectly at ease in her role as the dictator’s wife, shopping for expensive jewellery and ordering furniture and candlesticks from a Paris boutique. According to the leaked emails, she asks a friend to get hold of a Harry Potter book, as if nothing could be out of the ordinary in the Assad household.

The personality of Mr Assad has long perplexed Syrians and outsiders. For years after he inherited power from his father Hafez in 2000, the London trained eye-doctor was thought likely to evolve into an open-minded, reformist leader. Many of his foreign interlocutors were convinced that he was being held back by hardliners in the regime.

Months after the uprising against him erupted in March last year, many Syrians still entertained the hope of a miracle transformation in Mr Assad. Perhaps the revolution was his opportunity to push aside the nasty men in his regime, including his brother Maher, a top military chief, they figured. They were dismayed to see the president defending the brutality of his security forces and insisting that they were fighting terrorists.

Experts who have studied the trove of Assad emails say the Syrian leader is not a conventional dictator. James Fallon, an American neuroscientist who has written on the mind of dictators, says Mr Assad shares some of the characteristics of other tyrants – lack of empathy and need for flattery (he surrounds himself with young female aides who seem to be in awe of him). But he finds him “an incomplete dictator” who appears to lack a personal sadistic streak. “He comes across as a pathetic adolescent little tyrant. a weak leader … a sorry character,” says Prof Fallon.

Jerrold Post, a professor of political psychiatry at The George Washington University, says despite Mr Assad’s apparent lack of connection with the crisis in Syria, he seems to be “more put together” than someone such as Gaddafi. This can be explained, he says, by Mr Assad’s background: not a born leader, he was also not destined for the presidency, reaching it only because his brother Basil, the presumed heir, died in a car accident.

“He grew up at his father’s knee and swallowed the rule,” says Prof Post. “He dutifully followed his father’s bidding but this was not part of his psychological calculations, he wasn’t schooled in the intricacies of managing a totalitarian state.”

Mr Assad might fit into the “banality of evil” concept of German political philosopher Hannah Arendt – that ordinary people can commit crimes because they see it as the normal way of operating and cannot judge the consequences of their actions. Indeed, one government loyalist says no one should be surprised by the behaviour of the Assad regime. “It’s the only way the regime knows how to act, it’s just the way things are done.”

Though he might not look the part, Mr Assad has proved to be a faithful student of his father’s ruthless strategies. What has made him potentially more menacing, however, is that he lacks Hafez Assad’s character strength, his experience and self-confidence.

Back in 1982, Assad bombed the city of Hama to put down a rebellion by the Muslim Brotherhood, killing as many as 20,000 people. The tragedy of Hama is now happening in slow motion across Syria. Except that today, while the activists send the world images of the suffering and the destruction, the young Assad apparently surfs the net for amusement.

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