Being Bashar Assad
The transformation of a quiet Syrian doctor into a brutal Middle Eastern despot
By Neill Lochery
The Wall Street Journal
July 21, 2011
Sometimes life doesn't work out quite as expected. Today Bashar Assad is known as the Syrian dictator whose gruesome crackdown against protesters has killed hundreds of civilians since March. But during his time in London in the early 1990s, it would have been hard to guess what lay in store for the young trainee doctor. Then, Mr. Assad's reputation was as a rather shy, scholarly and cultured man, who was not without charm.
At the time, Mr. Assad seemed destined to spend his life in the wards of leading eye hospitals, far away from politics. His father, Syrian President Hafez Assad, had chosen his eldest son Bassel to succeed him in the presidency. But when in 1994 his chosen heir died in a car wreck, the rest of Bashar Assad's life, as they say, was history. Bashar was recalled to Damascus and hastily prepared for high office by his ailing father.
When Bashar Assad assumed power upon his father's death in 2000, he called for both economic and political reform. In European diplomatic circles, the consensus was that this political outsider might just be the man to lead Syria away from the Baathist dogma that characterized his father's rule. The American assessment was more sober, but nonetheless the Bush administration, then in its infancy, appeared willing to go with the European flow.
Central to Assad's program of reform was the liberalization of the Syrian economy. The cartels that his father's supporters had employed to control key sectors of the economy were broken up and replaced by more competitive structures. Damascus promised to start respecting human rights and to allow some form of opposition to the ruling party. Mr. Assad's government loosened its ties with Iran and began looking to America for commercial and political links.
A resolution to the Israeli-Syrian conflict might have been a catalyst for these reforms. Making peace with Israel would have heralded an end to the broader Arab-Israeli conflict, and by achieving it Mr. Assad might have transformed the Middle East's political and economic maps. But he soon realized that he was not strong enough to make peace with Israel and survive politically.
For decades his father's regime had justified its high defense spending, and conversely low spending on areas such as health care, by pointing to the conflict with Israel. In truth Damascus spent so much on its defense for internal reasons: to buy the loyalty of its armed forces and to keep the regime in power. Eliminating Israel as an external threat would have eliminated the justification of excessive defense spending.
So Mr. Assad, like his father, wanted any peace deal with Israel to come with some kind of external arms package or other economic aid, that would let him continue to feed the military and keep his regime in power. The Americans refused, and Mr. Assad's interest in peacemaking largely ended there. He then began to look eastward, and found that Vladimir Putin's Russia was all too happy to sell Syria huge amounts of weapons at cut-price rates in exchange for political influence in the country.
As things started to go wrong economically and politically at home, Mr. Assad turned up his rhetoric against Israel and moved to deepen his government's ties with Iran and with Hezbollah. He suddenly discovered an interest in the plight of the Palestinians and started to link any peace deal with Israel to a successful resolution of the Palestinian conflict. Meanwhile, he flirted with developing a nuclear program to counter Israel's might, only to have Israel bomb the reactor.
All this prompts the question of what turned the quiet doctor into another Middle Eastern despot. The first explanation is that the internal opposition in Syria, which Mr. Assad encountered, proved to be much more robust than he expected. Central to this theory are the internal power struggles within the Assad family to control key parts of the Syrian armed forces. Mr. Assad's economic reforms were said to be vetoed by the very allies within his family who had promised him their support.
But that fails to explain the apparent change in Mr. Assad's outlook. The old adage that power corrupts may be relevant here, but does not fully explain the extent of his transformation.
Perhaps he simply doesn't understand what he is doing. He is today clinging to power, increasingly isolated from even his own supporters, for the sole reason that he feels there is no alternative. The recent meeting between Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa and some moderate opposition figures proved unproductive, but it did reveal how detached Mr. Assad seems to be from current realities in Syria and in the wider Arab world.
As the violence in Syria worsens, one wonders how many times Mr. Assad has cursed his older brother and the late-night high-speed drive in the fog that led to his fatal collision near Damascus airport. If his brother had lived, Bashar Assad would no doubt today be enjoying a much more placid summer season of international medical conferences.
Instead, Mr. Assad finds himself hopelessly out of his depth and trusting nobody—not even his own family. Such is his pariah status that he will, in all likelihood, spend the rest of his life trying to evade either Syrian or international justice for his brutal repression of the Syrian opposition. Today's tragedy in Syria is of Shakespearian proportions, both for the shy doctor and, more importantly, for the Syrian people.
Mr. Lochery is the director of the Centre for Israeli Studies at University College London. He is the author of the forthcoming "Lisbon: War in the Shadows of the City of Light, 1939-1945" (Public Affairs, 2011).
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