Why Bashar el Assad Matters:
Syria's Hafez el Assad, in power since June 10, 2000, is one of the Middle East's most ruthless, autocratic, minority rulers in one of the world's most closed societies. Assad also maintains Syria's pivotal role on the Middle East's strategic map: He is an ally of Iran
's Shiite theocracy, he supports and arms Hamas
in the Gaza Strip, as well as Hezbollah in Lebanon
, thus maintaining a level of enmity toward Israel
that so far has precluded peace: Israel has occupied Syria's Golan Heights
since the 1967 war. Presumed a reformer when he took Power, Bashar el Assad has proved no less repressive than his father.
Bashar el Assad's Early Life:
Bashar el Assad was born on Sept. 11, 1965, in Damascus, the Syrian capital, the second son of Hafez el Assad (1930-2000), who had tyrannically ruled Syria since 1971, and Anisa Makhlouf Bashar. He had three brothers and a sister. He spent years training as an eye doctor, first at a military hospital in Damascus then in London, at St. Mary's Hospital. He was not being groomed for the presidency: his oldest brother Basil was. In January 1994, Basil, who led Syria's presidential guard, died in a car crash in Damascus. Bashar was immediately and unexpectedly thrust into the limelight--and the succession line.
Bashar el Assad's Personality:
Bashar el Assad was not groomed to be a leader. Where his brother Basil was gregarious, outgoing, charismatic, arrogant, Dr. Assad, as he was referred to for a while, was retiring, shy, and appearing to have few of his father's wiles or will to power--or ruthlessness. "Friends admit," The Economist wrote in June 2000, "that he cuts a rather meek and awkward figure, unlikely to inspire the same terror and admiration as his handsome, athletic, outgoing and ruthless brother. 'Basil was the gangster type,' says one Syrian. 'Bashar is much more quiet and thoughtful.'"
Early Years of Power:
Bashar el Assad had been running a private medical practice. But when his brother died, his father summoned him from London, sent him to a military academy north of Damascus, and started preparing him for the reins of power--which he took when Hafez el Assad died on June 10, 2000. Bashar has gradually turned into a younger version of his father. "I have a lot of respect for experience," Bashar el Assad said just as he was taking power, "and I am going to try always to acquire it." He's lived up to that pledge. He suggested that h'd relax Syria's repressive police state, even explore political reforms. He barely did.
Toying With the United States and Israel:
Almost from the beginning of Bashar el Assad reign, there's been a yo-yo effect in his relations with the United States and Israel--implying engagement during one phase only to retreat into intransigence and extremism the next. Whether it's a strategy or a lack of self-confidence might seem unclear until the approach is seen in the context of how Bashar's father maintained power: not by innovating, not by daring, but by keeping the opposition off balance, by undermining expectations rather than living up to them. There's been a see-saw effect on two fronts since 2000, without as yet producing lasting results.
Bashar el Assad's See-Saw: Cooperation With the U.S.:
Shortly after the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Assad proved to be a relatively reliable ally in the fight against al-Qaeda, cooperating with U.S. intelligence and, in more sinister ways, lending his prisons to the Bush administration's rendition program. It was in Assad's prisons that Canadian national Maher Arar was tortured
, at the administration's behest, even after Mahar was found to be innocent of any ties to terrorism. Assad's cooperation, like Muammar el-Qaddafi's
,was not out of appreciation for the west but out of fear that al-Qaeda would undermine his regime.
Bashar el Assad's See-Saw: Talks With Israel:
Assad has similarly see-sawed with Israel over peace talks and the resolution of the Golan Heights occupation. In late 2003, Assad, in an interview with The New York Times, appeared ready to negotiate: "Some people say there are Syrian conditions, and my answer is no; we don't have Syrian conditions. What Syria says is this: negotiations should be resumed from the point at which they had stopped simply because we have achieved a great deal in these negotiations. If we don't say this, it means we want to go back to point zero in the peace process." But similar suggestions were made over subsequent years, to no end.
Syria's Nuclear Reactor:
In September 2007, Israel bombed a remote area of northeast Syria, along the Euphrates River, where, Israel and the United States alleged, North Korea was helping Syria build a plutonium-based nuclear plant that would have been capable of producing nuclear weapons. Syria denied the allegations. Writing in The New Yorker in February 2008, investigative reporter Seymour Hersh said "the evidence was circumstantial but seemingly damning." But Hersh raised serious doubt about the certainty that it was a nuclear reactor, even though he conceded that Syria was cooperating with North Korea on something military.
Bashar el Assad and Reform:
As with his stance toward Israel and the United States, Bashar el Assad's promises of reform have been many, but his retreats from those promises have been just as frequent. There's been a few Syrian "springs" where dissenters and human rights advocates were given a longer leash. But those brief springs never lasted. Assad's promises of local elections have not been followed through, though financial restrictions on the economy were lifted early in his reign and helped the Syrian economy grow faster. In 2007, Assad held a sham referendum extending his presidency seven years.
Bashar el Assad and Arab Revolutions:
As of early 2011, Bashar el Assad was firmly planted on Middle Eastern soil as one of the region's most ruthless tyrants. He brought Syria's 29-year occupation of Lebanon to an end in 2005, but only after the likely Syrian- and Hezbollah-backed assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri triggered the Cedar Revolution on Lebanon's streets and drove the Syrian army out. Syria has since reasserted its power over Lebanon, re-infiltrating the country's intelligence services and, ultimately, reasserting Syrian hegemony when Hezbollah brought the government down
and brokered its re-institution, with Hezbollah at the helm
Assad is not merely a tyrant. Like Bahrain's Al Khalifa ruling family, which is Sunni and ruling, illegitimately, over a majority of Shiites, Assad is an Alawite, a break-away Shiite sect. Barely 6 percent of Syria's population is Alawite. The majority is Sunni, with Kurds, Shiites and Christians forming minorities of their own.
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal in January 2011, Assad said downplayed the risks of revolution in his country: "I am not talking here on behalf of the Tunisians or the Egyptians. I am talking on behalf of the Syrians," he said. "It is something we always adopt. We have more difficult circumstances than most of the Arab countries but in spite of that Syria is stable. Why? Because you have to be very closely linked to the beliefs of the people. This is the core issue. When there is divergence between your policy and the people's beliefs and interests, you will have this vacuum that creates disturbance."
Assad's certainties were soon proven wrong as disturbances erupted in various parts of the country--and Assad assaulted them with his police and military, murdering many protesters, arresting hundreds, and silencing Internet communications that have helped organize protests across the Middle East.
In short, Assad is a flirt, not a statesman, a tease, not a visionary. It's worked so far. It's not likely to work for ever.