In-depth briefing

The ophthalmologist dictator: Syria's Bashar al-Assad

Until his troops fired on protesters, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was considered a moderate. What happened?

How did Assad gain power?
Through old-fashioned dynastic succession. He became president in 2000 after the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad, a tyrant who had ruled Syria for 30 years. The family’s oldest son, Basil, was supposed to follow his father as ruler, while Assad was sent to London to continue his training as an ophthalmologist. But Basil died in a 1994 car accident, and Assad was quickly summoned home from his studies in Great Britain and shunted into a military academy. When the senior Assad died, the parliament quickly lowered the minimum age for candidates from 40 to 34, Bashar al-Assad’s age at the time. He was elected unopposed; the regime claimed he received 97 percent of the vote.

Is he more moderate than his father was?
It would be hard not to be. Hafez was a brutal dictator who occupied neighboring Lebanon for decades and funded Hezbollah extremists. He had thousands of political opponents murdered. And he was responsible for the single deadliest attack by any Arab government on its own people, surpassing Saddam Hussein’s 1988 massacre of Kurds in Halabja: In 1982, he obliterated the Syrian town of Hama to crush a revolt, killing at least 20,000—and possibly as many as 40,000—civilians. The younger Assad has committed no atrocity on that scale. But his government has continued all along to imprison and torture political opponents, and has responded to the recent “Arab Spring’’ protests by killing hundreds. On his watch, Syrian intelligence was accused of assassinating former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005, after which Assad was forced under U.S. pressure to pull Syrian troops out of Lebanon.

Why did we misread him?
It was partly wishful thinking—after all, he didn’t fight his way to the top and wasn’t groomed to be a dictator. Assad speaks fluent English and decent French, and makes a generally mild impression. His glamorous wife, Asma, was born to Syrian parents in Britain; a former investment banker, she’s been profiled in Vogue. And Assad certainly has modernized Syria, turning Damascus from a dreary socialist city into a vibrant Arab capital, with chic shops and trendy Internet cafés. During the decade of his rule, the country has privatized many sluggish state-run industries. Foreign investment has flowed in, and cell phones and satellite TV have become ubiquitous.

How does he keep his grip?
By controlling the military. The Assad family belongs to the Alawite minority, a fringe Shiite Muslim sect, which is one reason why Syria, unlike most Arab countries, is so closely allied with Shiite Iran. Most Syrians, however, are Sunni Muslims. When Assad’s father seized power, in 1970, he placed loyal Alawites in key positions throughout the military, secret police, and government. The Alawite elite now dominates the entire security apparatus. Unlike in Egypt and Tunisia, where the professional military class exerted its independence and refused to crack down on peaceful protesters, in Syria the military can’t really be seen as separate from the regime.

How has Assad justified his crackdown?
He has blamed “armed terrorist groups” for the violence. Foreign-inspired groups, the regime says, have killed civilians as well as members of the security forces. In reality, opposition leaders and human-rights activists say, Assad’s forces have been firing on unarmed protesters. During the two months of pro-democracy demonstrations, Assad’s loyalists have killed more than 900 civilians. But not all of Assad’s forces are joining in. Over the past month, some 200 members of Assad’s Baath Party have defected, including several lawmakers. Assad has intensified his promises for reform, but his troops’ assault on demonstrators continues.

Why has so little been done to stop him?
Lack of leverage and fear of consequences. President Obama recently demanded that Assad either “get out of the way” or lead a transition to greater freedom. But the sanctions he leveled against the Syrian regime aren’t much of a spur for a country that gets no U.S. aid. And some U.S allies “are not at all sure that Syria without Assad would be better than with him,” former U.S. Mideast negotiator Aaron David Miller wrote recently in Foreign Policy. Turkey, which shares a long border and a restive Kurdish minority with Syria, is leery of instability there. So is Israel, which got a glimpse of chaos last month when Assad allowed Palestinians in Syria to storm Israeli border defenses at the Golan Heights. The government in Jerusalem wants “to work with a devil that they know,” says Moshe Ma’oz of Hebrew University. “And this Bashar, they know him.”

Why Syria’s Christians prefer Assad
One group not wholeheartedly embracing the anti-Assad protests is Syrian Christians, who make up at least 10 percent of the population. Under the Assads, Christians have been allowed religious freedom, and they have prospered to the point that they now make up much of the professional middle class. “Our feeling is, if the regime falls, the Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood will seize power—and that is bad news for us,” said Archbishop Mor Cyril Aphrem Karim of the Syriac Orthodox Church. “History has proven to us that Christians have always had more secure lives, better treatment by people who may be looked on as dictators, like Saddam Hussein.” After Saddam fell, Iraqi Christians were targeted by extremist groups, and fully half the Christian population fled, many to Syria. “Syria has been a beacon of freedom and security for Christians in a largely hostile Arab world,” said Patrick Sookhdeo of the international Christian group Barnabas Fund. “If they are now forced to leave the country, where will they go?”


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