Syrian president Bashar al-Assad never seemed cut out to be a dictator. As a young man, Assad—the second son of strongman president Hafez al-Assad—was so painfully shy that in conversation, “he wouldn’t look in your eye…he covered his mouth with his hands when he talked, and spoke in a low voice,” says Ayman Abdel Nour, a university friend. Indeed, Assad generally avoided gatherings of more than handful of people, and would hunch over to make his tall frame less conspicuous. “He was a totally regular citizen; you wouldn’t guess he was the son of the president unless you knew him personally,” Abdel Nour remembers.
While Bashar’s flashy older brother Bassel quickly rose through the ranks of the military, Bashar chose to study ophthalmology and took a softer posting as an army doctor. “The doctors aren’t considered real army,” Abdel Nour says. “They’re not real fighters—there’s no army in the world where the major general is a doctor.”
But Assad’s relatively quiet life changed dramatically when Bassel died in a car accident in 1993. Studying in London at the time of the crash, Assad was called back to Syria where his father dubbed him the new “hope” of the Syrian people. Seven years later, after his father’s death, he took over as president. In 2013, the urbane, used chemical weapons (paywall) on his own people again.
“There’s an irreconcilable Dr Jekyll-Mr Hyde tension in the person of Assad,” says Nadim Houry, who directs Human Rights Watch’s terrorism program and spent 11 years monitoring Assad’s regime. “There’s this clean-cut guy who gets interviewed by outlets, always has an Apple laptop on his desk and speaks very calmly. He’s very far from the image of an Arab dictator like Saddam or Gadaffi with their rifles in the air. Yet when you look at the behavior of the regime, it behaves very much like a typical, brutal Arab dictatorship—massive torture, massive killing of civilians, indiscriminate and deliberate bombing.”
The world has reacted with horror to Assad’s brutality, but while his cruelty is nothing new in the region, his transformation is more perplexing. What could possibly have so changed this soft-spoken man, who promised to reform his late father’s heavy-handed dictatorship, into a tyrant so desperate to hold on to power that he would eventually gas his own people to do so?
Ask 10 different Syrian experts and you’ll get 10 different answers. No one really knows if Assad ever genuinely cared about the reformist ideas he initially championed, but there was at least some early inclination towards economic liberalism. What we do know is that these desires were repeatedly trampled by two factors: the entrenched authoritarianism of the forces around him, and the instincts that shaped him.
“He’s a child of the Cold War on the side of the USSR; of the Arab-Israeli conflict on the side of the Arab states; and, most of all, he’s the child of his father,” says David Lesch, a history professor at Trinity University in Texas, and the author of two books on Assad’s Syria. “These are the influences that shaped his worldview, rather than being a computer nerd and liking Western music.”
The “Damascus Spring” and high early expectations
After 29 years of Hafez al-Assad, a ruthless air force commander who came to power in a coup, Bashar’s sleek suits and British investment-banker wife seemed like a breath of fresh air. His inaugural speech in July 2000 called for “democracy,” “transparency,” and “constructive criticism”—it even contained implicit criticisms of his father. “The speech created a great deal of hope,” says Lesch.
The inauguration was followed by a period of relative openness, known as the “Damascus Spring.” Some opposition parties were allowed, the press got a little bit freer, and hundreds of political prisoners were released. Liberal intellectuals founded discussion salons across the Syrian capital and put together political pamphlets and petitions for reform.
But this openness didn’t last long. “Of course, it didn’t take more than a few weeks before people were demanding regime change because the regime was so corrupt,” says Joshua Landis, director of the University of Oklahoma’s Middle East Studies Center and author of the Syria Comment blog. “It stunk. The whole thing stunk—so, any kind of critique had to lead to regime change.” Within months, Assad was warning (pdf, p. 5) that civil society groups criticizing the government were, consciously or unconsciously, helping “the country’s enemies” and, ominously, would be “dealt with.” A few months later, 10 opposition leaders were imprisoned.
Even now, there’s little agreement among analysts on whether Assad actually wanted the “Damascus Spring” to last. Dovish voices like Lesch believe his mildly progressive ambitions were thwarted by hardliners from his father’s government. Many others believe the early rhetoric was merely a front to attract international investment to Syria’s backward economy. “It was a PR campaign to normalize the government,” says Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Radwan Ziadeh, a human-rights activist and fellow at the Arab Institute in Washington, DC, agrees. “The Damascus spring was only a cosmetic step to try to get legitimacy,” he says. “Assad actually got this because lot of international leaders praised him early on.”
Ziadeh has good reason to be skeptical of Assad’s motives—he was one of the opposition intellectuals Assad targeted in 2001. Never persuaded by Assad’s promises of reform, Ziadeh criticized him in articles published under a pseudonym in Lebanese newspapers. When the crackdown started, the government took his passport away, censored his writing, and had him followed by the security services for almost a year, he says. He eventually fled to the US in 2007 under the pretext of buying medicine for his father, who had cancer, and has never returned to Syria.
The family ties that bind
Even if political reforms were a veneer, Assad did seem committed to economic liberalization. His father had shored up power through what Landis calls an “authoritarian bargain.” In this Soviet-style model, the regime provides the means for basic sustenance for the rural working class, who in exchange give their political allegiance to it. However, during the 29 years of Hafez’s reign, the country’s population had more than doubled, and as the world globalized, the country badly needed to open its economy up to allow non-oil sectors to develop.
Despite resistance from old hands in the security services who worried that any openness would lead to opposition, Bashar did bring about some economic reforms. Banks were privatized, the internet was introduced, and foreign investment was made easier. However, his motivation for such changes was hardly altruistic, argues Abdel Nour, Assad’s university friend, who worked as a voluntary government adviser in the early 2000s. In reality, he says, changing the economy to help ordinary Syrians was far from the top of Assad’s priorities; what was most important was enriching his friends and, especially, his family.
Abdel Nour says this ulterior motive finally dawned on him in 2003, when Syria’s parliament passed a reform bill he had worked on. Assad’s uncle persuaded him not to sign the bill until it had been changed to include six or seven clauses that would directly benefit his cousin’s businesses.
That was the last time Abdel Nour spoke to his old university friend. “I realized then that I’m not working for a country, I’m working for a family business,” he says. “I discovered that all this about reforms was wrong; it was bullshit and propaganda. So I decided to inform the Syrian people about what has happening so they would push for reforms themselves.” Abdel Nour stopped advising Assad, and set up the opposition news website All4Syria, which he now runs from Los Angeles.
In keeping with another common dictatorial trope, Assad’s cronyism eventually backfired, Landis says, as it undermined the “authoritarian bargain” that kept his father in power. “The class gap suddenly just widened,” he says. “That created tremendous resentment because the elite would get wealthy beyond belief.” This division would set the stage for Syria’s 2011 revolution—an event that would also solidify Assad’s transformation into a cold-blooded mass murderer.
Assad would also learn that even limited change can embolden the opposition. For example, by insisting on bringing the internet to Syria, he made surveillance impossible at the levels his father had maintained. The security services had managed easily when snooping meant tapping phone lines and reading mail— but they just weren’t capable of covering the giant spiderweb of the internet. The web also gave people access to information and enabled debate. Both factors helped spark the 2011 uprising.
The Iraq war and the power of paranoia
Assad’s shift away from reform dovetailed with a change in his personality, as he withdrew into a bubble of authoritarian power. Lesch notes this behavior has been a hallmark of Syrian leaders for decades. “The Syrian leadership since the 1950s has been a very paranoid leadership because of constant coups and counter-coups. There have been enough imperialist shenanigans to make them believe that any opposition is a conspiracy,” he says.
Lesch says he first glimpsed this alternative reality when talking to Assad shortly after his re-election in 2007. The only candidate in what was technically a referendum on his presidency, Assad waltzed to victory with 97.6% of the vote. Lesch had spent hours and hours interviewing the president while writing a book about him in 2004 and 2005, and says he got to know a “self- deprecating, unpretentious, humble guy.”
But when Lesch asked him his thoughts on the sham vote that had brought him back to power, he was taken aback by the reply. “I really thought he’d say, ‘You know, it’s not a real election,'” Lesch said. “But he sat back and said, ‘The people love me; this shows they really love me.’ I remember thinking to myself at that moment that he had drunk the Kool-Aid of power and that he would be president for life.”
Assad’s paranoia, too, began to noticeably increase. ”He became a psychopath, believing that if you are not with me, you are against me, and you should be killed,” says Abdel Nour. Assad’s fears were only heightened by the Iraq war and US president George W. Bush’s rhetoric of “democracy promotion” and “regime change.” Dictators throughout the region saw their fears of external enemies validated.
Assad’s tough talk regarding the Anglo-American invasion further soured his relations with the US, which had been fraught ever since Bush widened the “axis of evil” in 2002 to include Syria, Cuba, and Libya. Then came a more direct attack: In December 2003, Bush placed sanctions on Syria over its decades-long occupation of Lebanon and backing of terrorist groups.
Assad initially refused to withdraw his troops from Lebanon. But after being accused of ordering the murder of Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, he bowed to the international pressure and pulled out. The capitulation stung and ”fed the feeling that [Assad] is insecure, and that he can’t handle these regional or international crises,” says Ziadeh.
An insecure dictator playing with fire
By the time journalist Reese Erlich interviewed Assad in 2006, he found an insecure dictator, obsessed with the conceit that his people loved him and reforms were not needed. The forces that would shape the 2011 civil war were becoming clearer. And yet, Assad refused to address prominent issues like the possibility of free elections or opposition parties, whether Syria should grant citizenship to its hundreds of thousands of ethnic Kurds, or how to deal with the country’s rampant inequality.
“He basically brushed off all these things as either unimportant or plots from the West,” says Erlich, whose book Inside Syria documents the dynamics that led to the civil war.
Paranoia marked those interviews too. Assad became jittery at the sight of Erlich’s radio microphone, which ever so slightly resembles a gun. “The security people had checked it so they knew it wasn’t a weapon,” Erlich said. “But he got all nervous… I would point the microphone at my own mouth when I spoke and then when I turned the mic to him he would suddenly jump.”
In public, however, Assad was defiant. In 2010, despite his promises to help constrain the Lebanon-based militant Islamist party Hezbollah, the US received clear intelligence that Assad’s government had given it Scud missiles. When John Kerry, later US secretary of State but then a senior senator, confronted Assad with this discovery, the Syrian president was unflustered, Tabler says: “At first, Assad denied that they are Scud missiles, and then he said, ‘No, no, these are [fake] Israeli films.'”
For Tabler, this episode highlights Assad’s duplicity, his nefarious priorities, and his relationships with nations like Iran and Russia. Iran’s support and strategic backing of Hezbollah enabled Assad to openly lie to Kerry, just as Russia’s political and military assistance continues to give him cover to use chemical weapons.
The other effect of the Iraq war was increasing sectarianism and the spread of radical Islamism across the region. According to Tabler, Assad contributed to this increase by “allowing jihadists into the country through Damascus airport to go and fight US forces in Iraq.”
But like his economic policies, this decision, too, would eventually hurt him. By the end of the Iraq war, large groups of the disenfranchised, radical Sunnis he had let in were based in the east of the country—Syria’s poorest region. They would eventually become recruits for ISIL. Meanwhile, Assad’s power relied in part on the support of Christians and other minorities, along with Sunni urban elites. As a member of the minority Alawite sect in a country with a heavy Sunni majority, Assad’s meddling was playing with fire.
From father of the people to executioner
The 2011 revolution crystallized Assad’s psychological and political decline. When protesters took to the streets—at first calling not for regime change, but for political reforms—his reaction was a telling one.
Assad “demonize[d] his opponents as Saudi terrorists who are bringing Islamic fascism to Syria,” Landis said. His narrative was that these were not Syrians, but foreign forces seeking to undermine one of the last bastions of pan-Arab secularism. “He began to see this as an existential struggle and that these people who were fighting against him were foreign terrorists—and he believed his own rhetoric,” Landis said. “The West looks at this like he’s killing his own countrymen and unfortunately he doesn’t see it this way.”
Once you’ve persuaded yourself of this falsehood, Lesch says, fighting an existential threat can justify terrible means. Assad’s forces “don’t have the resources to go town to town to retake them from the opposition,” Lesch says, “so they need to use the asymmetric methods [like chemical weapons] to brutalize them.”
Another view, from dissidents like Ziadeh and Abdel Nour, is that Assad didn’t justify his slaughter by “othering” the rebels. Instead, he was invoking something akin to medieval Western monarchs’ belief in the “divine right of kings.” ”Like his father, he always believed that he had the right to do whatever he wants to his own people; to kill them, torture them, disappear them: ‘They are my own people and that’s the sovereignty that I have,'” explains Ziadeh. Assad, he says, sees himself as a father punishing his errant sons. “The father is allowed to do whatever when the sons make mistakes. He doesn’t understand that this is a social contract between the Syrians and elected officials.”
Abdel Nour agrees: “His brain doesn’t keep him up at night telling him not to do these terrible things because he thinks he’s the representative of God; that people who are against him are sinning against God,” he said.
The question of what turns a man into a monster is never an easy one. For Assad, it’s possible the seeds of brutality were planted very early on, lying dormant but ready to emerge when the time was right. Or perhaps he simply succumbed to a system that for decades had existed with the principle goal of keeping hold of power. Certainly, after 2011 there would be no turning back.
As Houry points out, a leader’s true colors come out when their regime is under threat. “Gaddafi did not start out as a crazy man, he ended up that way,” he says. “The real test comes when your authority is really challenged, and Assad’s authority was never challenged before 2011.” When the challenge came, Assad met it, in the eyes of hawks like Tabler, by being ”more brutal on his own people than Saddam or Gadaffi ever did.”