Then, as suddenly as the new era had begun, Assad’s forces cracked down. Those who spoke out were arrested, and economic reforms stalled.
“We saw that the Spring was only a way to have the people accept the transfer of power from the father to the son,” said Mohammad al-Abdallah, a Syrian activist who took part in the dialogue, only to find himself and his father and brother arrested months later. “It was clear Assad was no reformer.”
Today, as Assad’s government responds with unrelenting force to a popular uprising of the sort that has brought down regimes across the Middle East over the past 18 months, Syria’s ruler has embraced his image as a global pariah. He will not flee and will not bend to foreign pressure, he has said publicly and privately.
In Assad’s mind, his presence and control are the only protection from mass killings for his Alawite clan — a Shiite sect that makes up about 12 percent of Syria’s population.
“He has no illusions about how he is perceived around the world,” said the Rev. Patrick Henry Reardon, pastor of All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago, who met with Assad for 90 minutes in December. “But he sees it as an almost metaphysical necessity that he must hold his country together and, to do so, he’s got to knock a few heads.”
When Assad took over Syria after the death of his father, longtime autocrat Hafez al-Assad, the new president was widely perceived as a reformer, someone who might apply Western ideas of modernity and openness to ruling an Arab state. After all, he had lived in London, married a British-born woman and become an advocate of new media technologies. He was a big fan of Phil Collins, ELO and the Beatles.
Unlike his tougher older brother Basil, who died in a car crash in 1994, Bashar al-Assad had not been trained to rule; he was a physician, a scientist, secular and worldly in style and rhetoric.
In his inaugural address, Assad issued what sounded to many like a call for change: “We should face ourselves and our society bravely, and conduct a brave dialogue . . . in which we reveal our points of weakness.”
But the government’s reaction to the Damascus Spring proved to be a more accurate indicator of how Assad would rule. Despite his rhetoric about shaping a more modern and democratic society, Assad adopted a narrative in which Syria was ever under assault by a conspiracy of radical Islamists, the United States and Israel. The more he has been pressed over the past 15 months from within and outside Syria, the harder he has pushed back.
“In his mind, if Syria becomes the North Korea of the Middle East for 10 years, so be it,” said David Lesch, a historian at Trinity University in San Antonio and author of a book about Assad.