Yet in all those years, the younger Assad has implemented not one measure that would relax the ruling Baath Party’s 48-year-long hold on power, lift the draconian laws that enable the security forces to operate with impunity or ease restrictions on free speech.
Now, with the Syrian security forces escalating a brutal and bloody effort to suppress an almost nationwide uprising, it may be too late for Assad to salvage what little remains of his reputation as the thwarted reformist waiting only for a chance to liberalize his country.
On Sunday, the army sent tanks into the southern town of Tafas, according to Wissam Tarif of the human rights group Insan. In Homs, he said, 14 people were killed by sharpshooters. But with communications to many parts of the country severed, it was impossible to draw a clear picture of conditions inside the half-dozen or so towns surrounded by the military, Tarif said.
Assad’s “reaction to the demonstrations has been the reaction of a dictator,” said Radwan Ziadeh, a Syrian human rights activist who is a visiting scholar at George Washington University’s Institute for Middle East Studies. “Even if he dramatically changed his mind and announced reforms now, I don’t think anyone would believe him.”
Cultivating his image
Assad has assiduously cultivated the reformist image since he ascended to power in 2000 at age 34, promising a new and more open Syria. With his youth, his British training as an eye doctor and his elegant British-born wife, Asma, he presented a starkly different figure compared with his somewhat thuggish father, Hafez, a military officer, and the region’s other aging autocrats.
It’s an image that many in the international community have cited in justifying their hesitancy to call directly for Assad’s ouster or to include him in sanctions, despite more than seven weeks of bloodshed in which human rights groups say more than 700 people have been killed.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called Assad “a reformer” during the early days of the demonstrations, though she later said she was referring to the opinions of others. Even after Syrian tanks rolled into the town of Daraa in a clear signal of the regime’s intent to crush the uprising by force, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Assad should be given a chance.
“You can imagine him as a reformer,” he told the BBC. “One of the difficulties in Syria is that President Assad’s power depends on a wider group of people, in his family and in other members of his government, and I am not sure how free he is to pursue a reform agenda.”