More than a decade before the Arab Spring, there was the Damascus Spring.
In the first months after Bashar al-Assad took over Syria in 2000, a wave of free expression broke out after he sent signals that were interpreted to mean that he planned to relax his father’s autocratic control. Dissidents formed 70 dialogue clubs, met openly and published two critical opinion magazines.
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.
Even as his government denied any role in mass killings of villagers, Assad addressed Syria’s parliament this month, offering a muscular defense of harsh responses to what he views as an existential assault on his country.
“No rational human being likes blood,” he said. “But when a surgeon goes into the operation room, cuts a wound, the wound bleeds, the surgeon cuts and amputates. Do we condemn the surgeon because his hands are bloodstained, or do we praise him for saving a human being’s life?”
When Assad first took office, he looked like a different sort of Arab ruler, backing away from some of the imperial trappings of power. He broke with tradition and took his wife to Damascus restaurants without bodyguards. He even drove himself around.
But Assad soon “began to believe that the future of Syria was entirely wrapped up with his own future,” said Lesch, who met regularly with the Syrian leader over most of the past decade. “Power is an aphrodisiac, and when you are surrounded by sycophants, you begin to believe them.”
He also learned that though he inherited his position from his father, his authority depended on satisfying Syria’s military and security forces, as well as his family’s Alawite clan, Lesch said.
Lesch got a firsthand look at Assad’s reluctance to confront his security forces in 2007, when the scholar was invited to meet with the president. Lesch was held at the Damascus airport and interrogated for three hours by a security officer who kept twirling his gun on his fingers.
When Lesch met with Assad and told him what had happened, the president professed to be appalled, Lesch said, but claimed he could not do anything about the mistreatment. “He needs the security forces for other things,” Lesch said. “He just has rationalized that that’s the way it has to be in Syria.”
Publicly, Assad rejects the idea that the current uprising stems from the frustration of young people who see no future in a country with few jobs and an entrenched cronyism. Assad blames colonialism. He blames foreign forces. He blames “media forgeries.” He blames “internal sedition.”
That’s all propaganda, and Assad doesn’t believe a word of it, argues Abdallah, who was imprisoned from 2005 to 2006 for opposing Assad. Now at the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Washington, Abdallah said Assad is clinging to tactics that worked in his father’s day, but cannot succeed in an era of online video and satellite TV.
Assad said this month that only “a monster” could order the massacres that rebels insist were committed by pro-government militias. Assad, of course, doesn’t see himself as a monster, but as a leader defending his family, his sect and his vision of Syria as a bulwark against radical Islamists, said Eyal Zisser, a scholar of Syrian history at Tel Aviv University in Israel.
“Assad has no options. He sees what happened to the other leaders,” Zisser said. “He is alone. All he has is the military and the Alawites — people ready to fight, not for him, but to save themselves.”
Leaving the country is a possibility Assad has considered and rejected. “He told me he and his family could get out, but the Alawites would be massacred, as well as the other minorities, and he therefore could not just leave,” said Malcolm Hoenlein , executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, who spent more than three hours in one-on-one conversation with Assad during a visit last year.
Assad is not isolated from information. He regularly sends family and staff links to interesting Web sites, according to e-mails a Syrian dissident provided to Britain’s Guardian newspaper.
One e-mail, apparently from Assad to his wife, featured lyrics to a country song by Blake Shelton: “I’ve been a walking heartache / I’ve made a mess of me / The person that I’ve been lately / Ain’t who I wanna be.”
But there is little introspection in the e-mails, many of which detail Asma al-Assad’s shopping ventures, as she arranged for shipment of furniture from London, fondue sets from Amazon.com and the latest Harry Potter DVD from Lebanon. (The Guardian said it verified the e-mails by getting confirmations from those who had been in correspondence with Assad and his wife.)
Political psychologists Jerrold Post and Ruthie Pertsis of George Washington University see Assad as one of a number of world leaders whom they call “second-choice sons who became leaders by default.” Assad, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, India’s Rajiv Gandhi and U.S. President John F. Kennedy each had to come to terms with an unexpected rise to power after the death of a brother who had been groomed for that role.
Assad, who grew up expecting his brother Basil to follow their father, remained a publicly quiet, shy figure until 1994, when Basil was killed in a car crash. That, Post said, explains why Assad often seems “disengaged,” such as when he told ABC’s Barbara Walters in December that he doesn’t control Syria’s military forces.
“This isn’t what he bargained for,” Post said. “His father yanked him out of his medical residency. But he doesn’t want to see the Assad dynasty die on his watch, so he is living this jarring disconnect, as if he can’t stand the reality of what’s going on around him.”
Too many in the West perceived Assad as a potential reformer simply because he had spent 18 months in Britain, Lesch said. But that view neglected other aspects of his character. “He’s told me many times how he admires many aspects of the West,” Lesch said. “But his view of Syria’s position is very much shaped by growing up there under his father. He really believes there is a conspiracy against them, more than we in the West can really understand.”
None of those interviewed who have met with Assad in the past few years believe he will leave Syria voluntarily, unless all is lost.
“He is determined to do everything opposite to what [Hosni] Mubarak did,” Lesch said, “and that means fight to the end.”