Incredibly, the Syrian uprising has now entered its 10th month. More than 5,000 people have been killed, according to the United Nations, with thousands more imprisoned and tortured or driven from the country. Many Syrian activists fear the toll may be far higher. A newly released Human Rights Watch report details that army units have been given "shoot to kill" orders in dealing with unarmed protesters. In the last two days alone, at least 150 people have been killed, a worrying sign that the violence is accelerating.
Yet, in a remarkable interview this month with ABC's Barbara Walters, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad 1) denied the extent of violence in his beleaguered country; 2) disputed the evidence in a U.N. report charging him and his government with crimes against humanity, asking, "Who said that the United Nations is a credible institution?"; 3) claimed that the forces charged with cracking down too hard on protesters did not belong to him, but instead to the government; and 4) indicated that the Syrian people supported him -- otherwise he would not be in his position.
Does this suggest that Bashar is out of touch with political reality? Or -- as he has watched with dismay the fate of his fellow Arab dictators in Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen, who yielded too quickly to protests; and the violent end of Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya, who fought until the bitter end -- has he resolved to follow neither path? To understand Assad's political behavior from a psychological perspective and try to anticipate how he will behave, we must understand him in the context of the Assad family's dominance of the Syrian political scene. Bashar's father, Hafez al-Assad, ruled Syria with an iron fist for three decades, including enforcing draconian emergency laws in 1963 that helped him eliminate political opponents and pave the way for the family to secure long-term political control, despite being part of the minority Alawite sect. Emblematic of his brutal rule was the crushing of the uprising in the city of Hama in 1982, in which tens of thousands of Syrians were killed.
Hafez had originally designated his eldest and favorite son, Bassel, as his successor, and Bassel, the chief of presidential security, was perfect for the job. He was forceful, macho, an aficionado of fast cars who was popular with women. He stood in stark contrast to Bashar, Hafez's second son, who grew up in Bassel's shadow, weak and in his own world, calm with a soft voice. Bashar went on to become a doctor, specializing in ophthalmology. In fact, it was Hafez's childhood dream to become a doctor, but his family did not have the financial resources to support him, so he entered the military and then politics instead. Thus, it can be argued that Bashar, in becoming a doctor, was fulfilling his father's thwarted dreams.
So it was not surprising that when duty called, six years after Bassel was killed in a car accident in 1994, the dutiful son would abandon his medical career to be at his father's side. He was summoned back from London, where he was in postdoctoral training in ophthalmology. It was not taken for granted that Bashar, who seemed to lack the forceful character necessary to succeed his father, would replace him. Indeed, some family members looked to Bashar's younger brother, Maher, who more closely resembled his father and eldest brother in his aggressive personality. In the end, though, Hafez chose Bashar as his successor, giving him the role of the dignified leader, and named Maher as the head of the Republican Guard, the enforcer. (This would not have been a new arrangement for the Assad family, for Hafez himself had an aggressive younger brother, Rifaat, who was the head of the security forces and personally oversaw the Hama massacre.)
Initially, Syrians and Syria-watchers hoped that Bashar would be an open-minded, liberal, and reforming leader. But these hopes rested on a fragile foundation. The thrust of the argument was based on Bashar's supposed "Westernization" during his time living and studying ophthalmology in London. Contributing to the Westernized image was his elegant British-born wife, Asma, whose parents had emigrated from Syria to Britain, and who worked as an investment banker with J.P. Morgan.
The Westernized facade proved to be all too thin, however. Bashar was 27 when he lived in London, a fully formed adult, and had spent his life absorbing his father's political ideas and observing his leadership style, in particular how to deal with conflict. What's more, Bashar only spent about 18 months in London and was almost certainly significantly insulated by personal security forces during that time, so his actual exposure to "Western" ways of life was likely quite limited. And, of course, mere exposure to Western culture, even if it is direct, is by no means a guarantee that an individual will adopt and internalize its values and ideals.
In any event, the stormy waves of political reality were to overcome whatever hopes he might initially have had to bring Syria into the modern world. As the pressure for political reform grew, Bashar found his minority Alawite leadership increasingly threatened, and his inner circle pressed him to put a lid on the restive Sunni-majority population, as his father would have done. As the second-choice son, and not the obvious choice at that, Bashar had to prove himself a worthy occupant of his father's throne. Unlike his father, the lion of Damascus, whose powerful authority was unquestioned, Bashar was acutely aware of the concerns of the inner circle about whether he could successfully lead Syria.
In a revealing moment during the Barbara Walters interview, when asked whether he thought that his forces cracked down too hard on protesters, Bashar replied: "They are not my forces; they are military forces belong[ing] to the government.… I don't own them. I am president. I don't own the country." In fact, he may have been speaking the truth, reflecting that he does not have the full authority his father had and was not the author of the extent of the violent crackdown. Rather, it seems to be the handiwork of his aggressive younger brother, Maher, who was initially the lightning rod for criticism of the regime's brutality and who, according to a former Syrian diplomat, because of his control of Syria's security forces, is "first in command, not second."
Bashar's comment that he doesn't own the country is reminiscent of Qaddafi's denial that he had any position of authority in Libya at the beginning of the unrest there. Likewise reminiscent of Qaddafi, who repeatedly claimed, "My people, they all love me," when asked whether he thought that he had the support of the Syrian people, Bashar responded that he wouldn't be in the position of president if he didn't. But, in an apparent reference to the late Libyan leader, Bashar disavowed killing his own people: "We don't kill our people; nobody kill[s]. No government in the world kill[s] its people, unless it's led by crazy [a] person." Never mind that the claim is demonstrably false -- his calm demeanor during the interview underscored this distinction between him and the emotionally unstable Qaddafi.
Perhaps a better comparison for Bashar is to Qaddafi's own designated successor, his son Saif al-Islam, who was also seen as a potential force of modernization for his country. Saif was famously exposed to the Western world during his graduate training in political philosophy at the London School of Economics, and it is believed that he took the lead in ending Libya's economic isolation. But fatefully for Saif, raised by his father's side, as the protests mounted, he fully supported his father and helped carry out the violent suppression of the protest movement to the degree that the International Criminal Court indicted him along with the elder Qaddafi. As his father had vowed to "fight to the last drop of my blood," Saif, giving up any pretense of reformer, vowed that he would "fight to the last bullet."
Like Saif, and for all his veneer of Westernization, Bashar never learned from a powerful father how to respond to protest without resorting to violence, and totalistic violence at that. After all, the Hama massacre kept Hafez al-Assad in power for nearly two more decades. It seems likely that Bashar, like Saif, will persist with the present destructive course charted by his father until the end, for in the end "blood will out."