• World

The Cult of Bashar Assad

11 minute read
Aryn Baker; Jay Newton-Small

To understand the man President Obama is seeking congressional approval–and international support–to punish for hideous crimes against his own people, you have to go back to June 26, 1980, and the pivotal moment of Bashar Assad’s youth. He was just 14 when the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood tried to kill his father Hafez, then the country’s President. As the elder Assad waited to greet a foreign delegation at a government palace for guests in Damascus, would-be assassins lobbed hand grenades and sprayed machine-gun fire at the President. He survived, reportedly kicking away a grenade. The Brotherhood did not.

What happened that day and over the next two years greatly influenced the teenager who would eventually, unexpectedly, take his father’s place. The regime struck back at the Brotherhood with lethal force and a massive campaign of intimidation, torture, disappearances and extrajudicial killings. In 1982, Hafez, a member of the minority Alawite Muslim faith, made his final push to rid Syria of the Brotherhood, whose members came from the country’s Sunni majority. In a brutal attack on their enclave in Hama, an ancient city 135 miles (215 km) north of Damascus, the military obliterated mosques and caravanserai that dated to the dawn of Islam. Whole neighborhoods were bulldozed flat. Anywhere from 10,000 to 30,000 people were killed in the assault. The entire Brotherhood leadership was liquidated; so too were their families. In a report on the massacre, the human-rights group Amnesty International noted that government soldiers allegedly pumped lethal cyanide gas through hoses into houses where suspected insurgents lived, killing everyone inside.

To outsiders, the destruction of Hama was a horrific crime against humanity, one involving the use of poisonous gas to kill civilians, an act outlawed internationally since World War I. But the young Bashar, according to several people who know him well, saw Hafez’s actions in a very different light. If a unified Syria and the Alawite-dominated regime were both to survive, he learned from his father, dissent could not be tolerated. Any sign of rebellion was an existential threat that must be quashed with overwhelming force–and international law be damned.

Three decades later, Bashar, who turns 48 on Sept. 11, is fighting a civil war very much in the manner of Hafez. His military is destroying Syrian cities held by antiregime rebels–who are again overwhelmingly Sunni–and his forces are slaughtering armed opponents and civilians alike. The death toll from Bashar’s campaign, more than 100,000 in over 2½ years, has long since eclipsed the casualties from Hafez’s pogroms against the Brotherhood. And Bashar may have exceeded his father in his use of weapons of mass destruction: on Aug. 21, according to the Obama Administration and several other governments, including those of Britain, France and Turkey, Assad’s military launched a chemical-weapons attack against several rebel-controlled neighborhoods in the Damascus suburbs, killing anywhere from 350 to more than 1,400 people. (The regime denies it used chemical weapons, saying the opposition, in a bid to tarnish the government, is responsible.)

But while Hafez received only lingering international scorn for his assault on Hama, Bashar now faces the prospect of U.S.-led air strikes. In Washington, lawmakers are debating an appropriate response to the chemical-weapons attack: Should the dictator merely be delivered a glancing blow, enough to ensure he doesn’t use those weapons again, or should his military be crippled, allowing the rebels to topple him? In Damascus, the mood is a mix of sanguine and defiant. In a recent interview with France’s Le Figaro newspaper, Assad dismissed Obama as “weak” and warned that action against his regime would destabilize the entire Middle East. He rejected the idea of a political settlement with the rebels, saying that “80% to 90%” were “terrorists” belonging to al-Qaeda. “The only way to deal with them is to annihilate them,” he said. Although few Western journalists are allowed into Damascus, rebel commanders and witnesses tell TIME that the military has been scattering its assets and moving personnel to civilian areas in anticipation of the air strikes.

In the city where Hafez survived the assassination attempt, his son expects to outlast his enemies, domestic and international. Officials and friends of the dictator tell Time that he believes the civil war is a repeat of his father’s battle against the Brotherhood. “Muslim fanatics nearly killed his father, [and] to Assad, they are back,” says a former government official who has long known the Assads and still maintains ties to the regime. “He believes he is the last bastion of resistance against the Islamic terror threat. He does not care if people will still be calling him a murderer in 10 years, because he knows in 100 years he will be called a hero.”

Second-Choice Successor

Never mind a hero, his father had intended Bashar to be no more than a footnote in Syria’s history. The presidency was reserved for his older brother Bassel, a charismatic athlete favored by their father. Hafez schooled Bassel in both war and politics from a young age, determined that his firstborn son would carry on his vision for a strong, unified Syria. Bashar, as the second of four sons, was kept away from the political and military instruction that made up Bassel’s education. The senior Assad, scarred by his own conflicts with a power-hungry brother that included an attempted coup, wanted to make sure that Bassel, as the appointed heir, would not face similar competition, says British author Patrick Seale, an old family friend and author of a biography of Hafez, Asad [sic]: The Struggle for the Middle East.

According to childhood friends, Bashar was a middling student–introverted, stubborn and moody but also loyal and modest. He overthinks things, say friends and colleagues, and has a hard time making decisions. He tends to go with the advice of the last person he consults. That indecisiveness, combined with a fierce stubbornness, is at the root of his sometimes unpredictable behavior, says the former official. “He comes off as weak, but that is because he is more analytical than his father. He wants to consider all the angles and is incapable of making snap decisions,” says an official who has recently seen Assad. “The weak chin is as much metaphorical as physical.”

Assad’s father encouraged him to be a doctor, and he chose ophthalmology–“because he couldn’t stand the sight of blood,” says an old school friend, a little sarcastically–and went to study at London’s Western Eye Hospital. (The schoolmate, like most other Syrians interviewed for this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of a backlash from the regime or its supporters.)

Hafez’s carefully laid succession plan blew up on Jan. 21, 1994, when Bassel died in a high-speed car accident while driving to Damascus airport. Bashar, after 18 months of studying in the U.K., was recalled to Damascus, and Hafez now attempted to instill in his second son, only 28, the leadership qualities he felt Syria would need. Bashar proved largely inept. “Hafez was desperate to influence and train Bashar to be a leader, but he was never the right type,” says Seale. The young doctor was awkward and lacked the common touch necessary to win the loyalty of the population. “He was, still is, a terrible public speaker. He blathers on in an uncontrolled way and loses his audience quickly,” says Seale.

In an attempt to prepare his new heir apparent for the presidency, Hafez asked then U.S. ambassador to Syria Ryan Crocker to help Bashar bone up on his knowledge of international affairs and diplomacy. “It was a curious way to prepare someone for leadership,” Crocker remembers. “He didn’t sit in on any of his father’s meetings. Instead, we spoke several times for long, intense sessions.” The sessions were conducted in Arabic because Assad’s English wasn’t as good as it is now, even though he’d just finished graduate school in London. “My understanding is he just went to school and went home and hung out with his Syrian friends at night,” Crocker says. “So he could discuss eye surgeries in English, probably at a higher level than I could, but he didn’t have the political and economic vocabulary.”

A Disarming Dictator

When he eventually succeeded Hafez in 2000, many Syrians projected on him their hopes for change–for democratic reforms at home, for better relations with the West, for a stable and harmonious multiethnic nation in the world’s most volatile neighborhood. The young Assad was thought to be more comfortable with the West than his father. After all, he had studied in Britain and had married an elegant British-Syrian banker named Asma, who would later be profiled in Vogue. He liked computers and was responsible for bringing the Internet and cell phones to Syria. He was self-effacing, even ordering the removal of posters of his father and the first family that had been ubiquitous in shops, offices and public places. He confessed to being a fan of Phil Collins and was a keen amateur photographer.

Western governments were disarmed by a leader who seemed more dweeb than dictator. On the eve of his first state visit to the U.K., in December 2002, British diplomats sought, unsuccessfully, to have the Queen bestow upon him an honorary knighthood. Italy did grant him its highest honor–the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic. (It was revoked last year.) American observers, mindful of Syria’s close ties with the Lebanese terrorist group Hizballah, were warier of the new leader in Damascus–and they grew warier still when he turned a blind eye to Arab jihadists using his country as a staging ground for operations against U.S. troops in Iraq from 2003 to 2007. Even so, today’s Secretary of State John Kerry, then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, met Assad several times, visiting him in Damascus as recently as 2009. Kerry developed a good relationship with Assad and in a question-and-answer session following a speech the Senator delivered on March 16, 2011–the day after the start of the protests that would morph into Syria’s civil war–Kerry expressed optimism that Assad would improve ties with the U.S.

But David Lesch, a history professor at Trinity University in Texas who met with Assad regularly from 2004 to 2009 in the process of writing two books about him and Syria, says his fondness for Western influences–like Phil Collins–was deceptive. It helped form an image of him as a pro-Western reformer, Lesch says, “when in fact he was a child of the Arab-Israeli conflict, a child of the Cold War and a child of Hafez.”

Like his father, Assad eventually developed a taste for the cult of personality. The posters he had ordered taken down would be replaced by new ones showing the young President. “For his 2007 ‘re-election’–he was the only one on the ballot–there were pictures of him everywhere, [and] he won the referendum with 97% of the vote,” says Jon Alterman, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, who twice met with Assad in Damascus. Lesch says he asked Assad about the 97% vote and “half expected him to revert back to the unassuming, unpretentious nature he’d come into office with and dismiss it, but he embraced it. He said it showed people loved him, adored him, needed him. It showed me he’d be President for life.”

And he may yet be. In the third year of the war his military remains strong and well supplied, and it has managed to take back some of the key cities previously lost to the rebels. Besides, few of the voices in the West now arguing for air strikes against Syria want Assad to be toppled, lest the power vacuum be filled by Islamist rebels far more extreme than those who tried to kill his father. That fear also unites many ethnic and sectarian minorities behind the dictator. “I really do think that if an election were held today in Syria, a legitimate one, Assad would still win a majority,” Lesch says. “Not because people love him or the regime, but because they don’t see an alternative.” Whatever the severity of the punishment President Obama hands out to the man who sees himself as Syria’s great protector, Assad will cling to the lesson he learned that day 33 years ago: to survive is to win.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com