When Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father Hafez al-Assad in 2000, his arrival was greeted with optimism. After three decades of oppression, the 34-year-old new president – an ophthalmologist who had trained in London – held out the promise of a more modern and democratic Syria. His beautiful British-born wife, Asma (a former JPMorgan banker dubbed “the Rose of the Desert” by Vogue), added to his appeal. “Wealthy expat Syrians were invited to wine and dine with the first couple,” says Roula Khalaf in the FT. Foreign politicians rolled out the red carpet. Within Syria, some simply called Assad “the hope”.
The “wishful thinking” didn’t last long. Assad’s package of economic and political reforms, known as the “Damascus Spring”, proved short-lived: there was a dawning realisation “that he was building nothing more than a modern façade to the repressive regime of his father”. Then, in 2011, “Assad the hope” finally “turned into Assad the monster”. The “vicious campaign of destruction and slaughter” with which he responded to popular protests that year quickly escalated into the ruinous civil war that has ravaged Syria for the past six years.
Former regime insiders paint Assad as both “brutal and indecisive”, says CNN, pointing out that he was never raised to rule. Born in 1965, he grew up in the shadow of his older brother, Bassel, who was groomed from the start for the presidency. Bashar was often the victim of his elder brother’s cruelty. “Bassel bullied him as a child. His father never gave him the same attention,” says the former Syrian vice-president, Abdul Halim Khaddam. But at least that left him free to combine his training as an eye doctor with his passion for windsurfing and volleyball. “Dr Bashar”, as he was widely known, was a bit of a geek: he headed the Syrian Computer Society.
That relatively carefree life came to an abrupt end in 1994 when Bassel was killed in a car crash, leaving Assad heir apparent, says Al Jazeera. On the death of his father in 2000, he was elected president, officially with 97% of the vote. The government he inherited was dominated by Alawites – a Shia sect that makes up 5%-10% of the population in a predominantly Sunni country. Indeed, an often overlooked factor, says the FT, is “the vital role” that family members – including his brother Maher, head of elite military forces, and his powerful sister Bushra – have played in Syria’s drama. “This regime operates like a mob family and thinks like a mafia.” Ultimately, power corrupted Assad, who emerged as “a master of deception” – as evidenced by his manipulation of the media.
Assad has never shown any sign of acceding to demands that he stand down and quit the country. “I am Syrian. I was made in Syria and to live and die in Syria,” he said in 2012. His future now hangs in the balance, says the Financial Times. The decision to gas his own people was a bad miscalculation by the “Syrian strongman who had been on a winning streak”. What happens next “will depend on where Donald Trump’s Syria policy settles”.