September 10, 2013

Syria's Assad: An accidental heir proves resilient

The Associated Press

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This 1994 file photo posted on the official Facebook page of the Syrian Presidency, purports to show then Syrian Captain Bashar Assad, right, during a military project in Syria. In the eyes of many, Assad is a murderous autocrat who would do anything to cling to power. But for his supporters, he is a nationalist hero fighting Western imperialism, a stabilizing presence who ensures a secular rule in a turbulent region wracked by sectarian wars. (AP Photo/Syrian Presidency via Facebook, File)

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Even some of his strongest critics in the current war once believed he could be a positive factor.

As a senator, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited him repeatedly, dining with Assad and his wife at a restaurant in Old Damascus in 2009. Former French President Nicholas Sarkozy invited him to Bastille Day celebrations in 2008. Even after his forces fired on protesters at the beginning of the uprising against him in March 2011, Hillary Clinton suggested he was different from his father — a "reformer" who should be given a chance.

So how did a purported reformer become a leader who Kerry now compares to Adolf Hitler?

"It's like a Greek tragedy," says Jean-Marie Quemener, whose biography of Assad, "Docteur Bachar, Mister Assad," was published in France in 2011.

"At each step of his existence, he had every chance of choosing the right way. But each time, either the rug was pulled from under him, or he took the wrong decision," he told The Associated Press in Paris. "Each time, his destiny was forced."

Assad came to power by a twist of fate.

The elder Assad was cultivating Bashar's older brother Basil to succeed him. But in 1994 Basil was killed in a speeding car crash in Damascus. Bashar was summoned home from his ophthalmology practice in London, put through military training and elevated to the rank of colonel to establish his credentials so he could one day rule.

When Hafez Assad died in 2000, parliament quickly lowered the presidential age requirement from 40 to 34. Bashar's elevation was sealed by a nationwide referendum, in which he was the only candidate.

"When his father called him, he wasn't ready to take power. He tried to get his younger brother to take his place," said Quemener, referring to Maher Assad, who now heads the powerful Presidential Guard.

"His destiny was forced on him, he never wanted to be leader of Syria."

The Syria that Hafez left his son was molded by 30 years of hidebound rule, with a Soviet-style centralized economy. The hand over dissent was so stifling that Syrians feared even joking about politics to their friends.

The younger Assad seemed a breath of fresh air.

Lanky with a slight lisp, he talked of his love of computers — in fact, his only official position before becoming president was head of the Syrian Computer Society. Assad enjoyed listening to Phil Collins and British rock group ELO, Lesch recalls.

His wife, Asma al-Akhras, whom he married several months after taking office, was attractive, stylish and grew up in a west London suburb. The young couple, who eventually had three children, seemed to shun trappings of power. They lived in an apartment in the upscale Malki district of Damascus, as opposed to a palatial mansion like other Arab leaders, and made surprise appearances in public, to the delight of their supporters.

The charming first lady provided a counterpoint to Bashar's geeky demeanor. Together they gave the appearance of a power couple who could bring progressive values to Syria.

One of the young female aides in his presidential office even referred to Assad as "the Dude," a familiarity inconceivable with his father, according to a trove of emails purportedly leaked from Bashar and Asma Assad's accounts and made public in late 2011 by London's The Guardian newspaper and WikiLeaks.

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