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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Hopes for a political opening dissipated quickly. Early on, Assad reversed a brief loosening of restrictions on political activity. Instead, he opened up the economy. Under free-market reforms, Damascus and other cities saw a flourishing of malls, restaurants and consumer goods. Tourism swelled.

Officials and Western diplomats who met with Assad speak of a vain man, convinced his was the only right way.

Assad sees himself "as a sort of philosopher-king, the Pericles of Damascus," Maura Connelly, then-U.S. charge d'affaires in Damascus, wrote in a June 2009 secret diplomatic cable, released by WikiLeaks.

Assad's gravest challenge came when small protests erupted in the country's drought-stricken south in March 2011 and spread quickly to other areas, at the time of the Arab Spring uprisings.

His response was to use the brutal tactics of his father, hoping to nip the protests in the bud.

Security forces repeatedly opened fire on protesters. But the outrage only caused a snowball effect. As the uprising hemorrhaged into civil war, Assad unleashed his military to blast opposition-held cities, as well as the pro-regime gunmen known as "shabiha," alleged to have carried out mass slayings.

His actions squandered the goodwill of those who still saw him as an instrument of change. Even the first lady was tarnished. The leaked emails showed her splurging on expensive jewelry, bespoke furniture and a vase worth more than $4,000 from Harrods department store in London, even as violence engulfed the country.

Assad turned to his family, but now that circle is dwindling. His younger brother, Maher, is still by his side but his elder sister, Bushra, a strong voice in his inner circle, is now said to be living in the United Arab Emirates. Her husband, Deputy Defense Minister Assef Shawkat, was killed in a Damascus bombing last year. One of his closest confidantes, former elite commander Manaf Tlas, defected.

Quemener said only two people can reason with him at this point: His mother and his wife.

"Like all dictators he's very alone, so he's forced to take decisions, and that tortures him."


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