Where has President Bashar al-Assad of Syria been this past week?
Thousands of Syrians across the country have staged demonstrations against the government, and dozens of protesters have been reported killed by security forces. The cabinet was dismissed on Tuesday, although that’s a meaningless gesture unless it’s followed by real reform. Through it all Mr. Assad has remained so quiet that rumors were rampant that he had been overthrown. But while Syrians are desperate for leadership, it’s not yet clear what sort of leader Mr. Assad is going to be.
Will he be like his father, Hafez al-Assad, who during three decades in power gave the security forces virtually a free hand to maintain order and sanctioned the brutal repression of a violent Islamist uprising in the early 1980s? Or will he see this as an opportunity to take Syria in a new direction, fulfilling the promise ascribed to him when he assumed the presidency upon his father’s death in 2000?
Mr. Assad’s background suggests he could go either way. He is a licensed ophthalmologist who studied in London and a computer nerd who likes the technological toys of the West; his wife, Asma, born in Britain to Syrian parents, was a banker at J. P. Morgan. On the other hand, he is a child of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the cold war. Contrary to American interests, he firmly believes Lebanon should be within Syria’s sphere of influence, and he is a member of a minority Islamic sect, the Alawites, that has had a chokehold on power in Syria for decades.
In 2004 and 2005, while writing a book on him, I had long interviews with Mr. Assad; after the book was published, I continued to meet with him as an unofficial liaison between Syria and the United States when relations between the two countries deteriorated. In that time I saw Mr. Assad evolve into a confident and battle-tested president.
I also saw him being consumed by an inert Syrian system. Slowly, he replaced those of questionable loyalty with allies in the military, security services and in the government. But he does not have absolute power. He has had to bargain, negotiate and manipulate pockets of resistance inside the government and the business community to bring about reforms, like allowing private banks and establishing a stock exchange, that would shift Syria’s socialist-based system to a more market-oriented economy.
But Mr. Assad also changed along the way. When I met with him during the Syrian presidential referendum in May 2007, he voiced an almost cathartic relief that the people really liked him. Indeed, the outpouring of support for Mr. Assad would have been impressive if he had not been the only one running, and if half of it wasn’t staged. As is typical for authoritarian leaders, he had begun to equate his well-being with that of his country, and the sycophants around him reinforced the notion. It was obvious that he was president for life. Still, I believed he had good intentions, if awkwardly expressed at times.
Even with the escalating violence there, it’s important to remember that Syria is not Libya and President Assad is not Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. The crackdown on protesters doesn’t necessarily indicate that he is tightening his grip on power; it may be that the secret police, long given too much leeway, have been taking matters into their own hands.
What’s more, anti-Assad elements should be careful what they wish for. Syria is ethnically and religiously diverse and, with the precipitous removal of central authority, it could very well implode like Iraq. That is why the Obama administration wants him to stay in power even as it admonishes him to choose the path of reform.
Wednesday, President Assad is expected to announce that the country’s almost 50-year emergency law, used to stifle opposition to the regime, is going to be lifted. But he needs to make other tough choices, including setting presidential term limits and dismantling the police state. He can change the course of Syria by giving up that with which he has become so comfortable.
The unrest in Syria may have afforded President Assad one last chance at being something more than simply Hafez al-Assad’s son.
Addendum from the author:
The world is strewn with unemployed dictators who blamed “a plot” and nameless “enemies” for their country’s problems.
Yet when President Bashar al-Assad did just that in his long-awaited speech to the nation today, he was exhibiting a typically Syrian conspiratorial mindset, one that will sway those of his citizens who were already primed to believe him. This, however, totally denies the genuine socio-economic, political and personal frustration of ordinary Syrians that generated the protests to begin with.
President Assad spoke of some reforms in a disappointingly ambiguous manner that is unlikely to quell the demonstrations. No one denies the difficulty of announcing, much less carrying out, serious reforms in a country like Syria. Certainly, Mr. Assad would have to bargain with a variety of the country’s powerful established interests to get anything done. But he had the opportunity with this speech to build up a critical mass of public support for reform before a critical mass of opposition forms against him that would make anything he says too little, too late.
Sadly, he did not do so.
David W. Lesch, a professor of Middle East history at Trinity University and the author of The New Lion of Damascus: Bashar al-Asad and Modern Syria.