This systematic duplicity is present at each stage of Bashar al-Assad's biography, without its goal always being clear. Sarkozy did not expect the Daraa massacre in early 2011, just as Chirac was surprised by Rafik Hariri’s assassination. In fact, all those familiar with the Syrian secret operations knew that in the event of an internal crisis, the settling accounts would be bloody. Once their back to the wall, the Alawites, a hated minority (10% of the population), would fight with knives if necessary. When the "Arab Spring" reached Syria, the government immediately resorted to the most extreme use of strength, without even waiting to face real difficulties.
From the first skirmishes, i.e. children graffiti in Daraa in March 2011, Damascus sent troops and the Mukhabarat made use of their atrocious methods. The extreme rise of violence followed very quickly due in part to the country's legal authorities. For some, the Islamists had been ambushed for a long time. The regime soon waved the "story" of a foreign plot led jointly with the Muslim Brotherhood. We will not dwell here on a debate that will occupy historians. We will rather focus on the personal role Bashar al-Assad played. How does a modern authoritarian despot fall into mass crime? How does the heir to a nationalist dynasty come, in a fierce civil war, to hand over the keys of his country's sovereignty to foreign powers?
One thing is certain: Bashar is the product of a system and a culture. For most Syrians, the 1982 massacres in Hama (at least 20,000 deaths, without the use of chemical weapons), which concluded a rebellion of several years led at that time by the Muslim Brotherhood, deeply scarred the country's political conscience. On the one hand, the Sunni Arab majority (73% of the population before the war) came to the conclusion that any uprising was useless, that it was necessary to surrender, and that mosques were the ultimate refuge allowing for a minimum of personal freedom. This is the time when popular piety began to boom. On the other hand, the power’s supporters drew from the Hama episode the idea that "these people, inspired by an inexpiable sense of hatred, are preparing for their revenge, a revenge that will necessarily come one day" (testimony of the regime’s senior officials gathered by the author in 2007-2008).
In the weeks preceding the "Arab Spring", Assad was heard telling his relatives: "my father was right, the thousands of deaths in Hama secured three decades of stability". Given its DNA, it was almost inevitable that the Assad regime would respond to protests by violence, to the uprising by terror, to the encirclement in Damascus under siege - which will be the case from 2012 onwards - by the bombing of cities, by the siege of rebel neighborhoods, and by taking civilians hostage in order to isolate the armed opposition. Assad's good fortune - he is right to have faith in his lucky star - was to find in Moscow and Tehran allies determined to offer him the means to pursue this strategy when it was clear that, on equal terms, his own forces had lost the battle. Another chance, a real gift from the gods, was the rise in power of the Islamic State organization (Daesh) from Summer 2014 onwards. Bashar al-Assad will be on very good terms with the organization, as it will allow him to win the "battle of narratives" and will divert the West towards a fight easier to understand by their public opinions than the support of the Syrian revolution.
Has Bashar al-Assad ever experienced moments of doubt, or hesitation? His addiction to duplicity makes it difficult to read the clues we have... During the mediation efforts of the League of Arab States in 2011, he had a long discussion with an eminent Egyptian lawyer. The latter told him that an exit from the crisis could result from a constitutional reform that would allow him to preserve his power, but by re-calibrating his prerogatives. This idea will often be mentioned later on. Assad approved, seemed enthusiastic, and asked his visitor to contact Syrian constitutionalists to work on the texts. A few days later, Ali Mamlouk, who coordinates the intelligence services, made it clear to Syrian lawyers that it was out of the question for the President to have his prerogatives reduced or even regulated.