Search for a report, a publication, an expert...
Institut Montaigne features a platform of Expressions dedicated to debate and current affairs. The platform provides a space for decryption and dialogue to encourage discussion and the emergence of new voices.

Portrait of Bashar al-Assad - President of the Syrian Arab Republic

Portrait of Bashar al-Assad - President of the Syrian Arab Republic
 Michel Duclos
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - Geopolitics and Diplomacy

Assad is the oldest dictator in our portrait gallery. He is also the one with the most blood on his hands. His future now seems secure - which in itself says much about the state of the world we live in today.

In early November 2007, President Bashar al-Assad received President Sarkozy's emissary - not in his marble palace overlooking Damascus, but in a dark office in one of the city’s residential districts, from where he exercises his power on a daily basis.

The powerful Secretary General of the Elysée made sure to tell the Syrian despot that the new French President holds him in high regard. Provided of course that certain conditions are met, the latter is ready to resume cooperation with Syria. Bashar al-Assad is calm, smiling, affable, and speaks in a measured tone. He is fluent in English. He too has only warm feelings towards his French counterpart. For one of the scene’s witnesses, who knows the Syrian President a little, it is obvious that the restraint he shows hides a deep inner jubilation. Assad will not let his exultation show. He silently enjoys this moment, which embodies the recognition of his power, the rehabilitation of his person, the consecration of his policy. It is only a small start, yet Damascus's hereditary autocrat knows that it marks the end of the distance and coldness with which the West tried to surround him in previous years.

Bashar al-Assad’s Western culture is nothing more than a facade, failing to undermine the leader of the Alawite clan, the heir to a practice of power that only believes in the most brutal use of strength.

Bashar was only 35 years old when he succeeded his father, President Hafez al-Assad, who died in 2000. President Chirac had encouraged and supported him greatly. The "young President" was then credited with reformist intentions and a desire for peace. It was, however, feared that his training as an ophthalmologist in London, his shyness, his wordy language and his disarticulated appearance were incompatible with the exercise of power over a country considered vulnerable because of its ethnic and confessional complexity. It was also feared that his actions would be hindered by his father’s "old security guards".

The weight of legends is remarkable. In fact, when he came to power, he had already spent the previous six years - since the death of his older brother Bassel in 1994 - preparing for his future duties, under the guidance of his father. For example, he was entrusted with the proconsulship of Lebanon - the place of all abuses and trafficking of all sorts for Syrian leaders. Bashar al-Assad is a sort of Michael Corleone who would have prepared for his role for quite some time. Before his death, Hafez dismissed some of the great figures of the country’s intelligence (the Mukhabarat) who could have overshadowed his son. Bashar al-Assad’s Western culture is nothing more than a facade, failing to undermine the leader of the Alawite clan, the heir to a practice of power that only believes in the most brutal use of strength.

In the beginning of his reign, Bashar opened a brief parenthesis of relative freedom of speech, but closed it only a few months later. He launched economic reforms to help liberalize the economy, and did so in a selective way (banks, insurances, import-export, telecommunications) so as to significantly benefit his family’s business. The Makhlouf cousins, in particular, exploited the country. Bashar drained the Baath party of the little power it had left - apart from that of providing candidates to the official functions. He perpetually postponed political reforms to later dates. In a way, he did a good job at modernizing his father's governing formula. Indeed, the army and the party more or less withdrew from the front of the public scene, while the businessmen and the security services (already powerful under Hafez) continue to occupy all the ground today. The generation of sons, often educated abroad, is gradually coming to business, and seems even more eager to make money than the generation of Hafez's companions did. The basic rules remain the same: the real power belongs to the Assad family, who manipulates an intertwined network of allegiances and corruption. The Alawites, along with other minorities (Christians, Druze, Ismaili) are at the core of this network, to which the Sunni bourgeoisie also belongs. The secular facade of the regime provides an alibi for the oppression of the discontent youth, who are immediately classified as Islamists, but the power in fact happily hands over society to religious organizations, in exchange for the system’s legitimation. Lay opponents are in prison, when they are lucky enough not to have been eliminated.

Bashar's confidants describe a man who shows no sign of arrogance in his private relations, but who is fundamentally sure of himself and of his good fortune. He is convinced of his superiority over his contemporaries and shows no mercy in his exercise of power, even in its most sordid aspects - in fact perhaps especially so in these aspects. In certain Damascene circles where his father is missed, he has the reputation of not knowing how to decide, of being too hesitant. This may be true in matters related to administrative management or the economy, which are of no interest to him. Yet he is on the contrary both straightforward and determined when it comes to "big politics", i.e. military affairs, international relations, and the management of intelligence services, which hold the power of life or death (under torture in general) within the country, and a formidable capacity for destabilization without.

In this respect, the man only began to show his full worth during the Iraq crisis following the American invasion in 2003. While the Syrian services collaborated punctually with the Bush administration, which did not hesitate to outsource the "treatment" of such and such "terrorist" to them, they also organized a vast transfer of all kinds of Islamist radicals who had just left their prisons or come from abroad in Iraq.

Bashar proved wrong the rumors according to which he is the mere simulacrum of a dictator.

At that time, Assad bragged and told his relatives that he was the leader of the Sunni rebellion in Iraq against the American occupation. In retrospect, one can consider that this achievement is what definitively established the young President's authority over the Mukhabarat. To Westerners - Secretary of State Powell, or later Senator Kerry - he blandly explained that the length of the border with Iraq limited the effectiveness of his services’ controls.

At the same time, Bashar al-Assad broke with his father's attitude towards Iran. A change most Syrians are still astounded by today. Hafez set up a strategic cooperation with the Islamic Republic, notably in order to jointly deal with Hezbollah, but Bashar is close to the Iranians and Hezbollah, including on a personal level. This cold-blooded animal of power, who seems to be devoid of emotions, admires Nasrallah, whom he welcomed in his palace in Damascus. Such a visit would have been inconceivable under Hafez. From the years 2004-2005, and especially from the Summer of 2006 and the war in Lebanon, he gave more and more space to Iranians to develop their influence in Damascus. He in no way relaxed the guardianship that he exercised via his army and services over the land of cedars. Assad and his clan did not look favorably upon Rafik Hariri's rise to power. While the latter has long been docile towards Damascus, he, over the years, asserted himself as a Sunni leader capable of mobilizing his fellow believers beyond the narrow Lebanese theatre.

Hariri’s assassination in February 2005 definitively turned Chirac against Assad and triggered a Franco-American action at the United Nations aiming to dislodge Syrians from Lebanon. There too, Bashar proved wrong the rumors according to which he is the mere simulacrum of a dictator. He held on, and showed himself to be an iron man. Forced to make some compromises, he withdrew Syrian troops from Lebanon and absorbed the shock of the electoral victory of the anti-Syrians from the March 14 Alliance. However, a long and bloody campaign of attacks reminded the Lebanese that the Syrian rule is pursued through other means. The challenge in 2007 was to reestablish the normal functioning of institutions, which were cynically blocked for months by the Syrian regime and its Lebanese clients/allies. This is what brought the French President's envoy to Damascus in November 2007. We know what comes next regarding the Franco-Syrian relationship: the 14th of July 2008 on the Champs-Elysées, Sarkozy in Damascus, the Assad couple back in Paris, etc.

The extreme rise of violence followed very quickly due in part to the country's legal authorities.

Bashar al-Assad has a strange capacity to seduce his interlocutors, including Chirac and Sarkozy, but also Erdogan, the Emir of Qatar, Kofi Annan and many others. The seduction phase, however, is always followed by disenchantment because the Syrian leader’s fine words, or even precise commitments, are never followed by action.

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.

In September 2013, under the pressure of his Russian sponsors, Bashar al-Assad agreed to dismantle his arsenal of chemical weapons, which he had previously denied existed. He had the political intelligence to understand that this "deal" put him back in the game at a dangerous time. One of his main assets is that he understands the strategy of Western decision-makers much better than they understand his. In his mind, it is unthinkable to really destroy his entire chemical weapons stockpile. It is probably also difficult for him to imagine that Westerners believe him when he claims to have kept his word. He believes they have the same duplicity as him.

He will soon have the image of a serious dictator who had to face a really difficult situation, but with whom we can, and even must, find solutions to stabilize this region.

According to some testimonies, during the French, British and American strikes of April 2018, following the use of chemicals in Ghouta, Bashar deemed that Trump, Macron and May simply tried to save face towards their public opinions, but in reality had no intention of hurting him much. In the Obama years, when the President of the United States regularly repeated "Assad must go", generals in his entourage observed that the Americans had never fired a rifle (nor a missile) against Syrian forces, and thus concluded that "Obama does not want Assad to leave". Is Bashar and his companions’ reading of Western leaders really that wrong?

Another Assad will now appear, although at the same time, he always remains the same. Another legend will emerge. The more than five hundred thousand Syrian deaths will soon be forgotten. The atrocities committed under Assad's leadership - whether one thinks of the Caesar Report on the thousands of agonizing bodies in Damascus’s prisons or of Manon Loizeau's documentary on the fate of women in the regime’s prisons - will be attributed to the inevitable misfortunes of any civil war. Ali Mamlouk is already welcomed as a respectable emissary in Rome. The Russians, the Israelis and Donald Trump all agree that President Assad should stay in power. The Iranians, who are well aware that the Assad family is their only support in the spectrum of Syrian political actors, are delighted. Bashar has no doubt that the Europeans will join this movement. He will soon have the image of a serious dictator who had to face a really difficult situation, but with whom we can, and even must, find solutions to stabilize this region. 

Despite the reconquest of southern Syria - forces of the regime and Russia have just taken back Daraa - 40% of the territory is still free of Assad's control. The latter, however, further expects to enjoy new moments of glory. 

Yet he will not throw himself at new friends who introduce themselves to him, or old friends who return. In the textbook of the perfect dictator inherited from his father, it is most often sufficient to simply wait, to hold on, and the stars will naturally align. His 18 years of reign have amply showed him the veracity of this rule. To hold on, but also to exploit opportunities: for instance, ensuring that the double Russian-Iranian sponsorship, which necessarily implies rivalry in a context of historical connivance between the Israelis and the Assad family, leaves him room for manoeuvre. Or - another example - taking advantage of the massive population displacements, inside (over six million people) or outside Syria (five to six million), to reshape the country’s demographic equilibria, at least in certain crucial zones, to the benefit of the regime and its Iranian sponsors. President Assad was proud to claim that thanks to the departure of exiles, "we earned a healthier and more homogeneous society" (Summer 2017, at the inauguration of the Damascus Fair). In more scrupulous times, this was called ethnic cleansing. Assad now signs decrees depriving exiles of their property. It is common for the rare exiles who return home to be shot dead by regime militias.

For several days now, hundreds of Syrian families have finally been receiving the official notification of the death of thousands of their relatives, between 2011 and 2014, in Syrian prisons, very often under torture. In diplomatic discussions between big capitals, only the promotion of the country’s reconstruction to encourage the return of refugees is spoken of.


Illustration : David MARTIN for Institut Montaigne

Receive Institut Montaigne’s monthly newsletter in English