Bashar al-Assad is a very polite man, in an old-fashioned way. He is the kind of host who stands up when guests enter or leave a room, and hangs back to let them through doors. When I have met him for interviews in the Presidential Palace in Damascus, he has invited me for a private chat beforehand, which usually lasts for about ten minutes. When I’ve been ushered into the anteroom President Assad uses, I have always found him standing just inside the door, ready with a handshake and a smile.
It is hard to reconcile the polite President with the savagery of the war in Syria. Politeness to foreign visitors may not be something his enemies and critics want to hear about; I have talked to many over the seven years of war who say they would like to kill him.
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Bashar al-Assad did not expect to be president. His father, the first President Assad, decided that he would hand the job down to one of his sons. The intended heir was Bashar’s older brother Bassel, an army officer who was a dashing equestrian champion. But everything changed in 1994, when Bassel was killed in a car crash. When Bashar received the news, he had qualified as a doctor, and was training in London to be an ophthalmologist.
In a new BBC series, A Dangerous Dynasty: House of Assad, one of Bashar’s former colleagues at the hospital explains how bemused he was when Syrian patients gathered deferentially around the unassuming junior doctor. Bashar explained, reluctantly, that his father was the President of Syria.
Perhaps it was modesty and politeness, rather than position and power, that attracted Asma Akhras to Bashar al-Assad. Whatever it was, it worked. Not long after he became President of Syria in 2000, they married. Asma was a highly educated Syrian who was brought up in Acton, west London, in a modest pebble-dashed house; her schoolfriends called her Emma. She had a first-class degree in computer science from King’s College London, worked as an investment banker and was heading for Harvard University when her life took a sharp turn towards Damascus.
At home in Acton she must have had a good grounding in the politics of Syria. Her mother, Sahar Otri, was a diplomat at the Syrian Embassy. Her father, Dr Fawaz Akhras, was a cardiologist and a prominent member of Syria’s expatriate community. About ten years ago I was having lunch with the then Syrian Ambassador and a well-connected businessman. Asma’s father, Dr Akhras, joined the table. Both of the other Syrians deferred to him. The power of connection with the Presidential Palace in Damascus was apparent, even in a restaurant on Curzon Street in London.
As President, Bashar al-Assad declared himself to be a reformer. Many in Syria and abroad were intrigued, even entranced by the President and his glamorous wife, a new team from a new generation who could transform Syria. Alongside Bashar, Asma seemed to be the embodiment of values new to Syria: freedom and openness. When Bashar talked about reform, Asma, speaking perfect British English as well as Arabic, was with him every step of the way. Asma must have known that as well as marrying the man she loved, she was marrying into the toughest ruling family in the Middle East. Its family business was ruling Syria and making sure any challenge to its authority failed.
In 2011 Syria’s war started, and the President, who promised reform, has since instead fought, and almost won, a conflict that has killed more than half a million people and forced half the population out of their homes, either to destitution inside Syria or life as refugees abroad. Much of Syria, one of the birthplaces of civilisation, has been left in ruins. The President denies accusations that his side has used chemical weapons. In an interview with me, he also denied that Syrian forces used barrel bombs, crude weapons dropped from the back of helicopters. In fact, barrel bombings have been widely documented.
It is impossible to understand Syria today without looking at the long shadow still cast by Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad. Like many poor and ambitious Syrian men of his generation, he rose to power through the armed forces, until as an air force general he seized power as part of a military junta. Then, in 1970, he deposed his fellow generals to become one of the dominant leaders in the Middle East. His enemies in Israel respected his toughness and ability to manipulate and control. American secretaries of state flew to Damascus to make deals.
Hafez had a long memory. When he took sole power, Salah Jadid, the general who had been defacto ruler since 1967, was thrown into prison. He stayed there until he was released, on a stretcher, the day before he died in 1993. For everyone who seemed to be a threat to the regime, the Syrian prison system was intimidating. To control Syria, Hafez created a system of overlapping, competing internal intelligence agencies, and embedded allies into vital places in a way that was designed to make another military coup impossible.
So how did his son, seemingly modest, a reformer with a brilliant wife, part of an urbane couple who once met the Queen at Buckingham Palace, end up leading the Syrian government through seven bloody years of war? First of all, Bashar al-Assad is not as modest as he might look.
My impression, studying him from afar and in a few private conversations, is that he follows events in the region very closely and sees himself as a leader who understands the region as well or better than anyone. He wants to dominate the chessboard, as his father did.
Just after the first demonstrations against his regime began in 2011, President Assad gave a much-anticipated speech to the Syrian parliament. Some Syrians already believed that he would do anything to preserve the Assad dynasty. Others hoped he would, finally, introduce the reforms that he and Asma had been talking about for a decade. Instead, to the cheers of the assembled loyalists, President Assad condemned a foreign conspiracy that was trying by force to destroy the Syria they all knew and loved. He has said many times since then that he is leading a fight against terrorists.
Syria under Bashar is a family business. The chairmanship of the firm has been handed down to Bashar – he is the leader, the boss, but his family has a big say. His brother, Maher, is an army general, and has a reputation as a man who uses force easily. A maternal cousin, Rami Makhlouf, is the firm’s finance director. He is a multibillionaire, Syria’s richest man, with a hand in most big business ventures. For a while during the war it looked as if Bashar’s three children would not get the chance to join the family business. But the rebellion is over. The people who took to the streets in 2011 have been defeated, though the big powers who intervened in the war are still manoeuvring.
Bashar al-Assad, it seems likely, did want change when he inherited power. But when the crisis came, the family defaulted to the tried and trusted methods of its patriarch, Hafez. The regime’s defeat has been predicted repeatedly in the years since war started in 2011. But with his allies, Iran and Russia, Bashar is on the brink of victory. Perhaps now he will become, like his father, the master of the Middle Eastern chessboard. Already some in the West are wondering when the time will come to rehabilitate him. Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor
A Dangerous Dynasty: House of Assad airs Tuesdays at 9pm on BBC2, beginning 9th October 2018