The Bashar al-Assad I know
August 28th, 2012
01:18 PM ET

The Bashar al-Assad I know

By David Lesch, Special to CNN

David W. Lesch is professor of Middle East History at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. He is the author of many books, among them Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad, released this month from Yale University Press. The views expressed are his own.

High expectations are both a blessing and a curse. They are the former in that usually something worthwhile about someone has raised the expectations in the first place. They are the latter when someone fails to meet those expectations.  Heightened, maybe even unwarranted, expectations were a serious problem for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from the very beginning of his rise to power in 2000 following the death of his father, Hafiz al-Assad.

As I noted in Middle East Policy Council a couple of years back, I half jokingly told Bashar the first time we met in 2004 that I thought he had made a mistake in letting the media know that he enjoyed Phil Collins’ music. This anecdote fed into an emerging narrative of the relatively unknown al-Assad that he was a pro-West modernizer who was very different from his father. Indeed, Bashar was also the chairman of the Syrian Computer Society and was actually a bit of a geek himself.

Maybe Bashar is partially to blame for these increased expectations, dedicating himself as he did to the Damascus spring, which saw a period of unprecedented political openness. However, this was soon followed by political repression, and the misplaced profiling of the Syrian president in the West clearly missed the point. Indeed, much of the disappointment in Bashar in the West stems from the gap in understanding between the Syrian leadership and much of the rest of the world. When al-Assad delivered his first address to the country on March 30, 2011 in reaction to the growing protests in Syria, he singled out armed terrorist gangs and conspirators for the unrest. Indeed, he still does.

And while many outside Syria dismissed this apparent misdirection, many Syrians, including al-Assad, are actually quick to believe such views. Their perception of the nature of threat, from a dangerous part of the world, is vastly different from what we see outside of Syria. And as I wrote in Foreign Policy several months into the uprising last year, it is this gap in perceptions that is at the root of the impasse between what the international community has demanded of the Syrian regime and what al-Assad has actually done to end the violence.

Based on experience, al-Assad does not trust the West nor its instruments of diplomacy such as the United Nations or the Arab League, the latter dominated, in his view, by pro-U.S. allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar. He is operating from a reality that is quite different from that which much of the rest of world envisions. Some of this is simply the result of different spins on the exact same events by the Western-based press and the Syrian government. Some of it is the alternate reality that typically is constructed around authoritarian leaders by sycophants and access-seekers who surround the ruler. But whatever the case may be, all that matters is that he believes his reality to be true – and right.

But it isn’t only a matter of different realities. Somewhere along the road al-Assad lost his way. The arrogance of authoritarianism will do that; indeed, power is an aphrodisiac. Either he convinced himself or was convinced by his supporters that his well-being was synonymous with the well-being of the country, and that what he was doing in terms of violently putting down protests and not meeting the demands for change were both necessary and correct. The Syrian government’s crackdown was a push button, convulsive response to domestic threat. It is business as usual. It is not as though al-Assad does not control the security forces. It is that this has been the way Syria works under the al-Assads. They reach into their historical pocket and pull out what worked for them in the past, and what they found was much closer to Hama in 1982 than anything else.

Bashar was not willing to reduce the tremendous amount of leeway he has given the security forces to deal with threats. As I note in the Fall of the House of Assad, this empowered thuggish security forces who only know one way to deal with threats. Bashar has gone along with this instead of understanding the new circumstances created by the Arab Spring. In addition, the regimes of Hafiz and Bashar al-Assad simply do not make concessions from a perceived position of weakness. "They will only make concessions from a perceived position of strength, so cracking down hard on demonstrators while offering political reforms are two sides of the same coin. This is the Syrian way under the al-Assads."

I saw personally how Bashar al-Assad grew more comfortable as president over the years I met him. Maybe too comfortable. In May 2007, amid Bashar’s re-election in a referendum to another seven-year term, I noticed something in him that I had not detected before: self-satisfaction, even arrogance. Maybe this is inevitable in such an authoritarian state. However, when I first met him, Bashar was unpretentious and even self-deprecating.

The election of 2007 generated tremendous mass support for al-Assad, even though he was the only candidate in the referendum. The pomp and pageantry in Damascus belied his eschewing of a personality cult up until that time. It seemed that Bashar had finally been able to tap into that aquifer of support he had built up, and for the first time he was able to experience it in grand style.

It was a cathartic experience for him. In a personal meeting with him on “election day,” he seemed genuinely touched by the celebrations, and more importantly, he absorbed it fully. This is the first time I felt that Bashar began to believe the press and propaganda, that to lead the country was his destiny.  He had drunk the Kool-Aid of power. He was going to be president for life. His view of his position had certainly evolved since the early years of his rule.  Given the dilapidated and corrupt system he inherited – and then perpetuated – perhaps he was destined to disappoint. Unfortunately, that disappointment became manifest for many with a brutal crackdown that has killed thousands, significantly degraded his country, and made his rule untenable.

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Topics: Syria

soundoff (138 Responses)
  1. KeyserSoze

    Assad is no different than Chavez, Castro, Saddam, the Ayatolahs, Ahemdinejah, Ghadafi, Morales, Kim Il-sung and a parade of corrupt dictators that will never let power go, no matter what. Power is the most addicting drug in the universe which eventually leads to their destruction too.

    Just ask Darth Vader. :-)

    August 29, 2012 at 10:33 pm | Reply
    • desert voice/troubledgoodangel

      I subscribe below this comment also. Asma, especially, cannot probably bring herself to see her children cleaning toilets after they were groomed to be princes for four decades.. My own step mother succeeded in dispossessing me for that very reason, to save the inheritance for her natural children! This is how scores of women are in this world, and Asha is prime example!

      August 30, 2012 at 1:03 pm | Reply
  2. EVN

    All the author is describing is that Bashar just needed a few years of time to learn to follow in his father's footsteps and master the art of butchering those who disagree with business as usual. Basically, Assad was just a bit of a slow learner.

    August 30, 2012 at 5:43 am | Reply
  3. rh

    "The Hitler I Know" by Eva Braun.

    August 30, 2012 at 6:32 am | Reply
  4. sam kohen

    All Bashy need do is call an election.

    August 30, 2012 at 7:42 am | Reply
    • desert voice/troubledgoodangel

      I agree with this comment by Sam Kohen. Assad could have avoided this bloodshed 15 months ago by calling an election. He is probably the dumbest peson on earth, given that he had right before his eyes what happened to his buddies Mubarak and Qadhafi! Yet his "call for elections" (there was one), was a whisper low grunt that wasn't enough, given the nature of "Arab Spring"!

      August 30, 2012 at 12:55 pm | Reply
      • A


        September 3, 2012 at 3:41 am |
    • NonZionist

      Syria did hold an election - on 26 Feb 2012. We ignored the result.

      Assad has the support of women, Christians, Alewites, and many Sunnis. Women do not want to lose their rights. Christians and Alewites do not want to be massacred. And Sunnis do not want Syria to become another Iraq.

      August 31, 2012 at 11:30 am | Reply
      • sam kohen

        Please tell me what were the results of that election?

        August 31, 2012 at 10:41 pm |
      • Mercury

        Do you have any idea how the elections are handle in a (any) country with dictator regime?! This how the Assad Klan was able to hold the power in Syria, through "elections" , heavily sprinkled with fear and decorated with nationalism. Syrian's have "no founding fathers", perhaps until now.

        September 1, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
  5. Aaron Chaney

    SANA (HOMS) – Authorities Raid Terrorists' Dens in Bab Hood Neighborhood, Homs

    After receiving calls from residents, authorities stormed a terrorist den in al-Khandaq Street in Bab Hood neighborhood in the city of Homs, killing six and injuring several others.

    An official source told SANA that authorities also stormed a terrorists' den near al-Walidiyeh school and cleared it of more than twenty terrorists.

    Authorities also eliminated an armed terrorist group that was attacking citizens and law enforcement in al-Qseir city during when six terrorists were killed according to the source.

    SANA (LEBANON) – Army Unit Foils Infiltration Attempt from Lebanon into Syria

    An army unit dislodged an armed terrorist group from their attempt to infiltrate from the Lebanese territories into Syria in Tal-Kalakh city in the countryside of Homs.

    SANA reports that terrorists riding four DShK-equipped vehicles tried to infiltrate from Lebanon to Syria butwere repelled by Syrian armed forces.

    August 30, 2012 at 10:45 am | Reply
  6. Barry G.

    Don't they say that even Adlof Hitler was nice to his nephews and neices–or was that his pets?

    History will remember both of these men as vicious and evil people, and just imagine what the Almighty has planned for both of them!

    August 30, 2012 at 3:39 pm | Reply
  7. AgrippaMT

    Hopefully, one of these days not far away, Bashar Al Assad and his wife will suffer the same fate as Nicolae Ceaucescu and his awful mate. They are both buried in unmarked graves in Romania now.

    August 30, 2012 at 5:42 pm | Reply
  8. Barry G.

    How long will the civilized world allow Russia and China to prop up Assad, while he commits more atrocities?

    The civilized world should expell Rusia and China from the UN.

    August 31, 2012 at 9:20 am | Reply
  9. Barry G.


    How does it feel to be a pariah and one of the most despised humans on the planet?

    History books will tell of your brutality, long after you’ve been deposed.

    And just imagine what the Almighty is going to do with you, when you meet him, face-to-face.

    Say hello to Hitler, when you get there. You two will have a lot to discuss, and a lot of time (eternity) during which to discuss your wicked deeds.

    August 31, 2012 at 9:25 am | Reply
  10. tony

    I cannot believe that the Armenian lobby is actively seeking and blocking any USA intervention in syria. Their scare tactic is the jehadist and islamist will take over. In all my heart how viscious is that. The Armenian forgot their massacre and forgot how the syrian muslims who gave them refuge and allow them to prosper and built their life. Again some syrian christians are backing the Assad regime don't they see how many innocent children and women killed how could they detach themself from feeling for their muslims country men and women....shame..... shame

    August 31, 2012 at 9:25 am | Reply
    • NonZionist

      Since almost all of our information comes from the "rebels" themselves, we have a totally one-sided view of the situation. The "rebels" include:

      * prominent SNC members groomed here in the U.S. since 2005 by the neo-con war-front
      * Islamists from Libya and Wahhabis from Saudi Arabia
      * FSA defectors from the Syrian Army
      * Al Qaeda

      What happens when these gentlemen murder Assad loyalists (as they did in Houla)? They blame the killing on Assad, and since we have no other source of information, we conclude that Assad is a Butcher and a Madman who is "Killing His Own People" just for the fun of it. Our conclusion makes no sense, but we believe it because it's all we know! The much simpler explanation - that we are being lied to and kept in the dark - never occurs to us.

      August 31, 2012 at 11:08 am | Reply
  11. tony

    Bashar Al Assad is a criminal that should be charged with genocide and stiring ethnics violence. In fact if you closely look at his face he is a replica of Hitler. The fight in syria is a fight between evil and good. It is a matter of time when he will face what he deserve he and his family and all the thugs that supported him.

    August 31, 2012 at 9:32 am | Reply
  12. Aaron Chaney

    SANA (TEHRAN) – India and Azerbaijan Reiterate Rejection of Foreign Interference in Syria

    India's Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, reiterated his country's rejection of foreign interference in the internal affairs of Syria, saying the solution to the crisis in Syria should be through a comprehensive political process that achieves the aspirations of the Syrian people.

    During his meeting with Prime Minister Dr. Wael al-Halqi, on the sidelines of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) meeting in Tehran, Singh stressed that the main goal now is halting the violence, strongly pushing forward the reform process and widening the political participation of all the spectra of the Syrian people.

    Singh hailed the deep cultural and historical ties binding India and Syria.

    Al-Halqi, for his part, said Damascus values the Indian role in support of Syria at the international forums, particularly at the Security Council and the UN General Assembly, hailing the cooperation relations between Syria and India.

    Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Stresses Rejection of Military Interference in Syria, Calls for Maintaining Sovereignty and Territorial Unity

    During meeting in Tehran with Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign and Expatriates Minister, Walid al-Moallem, Azerbaijani Foreign Minister, Elmar Mammadyarov, underlined his country's rejection of military interference in Syria and the need for maintaining its sovereignty and territorial unity and ending violence by all sides.

    Mammadyarov, whose country occupies a non-permanent seat in the UN Security Council, stressed that the political solution to the crisis in Syria should be carried out through a national dialogue.

    Minister al-Moallem clarified to Mammadyarov the violations committed by the armed terrorist groups and their responsibility of the continuity of violence in Syria.

    At the end of the meeting, the importance of the ongoing coordination between the two countries' delegations to the UN in New York was stressed.

    August 31, 2012 at 10:31 am | Reply
  13. NonZionist

    We ridiculed Saddam when he told us Iraq had no WMDs. But it turns out that Saddam was telling the truth, and the trusted Colin Powell was lying like a rug. Had we listened to Saddam, we could have saved a million Iraqi lives, 4,500 American lives, and several trillion dollars.

    We ridicule Assad when he tells us that he is fighting terrorists and Islamists, and we trust Obama and Clinton and Cameron and Sarkozy. So along with Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Al Qaeda, we arm the "rebels" and wait for them to "Democratize" the country.

    Why would Saudi Arabia be supporting "Democracy"? What do most Syrians want? Somehow we forget to ask these questions. We live in a different reality. We can't find Syria on a map, but WE know what is best for the Syrian people!

    I think we are in for another big surprise, comparable to the surprise in Iraq.

    > Later, [David Kay] told the Senate Armed Services Committee that "we were almost all wrong - and I certainly include myself here," in believing that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

    - David Kay, "We Were Almost All Wrong", 28 Jan 2004

    August 31, 2012 at 10:56 am | Reply
  14. onestarman

    SPRINGTIME in Damascus – The Bloodthirsty Monster I've grown to Love – what Crap

    August 31, 2012 at 3:40 pm | Reply
  15. tokencode

    ass-ad is a waste of genetic material and needs to be erased from this earth. He is personally responsible for the needless deaths of tens of thousands of people. He allowed and possibly encouraged the torture of innocent children. Killing him humanely would be too kind.

    August 31, 2012 at 7:37 pm | Reply
  16. Mercury

    Assuming, those children are Sbahi Hamdo's, a Syrian professor's children.Turn out to be mastermind expert professor. Hamdo attemted to kidnap Syrian generals, that defected from Syria and fled to Turkey. The rest of Syrian children are under fire and brutally killed. Do not be deceived with this picture above.! The real dictator kills his people children day after day, as CNN reports it as well. The real Assad want's his former generals heads served on platter plate, presumablly. No smiles here!

    August 31, 2012 at 10:43 pm | Reply
  17. Asaph

    Great piece. A side we don't see providing a perspective we don't have. I couldn't tell if the writer believed that the threat to Syria was from foreign forces or not, only that Syrians believe that, which would only be the resonance of effective propaganda. It's moot now; this is messy and bloody and there's no picking sides for the west as indeed the west doesn't bother to understand the sides. Just hope and pray for minimum casualties and cooler heads to find their way to prominence and thus, prevail. But it's very dark in Syria right now.

    September 1, 2012 at 11:35 am | Reply
  18. John Q. Public Sr.

    Like Saddam Hussein, the Assad Family has ruled Syria as strongmen, dictators, thieves of the national treasury and thugs. His removal from power and the decline of the Alowite Clan will be a tragic outcome of Basshar losing power, but a critical step forward for the nation. Whether a new regime will be more willing to sue for peace with Israel or seek compromises is unlikely, but at this stage disconnecting the relationship between Syria and Iran is essential. The point of no return has been passed. If the Assad Family used its collective brains, they would seek exile away from Syria. But like most dictatorial regimes, it is more likely that this family will face the same demise as Gadhafi of Libya or Mubarak of Eqypt.

    September 1, 2012 at 11:55 am | Reply
  19. deniz boro

    Did any of you actually read the article??????????????????
    It gives a genuine on-site observation of a person who has actually been there 5 years.
    He/she may be wrong on his/her perspective; bet nonoftheless it is better than us. And perhaps there is a group who thinks like him/her.
    It seems likely to me since ı lived through this elite/commons bulls-heat.
    It is actually the latest trend leeway of the western concept on eastern culture. Easier you see... then actually understanding the culture.

    September 1, 2012 at 10:02 pm | Reply
  20. Ray

    Arab's and Semites are the same, Arabs come in differnt forms of religion, including Christianity, Judasim and the largest wchich is Islam. Christians are actually the safest religion amongst all these Arab dictators over the years, including Iraq and Syria, Palestinians and labense have huge christian populations as well, and i can tell you they are more opposed to the state of Isreal than most muslims in the region. This Garbage of christian and muslim wars only started when the Europe launched its crusades a 1000 years ago, it last roughly a hundred years and eventually the christians, jews and muslims learned to live together upto the early 1900's when Europe again through britian started carving up the middle east agian and helped create the state of Isreal in a an Arab land which all lived togther for thousands of years in a happy state, Europe has only been the disturnbance in the area since the time of the Romans, than french and british than again the US and britain and cretaing Isreal with White Euroean jews , not semite arab local jews. History 101 please tell this opened spy and all you other haters Islam grew through commerce and good trade practices with its neighbors, not conquests like crusaders and the Romans and the Brits who killed under the name of God.

    September 2, 2012 at 2:35 am | Reply
    • tcaros

      All arabs are sand rats to most Americans.

      Do you think we have time to even care about what you just said?

      September 2, 2012 at 5:07 pm | Reply
  21. Rick

    Assad is a victim of a Sunni insurgency spreading across the middle east, funded by not only wealthy Sunni nations but promoted by the USA and Europe.

    Nothing good will come of this, Syria will end up with a Taliban style regime.

    September 3, 2012 at 2:14 am | Reply
  22. A

    A very precise illuminating Article.
    A very open forum glad to have read it.

    "A Pool of Blood only goes more Thick."
    Please reply(it's that crazy radio jockey–SOS for your feeds)

    September 3, 2012 at 3:37 am | Reply
  23. akud

    Turkey can with tanks and helicopters against terrorists, and Syria can not, why????

    September 3, 2012 at 5:16 am | Reply
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