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Once seen as shy reformer, Syria's Assad confounds hopes

Many thought that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was at heart a reformer. But his response to unprecedented protests and violence suggest otherwise.

By Correspondent / April 21, 2011

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad delivers a speech to a new cabinet he named last week during a broadcast by Syrian state television in Damascus, in this file photo of a still image taken from video on April 16.

Syrian TV via Reuters TV/Reuters

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Beirut, Lebanon

Ever since Bashar al-Assad became president of Syria nearly 11 years ago, he has confounded analysts, diplomats, journalists and pundits alike.

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Is he the shy, slightly goofy character who comes across in his public addresses, whose genuine desire to reform his country has been thwarted by vested interests within the regime and a succession of foreign crises?

Or is he, in fact, cast from the same stern mold as his father, Hafez al-Assad, a rigid autocrat who sacrifices freedoms to ensure regime survival and stave off the instability that saw Syria prone to multiple coups in the years before the Baath Party took power in 1963?

“It is hard to tell – Assad gives very few clues,” admits Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who lived in Damascus between 2001 and 2009.

The unprecedented and deadly protests that have swept the country over the past five weeks have presented Assad, who is 45, with his sternest challenge yet. While it is the first serious domestic unrest during his decade in power, it is far from being his first crisis.

Indeed, just two months after he was sworn in as president, the Palestinian Al-Aqsa intifada broke out in the West Bank and Gaza, an event that put Damascus in the spotlight given its backing for groups such as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Then, a year later, came the Sept. 11 attacks and the beginning of the Bush administration’s war on terror.

Although Damascus cooperated with the United States against Al Qaeda in the initial stages of the campaign, by 2003, relations had deteriorated badly in the build up to the US-led invasion of Iraq.

In 2005, Syria was forced to withdraw its troops from Lebanon in the face of an uprising and international pressure following the assassination of Rafik Hariri, a former Lebanese premier who had been at odds with the Syrian regime.

In 2006, Israel fought a war with Syria’s Lebanese ally, Hezbollah. A year later, Israeli jets bombed an alleged nuclear facility under construction in eastern Syria, placing Damascus in the spotlight of international nuclear watchdog, the IAEA.

“He’s had a series of crises and he feels that his whole mind has been focused on foreign crisis and survival for Syria, stability for Syria,” says Patrick Seale, a British journalist and biographer of Hafez al-Assad. “The more he focused on them [foreign crises], the less he focused on internal reforms and the stronger became his security forces…. He’s trying now to push through some reforms, but he still thinks rightly and wrongly that [the current unrest] is still a foreign conspiracy.”

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