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.

Syrian TV via Reuters TV/Reuters
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.

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

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.”

Still, the recent antiregime demonstrations and past experience suggest that regardless of Assad’s true motivations, he is unwilling to make concessions while under pressure.

After two weeks of protests, Assad addressed the Syrian parliament on March 30 amid high expectations – based on hints by regime officials – that he would announce a package of reforms. But he dashed the hopes of optimists by conceding little and instead blaming the unrest on “foreign conspirators.” Since then, the draconian Emergency Law has been revoked after nearly half a century and the state security court abolished. But the measures have failed to dampen the protests.

Assad was similarly reluctant to offer concessions during the Baath Party conference in June 2005 at the height of Syria’s regional and international isolation. Prior to the conference, he announced it would signal a “leap for development,” giving rise to expectations that the recent humiliation of the troop pullout from Lebanon and international pressure would force him to make some long-awaited reforms.

But the results fell far short of expectations, with a handful of aging regime figures ousted and little more besides.

“He doesn’t like to pushed around,” says Mr. Seale. “He inherited that from his father. He doesn’t like to have to yield under pressure.”

Although the state has loosened its grip on the economy in recent years, leading to a partial liberalization, deeper political reforms failed to emerge even when the Assad regime found itself in a more comfortable environment. That raises questions over whether Assad really is a reformer at heart.

A brief period of relative political openness in spring 2001 was quickly suppressed and some opposition figures imprisoned. But a former adviser to Assad, who requested anonymity, recalls in the early stages of Assad’s presidency that there were a number of administrative, economic, and legal reforms being proposed.

“Gradually the reform programs began to come together, but at the same time, the resistance to these programs began to build as they threatened vested interests,” the former adviser says. “Bashar told me ‘the guys don’t want to do it.’ ”

Despite the worsening violence that has left more than 200 protesters dead and hundreds wounded, many Syrians still pin their hopes on Assad being a reformer. Criticism of regime figures tends to focus on the likes of Rami Makhlouf, a cousin of Assad who has amassed huge wealth in the past decade due to his ties to the regime and alleged intimidation of other businessmen. In 2008, the Treasury department designated Makhlouf, saying he had benefited from corruption in Syria. Another unpopular figure is Maher al-Assad, the president’s younger brother who heads the Republican Guard, the elite military force charged with protecting the regime.

But for much of Syria’s opposition, there is little ambiguity over Assad’s true nature.

“The truth is plain for all to see. Assad is what Assad does, not what Assad says or how he carries himself in public,” Ausama Monajed, a Syrian opposition activist, wrote in an e-mail circulated Monday to journalists covering the Syria uprising. “What Assad has been doing since Year One in office … is to crack down and stand by the most corrupt members of his family and entourage. Bad guys in the Middle East don’t all look like Saddam or speak like Qaddafi: they just behave like them."

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