Many observers now regard Bashar al-Assad as a tyrant whose determination to maintain power has devastated Syria and created yawning geopolitical fissures. But how did he come to assume the Syrian presidency in the first place, and what were the early characteristics of his leadership? Abdullah Yusuf and Craig McCluskie examine al-Assad’s pre-Arab Spring rise to prominence, and his domestic and international conduct ahead of 2011 and the devastating fall into civil war. 


The current president of Syria never aspired to be involved in politics, let alone be the worst mass murderer of the Arab Spring. In 1992, Bashar al-Assad was a graduate student, studying ophthalmology in London. Only six years later in 1998, and soon to be promoted to a colonel in the Syrian army, Assad was overseeing the Syrian occupation of Lebanon. Originally, his brother, Bassel al-Assad, was earmarked to succeed their father, Hafez al-Assad, as president of Syria. However, Bassel was killed in a car crash in 1994. This was the pivotal moment in the younger Assad’s transformation from quiet doctor to heir-apparent.


The Al-Assad family, c 1993. At the front are Hafez and his wife, Anisa. At the back row, from left to right: Maher, Bashar, Bassel, Majd, and Bushra. Image: Wikipedia.

After the funeral of his father in June 2000, Bashar al-Assad found himself at the very centre of Syrian – and Middle Eastern – politics. That year, he was elected president of Syria, with over 97 percent of the vote. On 16 July 2014, Assad was sworn in for a third presidential term after taking 88.7 percent of votes in the first multi-candidate election in Ba’athist Syria’s history. By then, Syria was in its third year of civil war.

A REFORMIST

When Bashar al-Assad married Asma Akhras – a British citizen and Sunni Muslim from west London – in 2000, it was taken as a sign that he wanted a more liberal Syria. There appeared to be clear signals that this was indeed the case. He closed the Mezzeh prison, where thousands of political prisoners were once tortured and kept without trial, and declared a wide-ranging amnesty, releasing hundreds of political prisoners.


Assad and his wife Asma in 2003. Image: Ricardo Stuckert/ABr – Agência Brasi [CC BY 3.0 BR]

But Assad’s primary goal was to keep a strong grip on power. This meant regular security crackdowns on his perceived enemies, creating strong links with Hezbollah – and its patrons in Tehran – in the process. It also meant endless manoeuvring and calculation with the Ba’ath party’s senior Old Guard officials. Like his father before him, Assad also assumed leadership positions in the two most important formal governing institutions in Syria; the armed forces and the Ba’ath party. Colonel Bashar al-Assad quickly became Lieutenant General Bashar al-Assad, the head of the Syrian military. The Ba’athists also selected him to replace his father as Secretary General of their party.

In early 2000, Assad appeared to be making promising progress on both the domestic and international fronts. He promised to liberalise the Syrian economy and bring democratic reform. He encouraged the formation of open political forums, where Syrians could publicly debate how the country should be run. These developments earned Assad a state visit to France to meet with President Jacques Chirac in 2001. At this point in time, the mood in Syria was buoyant, something viewed with great positivity by the international community. Such was the political atmosphere that the period was known as the ‘Damascus Spring’ – caution thrown into the wind, Syria was optimistic about its future.


Such was the political atmosphere that the period was known as the ‘Damascus Spring’ – caution thrown into the wind, Syria was optimistic about its future.

These developments represented a marked departure from Hafez al-Assad’s brutal and repressive regime, in both the domestic and international contexts. Since taking power through a coup d’état in 1970, the senior Assad had imposed political stability and turned his country to a regional power of stature and influence. Syria’s occupation of Lebanon in 1976 was testament that his father not only contained his domestic enemies, but also acquired the status of a prominent and influential Arab leader of the Middle East.

Unlike his father, Syrians during this period considered Bashar al-Assad a mild-mannered political novice whose rule was conditional upon the Ba’ath Party Old Guards which, under his father, had extinguished all opposition. Assad still needed to work closely with this group, who were keeping a sceptical eye on their new leader. They were uncertain of a man who, unlike his more prepared brother, had been rushed into the presidency almost by accident, despite his startling lack of experience.

A variety of different hopes were placed on Assad’s new political agenda. Unsurprisingly, the Old Guards demanded security and an upholding of the social-political order that had existed in Syria since 1970, when Hafez al-Assad seized control of the government. On the other hand, Syrian opposition parties hoped that this cordial, young, outward-looking new leader would make good on his promises to bring about much-needed reforms, more political participation, and freedom for the press.

SHIFTING INTERNATIONAL CONTOURS

International events played a critical role in shaping Assad’s presidency. The environment created by the 9/11 attacks, notably the US-led ‘War on Terror’, threw up opportunities for Assad to work closely with the US security apparatus. Washington and Damascus shared intelligence during these early days and helped to find and capture ‘rogue groups’ working against US interests. By early 2002, Syria was one of the CIA’s most effective intelligence allies in the Middle East, providing an outpouring of information, mostly against al-Qaeda.

However, this cooperation ended when the US invaded Iraq in March of 2003. Despite the Bush Administration’s pressure, Assad decided that Syria would not support the invasion. Soon, he found himself accused of facilitating and closely supporting the insurgency in Iraq. Following the fall of Baghdad in April 2003, Donald Rumsfeld, then US Defence Secretary, ordered contingency plans for a war on Syria to be reviewed. When this came to Assad’s knowledge, he became uncomfortable. He may well have been justified in thinking that Syria was next on Rumsfeld’s hit-list.


By early 2002, Syria was one of the CIA’s most effective intelligence allies in the Middle East, providing an outpouring of information, mostly against al-Qaeda.

As we know, the ultimate outcome was a collapse of Syrian–American relations, the further isolation of Syria in the region and in the world’s affairs, and the expulsion of Syrian forces from Lebanon in April 2005, under heavy international pressure. Responding to a quickly-changing climate, Assad moved closer to old allies – Tehran, Moscow and Hezbollah – and increased the anti-American rhetoric.

The tectonic plates shifted quickly. In early 2005, Assad negotiated from Moscow a seventy-three percent debt relief package and the purchase of a Strelets air defence missile system to defend Syrian airspace. By the end of 2005, Russia had signed billions of dollars worth of business deals in Syria. Shortly after, the Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, arrived in Damascus to sign bilateral agreements on the economy and security.


Presidents Assad and Putin during bilateral talks in Moscow, January 2005. Image: en.kremlin.ru

Domestically, Assad moved into riskier spheres. He started to purge mostly Sunni Old Guards from the Ba’ath Party, replacing them with loyal Alawite personnel. Following the Lebanese Sunni leader Rafiq Al-Hariri’s assassination in February 2005, the weight of international pressure fell hard on Assad. The heat of this event forced Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon that April, after nearly thirty years of occupation. Assad denied any wrongdoing in the assassination, but now he felt vulnerable. He moved to strengthen his grip on power by removing one of the most influential figures of the Ba’ath party, Abdul Halim Khaddam. Khaddam had been vice president of Syria from 1984 to 2005 and was a close friend of Hariri – him being one of the few Sunni Muslims in the Syrian elite. Once Khaddam had been purged, Assad’s supremacy in the Alawite-dominated Ba’ath party was certain.

THE DIPLOMATIC FRONT

But whilst the climate was shifting, Assad did not look to change everything. Restoring diplomatic connections with the West were still a priority. Shunned and derided by the US as a backer of terrorists and close ally of Iran, Assad’s regime had been boycotted in France and cold-shouldered by the EU since the 2005 assassination of Rafiq Al-Hariri.


President Assad meets with US Senator Ted Kaufman in 2009. Image: Office of Ted Kaufman [public domain].

In 2008 the new French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, sent his chief of staff Claude Guéant to Damascus. During the meeting, France demanded that Syria recognise Lebanon’s sovereignty. Assad agreed. In return, Sarkozy gave Assad a window of opportunity to normalise Syria’s international relations. Sarkozy invited Assad to Paris in July of 2008. And in September, signalling a clear break from the policies of his predecessor Jacques Chirac, Sarkozy paid a visit to Damascus.


At this stage, Assad seemed to be winning on all diplomatic fronts. By the end of 2010, Syria had fully recovered from its pariah state status to become an active member of the international community – and still a serious player in the politics of the Middle East.

Assad’s rehabilitation in France paved the way for new diplomatic openings with the USA, rekindling the relationship lost earlier in the decade. In 2010, Washington sent a diplomatic team to Syria to explore options for peace in the Middle East. Assad offered talks with Israel, with the US acting as mediator. The Obama administration responded by appointing a new ambassador to Damascus.

At this stage, Assad seemed to be winning on all diplomatic fronts. By the end of 2010, Syria had fully recovered from its pariah state status to become an active member of the international community – and still a serious player in the politics of the Middle East.


A mural depicting President Assad on a building in Latakia, Syria. November 2011. Image: Emesik [CC BY-SA 3.0]

But relations between Washington and Damascus remained especially interesting – always fragile and suspicious. President Obama worked to normalise US-Syrian relations and to distance US policy from the harsh, anti-Syrian rhetoric expressed during the preceding Bush administration. Yet he insisted that these new diplomatic overtures would not alter the firm expectation in Washington that Syria’s behaviour had to change.

Then, in 2011, as the Wikileaks scandal erupted, it was revealed that the US had given financial support to Syrian political opposition groups, and other politics-related projects, since 2006. It proved to be a decisive point, ensuring that Washington and Damascus would not overcome their mutual distrust.

THE FINAL ACT: WAR AND CONSOLIDATION

By September 2011, diplomacy had collapsed and the US was publicly arming groups committed to overthrowing the Syrian regime. Seven years on, Bashar al-Assad is still here. The American-funded rebels are losing the war. Syria, backed by Iran, Russia and Hezbollah, is winning.

Many of those Syrians who still support Assad regard him – even now – as being a little too meek to be president of the country. To observers in the West, however, he is simply another power-hungry Arab despot. But Assad is also a resilient leader, a seasoned realpolitik strategist, who saw through the years of tumult and failing relations with the West, and is the sole survivor of the Arab Spring.

He can feel confident that challenges to his presidency are on weak ground. Assad certainly is an accidental autocrat – but this accident is here to stay.


Dr Abdullah Yusuf is a lecturer in International Relations at the University of Dundee. His research interests lie in the areas of: international organisations; the politics of humanitarian armed interventions; war and peace in the Middle East. Abdullah can be contacted at: m.a.yusuf@dundee.ac.uk. He is on Twitter at: @DrAYusuf 

Craig McCluskie is a historian who works as a tutor in History (part of the School of Humanities) at the University of Dundee. His research interests include colonisation, nationalism, and national identity. Contact Craig at: c.y.mccluskie@dundee.ac.uk


Feature image:Hunkering down: a poster of Syria’s president at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Damascus, Jan. 14 2012. (E. Arrott/VOA)