PRIMER SEPTEMBER 8, 2013
In the late 1980s Patrick Seale wrote an excellent account of the al-Assad family—well before it was clear that Bashar, its bookish, quiet, second-oldest son, would one day lead the Syrian government in massacring its own people. At the time, his older brother Bassel was the heir apparent to their father Hafez, while Bashar was just a lowly future ophthalmologist. But Bassel died in a 1994 car crash, and, in 2000, Bashar took the country’s helm.
Initially, many saw him as a Western modernizer (see David Lesch’s The New Lion of Damascus, for instance). He did not seem militaristic or power-hungry like his father or his brothers. But Bashar ended up as ruthless as any of his kin. In recent months, the Assad ranks have dwindled as its members, especially its women, flee the country. Here, an effort to better understand the context and background of Syria’s iron-fisted ruling family.
Bashar’s father and predecessor, Hafez al-Assad, rose to the Syrian presidency from an impoverished Alawite family. In 1946, the same year Syria gained its independence, sixteen-year-old Hafez joined the Syrian Ba’ath party. He climbed its ranks as the country suffered a series of coups, first through the breakup of the United Arab Republic, then through an internal Ba’ath party conflict, and finally in the overthrow of his former friend and ally, Syrian leader Salah Jadid, in 1970. Hafez was a military man, and his authoritarianism brought an unprecedented degree of stability to Syria: his three-decade rule remains the longest since the country's independence. He was unafraid to use brutality to maintain this power—in 1982, for example, he oversaw the Hama Massacre, a 27-day government attack on Muslim Brotherhood protesters that resulted in tens of thousands of Syrian deaths. His brother led his troops to the field—a tradition of familiar cooperation his sons have continued.
Bashar's mother Anisa was born into the Mahklouf family, which now includes some of the most influential businessmen in Syria. Her marriage to Hafez made them the de facto financiers of the Assad regime. For instance, the Ba'ath party has granted the Mahkloufs an enormous stake in the cell phone industry, and today, as the Daily Telegraph reported, one of Bashar's Mahklouf cousins may control as much as sixty percent of the Syrian economy.
When it came time to choose a successor to Hafez, the Guardian reports that Anisa is said to have passed over Bashar and advocated her aggressive youngest son, Maher. But when Bashar took the presidency, Anisa remained central to it—Bashar’s wife, Asma, purportedly cedes the title of first lady to her, and she even lived in Bashar and Asma’s home during his early presidency. In January, though, she fled the country for the United Arab Emirates, and has not been spotted publicly since then.
Born in Britain to Syrian parents, Asma was known as Emma to her classmates and led a relatively unremarkable suburban life until 2000, when she began to date Bashar, a family friend who would take the Syrian presidency later that year. They married soon after without official notice or public ceremony, and Asma joined her husband in Syria.
Infamously, Asma was the subject of a gushing Vogue profile that ran in March 2011, the same month that the Syrian Civil War broke out. The writer, former French Vogue editor-in-chief Joan Juliet Buck, purred at Asma’s enviable pedigree: She was a computer scientist and investment banker, “a thin, long-limbed beauty with a trained analytic mind who dresses with cunning understatement.” Asma, for her part, recounts telling jokes with Brad Pitt and refers to the Middle East as “a tough neighborhood.” (In a subsequent piece, Buck said she regretted the article: Asma was “brisk as a prefect, as on-message as a banker ... She was on show, "on," and delivered a well-rounded and glossy presentation of a cozy, modern, relaxed version of herself, her family, and her country to an American fashion magazine.”)
After the Civil War began, Asma was widely believed to have fled the country, like Bashar’s mother. But she’s appeared publicly in Syria as recently as March of this year, at an event at the Damascus Opera House. Photos surfaced of her kissing old women and smiling at young girls. This has been her go-to PR tactic, even as her husband’s regime kills thousands of its own people.
The conflict hasn’t affected Asma’s expensive tastes, however. Last year, emails leaked to the Guardian showed her ordering Parisian chandeliers and furniture with specifications such as: “I would like to confirm the color of the console empilee as PRUNE.”
Anisa gave birth to Bushra, her first child, while Hafez was exiled in Egypt during the era of the United Arab Republic. The infant fell ill and died; the exact dates of her birth and death have never been made public, but Patrick Seale writes that Hafez’s fellow military officer watched him “kneeling by the child’s bedside and weeping” after her death.
Perhaps in an effort to start anew, Hafez and Anisa named their second child Bushra, too. She was born in Egypt, shortly before the breakup of the UAR. Bushra is tall and imposing, the most intelligent and capable of the Assad siblings, according to the Mideast Monitor. Her father was said to have taken her advice on his presidency quite seriously.
In 1994 she married Assef Shawkat—much to the disappointment of her father, who otherwise trusted her judgment. Hafez hated the womanizing Shawkat—he even had him arrested to stop the wedding, the Boston Globe reported, and only allowed the marriage after Bushra had been despondent for months. No official celebration followed.
Once married, Bushra maintained her influence with her father until he died in 2000. With Bashar, her power only increased. (One former ambassador referred to Bushra and Assef as a “power couple” with strong political ambitions in Bashar’s regime). Her will eclipsed those of her siblings, though the power she wielded was subtle, hard to quantify, and obscured from the public eye. In 2012, she fled to the UAE after opposition forces killed her husband, who had become Syria’s deputy minister of defense. Her whereabouts and her degree of contact with Bashar are unknown.
Brawny and handsome, often pictured in military uniform and aviators, Bassel al-Assad was an engineer and army intelligence captain. Widely expected to succeed his father as Syrian president, Bassel was Hafez’s eldest and favorite—the Syrian dictator publicly referred to himself as “Abu Bassel,” or “father of Bassel.” Despite Hafez’s affection, Bassel felt his father was distant, saying, per Seale: “We never had breakfast together, or dinner, and I can’t remember our ever lunching together as a family.”
In 1994, Bassel drove his Mercedes into a barrier en route to the Damascus airport. He did not survive. After his death, shopkeepers placed images of his countenance in their windows; the Lebanese border town of Chtaura erected an enormous bronze statue of him amount a horse (he was an equestrian champion). His influence remains palpable even today: In 1989, for example, he founded the Syrian Computer Society, the group which eventually gave birth to the Syrian Electronic Army.
Majd, Bashar’s younger brother, suffered from crippling mental health issues, which kept him from the public eye. He died in 2009; the official cause of death was “a chronic disease.” But rumors had circulated for decades that Majd dealt with a narcotics addiction. He was also said to suffer from depression. Though officially he was an engineer and a married man, the Assads (and the Syrian press) kept a radio silence on his personal life. He was almost never mentioned—or seen—in public.
The youngest of the Assads, Maher pursued a career in the military even as a student at Damascus University. After Bassel’s death many speculated that he would take control of the country—he was certainly a more natural candidate than his doctor brother.
But Maher had a reputation as the family’s most explosive and cruelest member, and the presidency passed him over. He became instead the enforcer of his brother’s regime, the head of Syria’s Republican Guard and Fourth Armored Division; he is famous today for his greed and corruption as well as his brutality. His shady connections surfaced in 2011, for example, when a radio station called Voice of Lebanon played recordings in which he purportedly ordered the 2005 assassination of Lebanon's former prime minister. His involvement in the crime remains nebulous.
Maher was, unsurprisingly, the force behind the regime’s initial crackdowns on protesters—unverified videos surfaced in which he shot at them and took footage of their dead bodies—and his army division may have instigated the chemical attacks of recent weeks.
Accounts of his death or dismemberment have circulated constantly in Syria since the uprisings began. In 2012, he was said to have lost a leg in one bombing; in July of this year, another was said to have killed him. He is likely alive, directing the military from a clandestine location, his condition unknown.
Named for his grandfather, Bashar’s eldest son made international headlines last week, when the New York Times caught wind of a Facebook post almost certainly from the eleven-year-old’s account. As Syrians awaited an American strike, cleaning out grocery stores and barricading their homes, Hafez boasted of Syria’s military prowess. “America doesn’t have soldiers, what it has is some cowards with new technology who claim themselves as liberators,” he wrote, adding, “I just want them to attack sooo much, because I want them to make this huge mistake of beginning something that they don’t know the end of it…” Children of prominent officials liked the post. Comments ranged from “Dude that is so deep but soo true As well” to “Like father like son! Well said future President!”
Not much is known about Zein, Bashar and Asma’s nine-year-old daughter, or Karim, their seven-year-old son. Most of what we do know about them is from family and PR photographs. The Assads blow out birthday candles. Zein sports a Hello Kitty jacket at a rally. Karim rolls a toy truck with his father.
Mimi Dwyer is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic. Follow her at @dvdwyer.