SYRIA DECEMBER 19, 2013
In 1982, not long after his father's military pulverized a town called Hama, Bashar Al Assad got a jet ski.
It was the tail end of one of the bloodiest periods in Syrian history—what one intellectual called “the hunting time.” In Damascus, a white Peugeot 504 idled on every other corner with mukhabarat, or secret police, inside. Corruption and smuggling were ubiquitous; at least 30 percent of the country’s GDP, and probably much more, came from the black market. Everyday goods like bananas and paper tissues were hard to find; jet skis were practically unknown.
Bashar was 16 years old, a pudgy, frizzy-haired kid with chipmunk cheeks and a double chin he would never grow out of. He had his own bodyguards but was so shy about his appearance that he would cover his teeth with his hands when he smiled.
One day, as the story goes, Bashar was sitting at home with a friend when some boys he knew called. They were going on an excursion to Syria’s Mediterranean coast. Could they borrow his new toy?
Yes, yes, of course! Bashar said.
As soon as the boys hung up, Bashar summoned the head of the guards at the presidential palace. Some friends of mine might come and ask to use my jet ski, he said. If they do, tell them it’s broken.
If there’s one thing those who know him agree on, it’s that Bashar Al Assad is awfully eager to please. Friends and even some enemies portray the Syrian president as a kind and generous man, always ready to use his connections to provide a favor: for a job, a heart operation, or just the permit the government has required, under Syria’s authoritarian form of socialism, to buy a tank of propane gas for cooking food. “Easygoing,” say diplomats who have faced him in negotiations. “I would have described him as a real gentleman, before this,” says a Damascene businessman who was part of Assad’s social circle and has now fled the country to escape its ongoing civil war.
The subtext here is that Assad is weak; the polite phrasing, among educated Syrians, has always been that he “does not have the qualities of a leader.” That is to say, he does not have the gravitas of his ruthless, gnomic father, Hafez Al Assad, who ruled the country from 1970 until June 2000. Other Syrians put it less delicately. They call him donkey, giraffe, taweel wa habeel—a Levantine putdown for a big, bumbling doofus. Diplomats, analysts, and a few heads of state have been just as harsh, predicting his imminent downfall since the day he took power.
Two-thousand thirteen was the year when it seemed as if those predictions would finally come true. As the uprising against him ground into its third summer, his regime lost territory and international legitimacy. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states lavished cash and weaponry on rebel fighters. Even the United States was reluctantly edging closer to supporting the revolution with something more than words. Then, on August 21, Assad’s regime used the nerve gas sarin to kill hundreds of Syrian civilians, crossing the “red line” that Barack Obama had said would prompt a U.S. military response. It looked like the end. If a formerly untouchable military dictator like Hosni Mubarak could go down in Egypt, then why not Syria’s lanky, lisping president?
What outsiders have been slow to realize is that in the game Assad is playing, a weak man (or one perceived that way) can cling to his throne just as tenaciously, and violently, as a strongman. Over the course of his reign, he has learned how to turn his biggest shortcomings—his desire for approval, his tendency toward prevarication—into his greatest assets. The world wants him to give up the chemical munitions he used against his own citizens, and he has begun to do that. The world wants an end to the conflict that has killed more than 100,000 Syrians and displaced millions more; his government is now willing to participate in peace talks. This nebbishy second son, who was never meant to inherit the family regime, has proved exceptionally talented in the art of self-preservation.
“He’s more clever than all the Western and U.S. politicians, for sure,” Ayman Abdelnour, a close adviser to Assad before he fell out of favor and fled into exile, told me. Abdelnour then recalled—by way of explaining why Assad was so difficult to take down—something the young president would tell his inner circle about their foreign adversaries. “They are here for a few years,” Assad would say. “My father, seven presidents passed through him.”
When Hafez Al Assad seized power in 1970, Syria had just suffered through nearly a quarter century of coups. The former defense minister was determined to impose stability. He made his Baath Party the country’s “leading party,” meaning the only one with any real authority. And he wagered that an understanding between the urban Sunni merchant classes and the secular security state, increasingly dominated by members of his clan, would hold his regime together. But the calm did not last.
In the late ’70s, Sunni Islamists, led by Baath’s old rival, the Muslim Brotherhood, unleashed a campaign of suicide bombings and assassinations that killed several hundred officers and civil servants. Many of their targets were Alawites, the Muslim minority to which the Assads belong. The faith combines tenets of Shia Islam, elements of Christianity and even Zoroastrian mysticism, and heterodox beliefs like reincarnation. (The thirteenth-century Syrian theologian Ibn Taymiyya, a godfather of today’s militant Sunni Islam, issued three fatwas against its followers.) Historically, Syria’s Alawites were among the poorest of the poor. But during the country’s decades as a colony of France, many of them found a path out of poverty through the military. Alawites continued to use armed service to rise in influence after Syria won independence.
In June 1980, as the power struggle between Baath and Brotherhood took on an increasingly sectarian tone, Hafez narrowly escaped an assassination attempt. His military responded by unleashing its full wrath on the Brotherhood, crushing its Islamist uprising through torture, mass executions, commando raids, and the assault on Hama, a three-week siege that killed tens of thousands of people, the vast majority of them civilians. Hafez liked to call himself “a peasant and the son of a peasant,” but the Assads came to position themselves as a cosmopolitan bulwark against the primitive forces of militant Islam—a modern, enlightened clan ruling a backward people, gently but firmly, for their own good. “In the end,” says a former adviser, “they see themselves much higher than others, as a family.” Suriyet al-Assad, the Syria of Assad, would have to be preserved at all costs.
Hafez ran his household the way he ran his country: demanding total loyalty and tolerating no complaint. Bashar’s older brother, Basil, who was being groomed to take over the presidency, would bully and beat up his little brother, according to one former adviser; but his parents, in keeping with the family code, did not discuss the matter. As a father, Hafez “was not the type of person who ever said ‘bravo’ or good job—he rather told you about the things you should not do, the negative,” Bashar told his biographer, the Middle East history professor David Lesch.
Ali Duba, Hafez’s dreaded head of military intelligence, starred in another bit of Assad parenting lore. One day, according to a story told by Syrians with contacts in the regime, Hafez was sitting around with friends, indulging a rare moment of relaxation, when he exclaimed, “I wish my sons were tough, like Ali Duba’s sons!” Years later, when Duba tried to challenge Bashar’s succession, the son would not dare ask his father for help. It was all part of the strange silence, verging on hostility, between the two. “No, no!” shouted Abdelnour, in alarm, when I asked him if Bashar ever discussed his problems with Hafez. “Even in his mind, he doesn’t discuss it!”
“I do not think [Hafez] was very enthusiastic to see his son replacing him,” Farouk Al Sharaa, a former Syrian foreign minister, told Lesch, “simply because perhaps he never thought he was going to die.”
This coldness inspired in Bashar a quiet rebellion against his father’s cult of personality. In his heyday, Hafez staged massive, North Korean–style extravaganzas, with a sea of people flashing cards to make a picture of his face. Crowds would clap wildly whenever the leader’s name was mentioned; Bashar’s tiny gesture of defiance was refusing to join in, because he did not think a man should be applauded without doing something to earn it. He showed other flashes of independence. The Assad children attended exclusive, French-language schools, alongside the sons of the Damascene elite. Though they had people to do their homework for them, in the finest ruling-class tradition, friends of the family say a young Bashar always insisted on doing his own. “He wants to do things his way,” a former adviser says.
Bashar got his chance to prove himself in January 1994, when Basil crashed his Mercedes Benz on his way to the Damascus airport and died. Bashar was called in from London, where he was doing a residency in ophthalmology, to begin a residency in dictatorship. He planned to succeed where his father had failed: at being liked, not just feared. His Syria would be modern and technocratic, a new model for the Middle East. “He wants approval—from the West, from educated Damascenes, from the artists and the intellectual class,” says a Syrian intellectual who asks not to be named. But the boy who grew up without approval did not understand how to earn it. He lacked what the Syrian intellectual calls “the celestial imagination”—the ability to understand the motivations and desires of other people, who might be dreaming of something beyond how much they admire him.
After his return to Damascus, Bashar joined the officer corps and took over the Syrian Computer Society, formerly Basil’s fiefdom. He started working out and learned how to speak without his youthful habit of covering his mouth. He also set out to build a kitchen cabinet of young reformers and technocrats. Bashar’s people were fellow doctors, engineers, college professors: nerds. They wanted Internet access, better technology, and a country with less corruption and more freedom of expression. Abdelnour was now a close adviser and confidant who drew up proposals for “management by objective” and modernizing the regime from within.
When Hafez died in June 2000, a special referendum installed Bashar as president. He had finally forced out his nemesis, Ali Duba, a few months earlier and now pushed other members of the old guard into retirement. On New Year’s Day 2001, Bashar married Asma Al Akhras, an investment banker from an elite Sunni family who had grown up in London. “There was almost a sense that he came to power reluctantly,” says Mona Yacoubian, a former State Department official who lived in Syria during Hafez Al Assad’s reign and is now a senior adviser for the Middle East program at the Stimson Center. “He wasn’t Basil, who was the more thuggish, stronger brother. He had this beautiful wife. They struck this picture of what people hoped Syria would become.”
The new president announced a series of changes. He released hundreds of political prisoners and permitted Syrians to host salons in their homes to discuss politics and ideas, which was previously forbidden. He allowed private ownership of banks. The government even granted a license to the country’s first independent newspaper, The Lamplighter, a satirical broadsheet run by the brilliant political cartoonist Ali Ferzat. And Syria finally got Internet access, albeit limited and heavily supervised. “At the time, I and millions of Syrians were hoping for the best, and wanting for him to open up the economy, to liberalize politics, to allow freedoms,” says Murhaf Jouejati, a professor at the National Defense University, who met with Bashar early in his presidency. “We were expecting that he would.”
Bashar took pains to appear more modern than his father. He liked to throw on jeans and drive his Audi A6 to Naranj, an upscale restaurant with an open kitchen that served an elegantly simple take on Syrian peasant cuisine. According to a friend, Bashar was partial to a toshi, a Damascene pressed sandwich—classic, regular-guy street food. Another story told of him walking into a restaurant in Aleppo unannounced and politely asking an old woman how she was enjoying her meal. “There is what I call the ‘modest king’ theory in Middle Eastern history: He wears normal clothes, he goes among the people, he sits normally,” says the Syrian intellectual. “And Bashar fits into this tradition.”
But the gestures were mostly symbolic; the so-called “Damascus Spring” would prove short-lived. In January 2001, a group of Syrian activists, intellectuals, and professionals, encouraged by the apparent opening of their country’s political culture, issued a declaration known as the “Statement of 1,000.” They called for an end to martial law and emergency rule and the release of all remaining political prisoners. (Then, as now, nobody knew how many the regime held.) They also demanded democratic, multiparty elections, under the supervision of an independent judiciary. Some of the activists had the temerity to form new political parties.
The Assad regime struck back immediately, beginning a campaign of harassment and intimidation that would last, with varying intensity, for the next ten years. A number of the citizens responsible for the Statement of 1,000 were arrested. By early 2002, the government had forced The Lamplighter out of print and thrown leaders of the fledgling discussion groups in jail. Despite his early feints at democracy, Assad was not interested in surrendering even an inch of his power. Suriyet al-Assad needed his benevolent guidance.
To Bashar and his wife, it wasn’t the Syrian regime that required real reform. It was the Syrian people. Asma’s official biography, passed to me by an old friend of Bashar’s, distills their governing ideology. It reads like a tract from Rand Paul: Syrians need to stop depending on the state and assume “personal responsibility for achieving the common good,” the document proclaims, adding, “the sustainable answer to social need is not aid but opportunity” and “creating circumstances where people can help themselves.” That the Assad family and its loyalists have been helping themselves to Syria’s national wealth for decades does not enter into this narrative.
During the winter of 2006, one of Assad’s advisers showed up for a meeting at the president’s office. He found his boss hyperventilating, unable to speak. “They will reach me,” Assad finally gasped. The adviser desperately attempted to calm him down, offering him juice and coffee. Assad was in an abject state of panic—“complete moral collapse” is how the adviser recalls the scene. After 15 minutes, the dictator collected himself and began the meeting, as if nothing had happened.
Assad was under pressure from several sides. Early in the war on terror, Syria had been an unofficial partner of the United States, even covertly torturing suspected militants. But following the fall of Baghdad in 2003, the Bush administration began hinting that Syria could be the next candidate for regime change, the penalty for its patronage of Hamas and Hezbollah. Assad started allowing Sunni insurgents and jihadi funds to flow through his country into Iraq, hoping to help bog down the United States. But he was also coming under fire over the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the Sunni former prime minister of Lebanon, who had begun to challenge Syrian meddling in his country in the months before his death. A United Nations investigation into the killing stopped just short of implicating regime officials. There was talk that Assad himself could be brought up on charges by a special U.N. tribunal.
Despots who find themselves trapped in confrontations with other countries rely on a venerable set of tactics. Some tyrants embrace conflict, using it to rally their subjects behind them. Others, like Hafez Al Assad, perfect the art of intransigence. He was “a stone wall,” says one senior Western diplomat who knew both father and son. Bashar, however, took a very different approach: “[He] was much more supple, much more ready to talk details. He’s very smooth-edged. Very agreeable—nothing seemed to be beyond imagining.” Bashar was so eager to create an impression of pliancy, says another diplomat, that during one round of high-level negotiations, he launched into discussions before the pre-talk photo op was even over. His foreign minister had to quietly remind him not to discuss state matters in front of the press.
For years, many Western analysts and diplomats have viewed Assad as malleable, even naïve. But his former aides describe a man who is accustomed to being underestimated and adept at exploiting those misperceptions. Before negotiations, Assad would tell his team to let the other side think they had won: “Give them always nice words, nice meetings, nice phrases,” Abdelnour recalls him saying. “They will be happy, they will say good things about us, and they cannot withdraw from it later.” In the end, though, Assad rarely delivers on the concessions that he grants so courteously. He always has an excuse, a variable beyond his control: Yes, he would try to stop the flow of jihadists into Iraq, but he could not police the entire border.
According to another former aide, Assad took pleasure in toying with the West. “He told me once, ‘When I sit with the Arabs, it’s a session of takazu’—mutual lying, we say in Arabic,” says the former adviser. “ ‘But when I sit with those foreigners, and you see me on television, really it’s a game of Tom and Jerry.’ ”
Assad also had a different, homegrown model for his approach. “Give them a sandwichet Ghawwar,” has been one of Bashar’s instructions to his team when the regime feels squeezed. Ghawwar Al Toshi is a beloved Syrian TV character, a stubborn prankster with a lush mustache and an old-school Damascene accent. He seems bumbling and feckless, a little like a Syrian Mr. Bean, but his implausible capers always somehow work out to his advantage. In one famous episode, Ghawwar opens a sandwich stand; instead of buying all the necessary ingredients, he takes a single piece of meat and ties a string to its end. His customers walk away, unaware that Ghawwar is about to pull back the fillings and leave them with nothing but empty bread.
Assad can play the gag expertly. By 2007, the Hariri investigation was foundering. The United States was losing control in Iraq and, once again, pleading for his help reining in Islamic militants. He had not only survived his crises; he emerged from them stronger, or so he believed. He thought he was creating a legacy of his own. When a Syrian TV announcer called Hafez the greatest Arab leader in history, Bashar had one of his advisers, Buthaina Shaaban, call the announcer and order him never to say it again.
In October, after some back-and-forth, one of Assad’s high school friends agreed to meet with me. He asked that I not use his name, or any identifying characteristics, because he was afraid the opposition would make him a target. “Even the secular guys are really crazy,” he said. “You could get whacked really easily.”
We met in a hotel lobby on New York City’s Upper East Side. Immediately, he suggested that we go somewhere else. “I don’t like it here,” he said, looking over his shoulder at the side entrance where he had specified we meet. A surprising number of people from Assad’s inner circle have fled to the United States in the past few years as their lives in Syria, which had been quite comfortable, became less so.
Assad spent his first term in office refining an economic policy based on cronyism, privatizing the old state-run industries without actually creating any new competition. It was gangster capitalism cloaked in neoliberal free-market rhetoric. His maternal cousin, Rami Makhlouf, became the symbol of the ruling clan’s racketeering. Makhlouf controlled a network of extraordinarily lucrative monopolies, from one of the national cell-phone carriers to a chain of duty-free stores. After bringing in the Egyptian telecom giant Orascom as a partner to develop Syriatel, he edged the Egyptians out and kept the spoils for himself, which discouraged other foreign investors and left Syria’s economy more isolated than ever.
Experts have been warning for years that Syria was headed for a demographic disaster if economic conditions did not improve. “Signs of internal restlessness are increasing,” Yassin Haj-Saleh, a dissident who spent 17 years in jail under Hafez, warned me back in the summer of 2005. “If we have a social explosion, God forbid, it might take on a sectarian character.” Over the next few years, the country absorbed more than a million Iraqi refugees, straining its already weak infrastructure. A devastating drought began in 2007 and dragged on for three years, exacerbated by the government’s mismanagement of water and land resources. As the Assads burnished their international profile by hosting Sting and Angelina Jolie in Damascus, 80 percent of the people from the drought-stricken areas, mostly agricultural peasants, were left destitute, so poor that they subsisted on bread and tea.
In January 2011, as popular uprisings spread through Tunisia and Egypt, Assad spoke with two reporters from The Wall Street Journal. “We have more difficult circumstances than most of the Arab countries, and in spite of that Syria is stable,” Assad said. “You have to be very closely linked to the beliefs of the people.” Syrians, he insisted, did not want “cosmetic” reforms just to please the West; they knew that the only real solution was to “upgrade the whole society.”
That February, a group of children in Deraa, a dusty southern Syrian town full of poor agricultural migrants, got tired of waiting for their upgrade. With cans of spray-paint, they took up the revolutionary cry spreading across North Africa and Yemen: The people want the fall of the regime. Security forces rounded up 15 of them.
Here is how people in Syria tell the story of what happened next: In March, the boys’ fathers went to Atef Najib, the head of political security in the province and a relative of the Assads. They laid their keffiyehs on the table to show that they would not leave without their sons. “You want your sons back?” Najib laughed, throwing their keffiyehs into the trash. “Bring me your wives, and I will make you more sons!” Protests broke out; within the week, 120 anti-government demonstrators were dead.
This time, the world’s approval would be out of reach. So Assad set about making himself the least-bad option. On March 30, 2011, as the conflict escalated, he gave a defiant and conspiratorial speech casting himself as the victim of “foreign powers” who had stirred up insurrection in a bid to destroy Syria. “They adopt the principle,” he said of his enemies, “of ‘lie until you believe your lie.’ ”
In fact, it is Assad who has done exactly that. Calmly and deliberately, he has painted a picture that in the beginning was not completely accurate: The demonstrators, he said, were jihadists who would bring Afghanistan-type chaos to the country. Then he sat back and waited for it to become true. “He’s very strategic. From the very first day, he was talking about terrorists and Syria’s national unity,” says a former regime official, who has now defected to the United States. “People were talking about democracy, human rights, silly stuff—not silly, but not strategic—and he is talking about Al Qaeda.”
And if a series of well-timed massacres by the regime would provoke outrage in the West, Assad also knew that images of carnage would cause Gulf states to arm the Islamist opposition and escalate the sectarian warfare. This was his strategy: to make intervention so unpalatable that the international community would take no steps to alter the course of the conflict. “These jihadists who have come in, largely courtesy of private Gulf money, these are his enemies of choice,” says Frederic C. Hof, the Obama administration’s former envoy to the Syrian opposition and currently a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. “I call it a coalition of co-dependency.”
As the Al Qaeda element grew stronger, the regime became increasingly aggressive at playing it up. With Islamist rebels seizing territory closer and closer to Israeli-occupied areas, the opposition posted a video of a half-dozen fighters driving along the border of the Golan Heights. “For forty years, not one shot has been fired against Israel from here,” one of the fighters shouts in Arabic. “Allahu akbar!” At that, some of his companions raise their Kalashnikovs with one hand and shoot them into the air. “The regime made sure that this video was all over [the Internet] the next day,” says the former Assad official. “They took their whole media machine and they put it everywhere, to show the Israelis: Look what’s coming.”
Meanwhile, the regime methodically discredited the revolution’s moderate, secular factions with sophisticated dirty tricks. For the first four or five months of the war, security forces treated detainees from Damascus with relative caution, even as they massacred villagers in rural areas—a shrewd way to make opposition claims of brutality look hysterical to the capital’s middle and upper classes. “If you were from a good family, they wouldn’t torture you,” says Mohamad Al Bardan, a nonviolent opposition leader who now lives abroad. “People like me, at one point, we felt they were stupid. They are not stupid at all.”
Later, when what Graham Greene called “the torturable class” expanded to wealthy, Internet-connected urbanites, Assad and his henchmen adopted a tactic that would have made Jerry the mouse proud. A rumor would swirl that the regime had detained a certain supporter of the revolution. The opposition would mobilize: media alerts, petitions, pleas to international human rights organizations. Once the alarm had reached a frenzy, the supposedly jailed activist would appear on state-run television, making the opposition look unreliable. “They did that multiple times,” says Bardan. In one of the most wicked examples, word spread that Alawite regime thugs had beheaded a beautiful young Sunni Muslim girl because her brother was an opposition activist. When she resurfaced a few weeks later, she told a different story: She had run away from home because her brother was abusing her.
The regime is constantly refining its dark arts of propaganda and deception. When it captures an activist, his comrades often try to shut down his social-media accounts as quickly as possible, to prevent the regime from mining them for intelligence. As security forces figured this out, they began forcing detainees to reopen their accounts. Social-media companies would get a message supposedly from the detainee, claiming to be free and complaining that he had been maliciously targeted. When activists tried to explain what really happened, it sounded like a conspiracy theory. After a few of these incidents, the social-media companies weren’t sure whom to believe. “They thought we were playing, doing some kids’ stuff,” says Bardan. “It’s difficult to describe to any American, that this is the way that we live in Syria. ... Different cultures, different societies cannot understand exactly how evil could be.”
By the time the Syrian military used the nerve gas sarin to kill hundreds of civilians in the ring of suburbs around Damascus on August 21, 2013, the jihadists were so ascendant, and the secular opposition so discredited, that Assad could claim the rebels carried out the attacks and not be universally dismissed. His version of events did not have to be credible. It just had to create confusion and doubt. In a Pew poll conducted eight days after the attacks, only 53 percent of Americans believed there was “clear evidence” that Assad was to blame. Even supposedly better-informed authorities, including the revered journalist Seymour Hersh, entertained the regime’s carefully planted suggestions.
While the Obama administration never seriously doubted Assad’s role in the attack, it accepted other crucial pieces of the dictator’s narrative. “The regime has been extraordinarily successful with a very disciplined and single–minded disinformation campaign,” says Hof. “Even in the executive branch, you’ve got people arguing over what’s the bigger threat, Assad or Al Qaeda. You’ve got people worrying about all kinds of hypotheses—what if Assad were overthrown? What would happen to Syria? As if what’s happening to Syria is something we can all live with.”
According to one former Assad aide, about a week after the sarin-gas attack, as the White House vacillated over how to respond, Assad called his top military and intelligence chiefs into a meeting. This was unusual; he rarely gathers them in one place, preferring one-on-one meetings. Assad told the men not to worry: If the United States launches air strikes, they will be merely cosmetic—a face-saving measure for Obama. We are safe, he told them.
One recurring theory about Assad, which the regime has perhaps subtly encouraged, holds that he is not really running his country, but is in thrall to a shadowy set of figures that varies according to whom you’re talking—in some versions, it is his father’s old circle; in others, the Alawite elite. (This theory was especially appealing to the Western governments who once hoped that high-level defections could help weaken Assad, and perhaps even supply his replacement.) Most of the former regime officials I spoke to rejected that idea. “This is a kind of one-man show,” says a former regime official. “The system will not collapse as long as Assad does not collapse. Any other person is replaceable.”
Under the deus ex machina set in motion by Russia, Assad has until the middle of 2014 to facilitate the removal and destruction of all of Syria’s chemical-weapons stockpiles and manufacturing capabilities. Even though this agreement does nothing to threaten Assad’s hold on power—Moscow can veto any U.N. punishment for the regime’s failure to comply—it has been widely celebrated. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which is overseeing the process, won the Nobel Peace Prize. Assad joked in front of reporters from a Lebanese newspaper that he should have received the award himself.
When I asked one former regime official about what will happen next, he suggested the following scenario: International chemical weapons inspectors are operating out of the fortress-like Four Seasons Hotel in Damascus. Assad knows that a few of these inspectors will be Western intelligence agents. Syrian operatives will figure out who they are and quietly approach them with tips: a known terrorist is in this province; we have pictures; we’re fighting Al Qaeda, just like you. “And I will not be surprised at all if the American and Syrian intelligence agencies work together again,” says one defector. “If not today, tomorrow. If not directly, indirectly. The door will be open.”
The last time Bashar Al Assad stood for reelection in Syria, where the presidential term lasts for seven years, was in May 2007. He had no credible opponent and won with 97.6 percent of the vote. Instead of his father’s Pyongyang-style extravaganzas, Bashar celebrated with a more postmodern spectacle: an exquisitely orchestrated “uprising” of support, part Roman triumph, part faux Orange Revolution. Crowds of people danced debkeh in the streets with choreographed spontaneity, waving torches and posters of Bashar and singing: “We love you, yes! We love you!”
Syria’s next presidential election is scheduled for May. In an October interview with the German newspaper Der Spiegel, Assad played coy about whether he will seek a third term. “I cannot decide now whether I am going to run,” he said. “It’s still early, because you have to probe the mood and will of the people.” But he seemed to like his chances. “Who isn’t against me?” Assad said. “You’ve got the United States, the West, the richest countries in the Arab world, and Turkey. All this and I am killing my people, and they still support me! Am I a Superman? No. So how can I still stay in power after two and a half years? Because a big part of the Syrian people support me.” Besides, Assad added, “Where is another leader who would be similarly legitimate?”
Annia Ciezadlo, a veteran Middle East correspondent, is the author of Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love, and War.