How Bashar al-Assad Became So Hated

The Western-educated ophthalmologist was never intended to be the Assad brother in charge. Did his inept policies contribute to the civil war?
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Syria's President Bashar al-Assad speaks at the Opera House in Damascus on January 6, 2013. (Reuters)

The current president of Syria never aspired to be involved in politics. His brother Bassel Al-Assad was being groomed to become his father's successor. His name summoned images of a vocal, shrewd, dynamic man who was a parachutist, a ladies' man, an accomplished athlete, and an outgoing statesman. Bassel al-Assad was very popular and idolized by the Syrian youth. Everyone was certain that he would be the next president of Syria, after his father Hafez al-Assad, the founder of the current regime.

Compared to Bassel, his brother Bashar was not as charismatic or appealing. When I was a student in high school, I would walk the busy streets of Damascus, Aleppo, or Latakia and find the walls and windows of shops and buildings papered with posters and photographs of Bassel. His images were even plastered across cars, but there was not a trace of Bashar's presence.

Did Bashar's idealistic vision of creating a "Switzerland" Syria -- but still consolidating power at the top -- play a role in the uprising

Bashar did not seek out recognition or popularity. He had no interest in being in the middle of politics, as his brother did. In his school days, he was perceived by the Syrian society as a shy, reserved, weak, hesitant child who did not inherit any of his father's or brother's intelligence and leadership. Regardless of the assumptions of the entire country, soon the invisible hand of history would sweep away these perceptions prove everyone wrong.

Unlike his dynamic brother, the people of Syria viewed Bashar as a nerd, not someone with the instincts or the drive to lead a country. "He's certainly not a leader," my cousin, who was later killed in the recent uprising, and his friends would say of Bashar. Even a sympathizer with the regime, an Alawite named Abu Hisham, would say, "Bashar can not stand against powers such as Israel and the United States. We need a leader who is strong like Bassel."

Even Bashar's physical appearance -- his thin frame -- gave him an image of frailness. Nor did Bashar seem interested in projecting leadership; he was looking for a normal, peaceful, luxurious life somewhere in Europe with a prospective wife.

Bassel was following in the footsteps of his father, though he was a little wilder than his father had ever been. Bashar's sister Bushra was confident and influential in the country. Bashar was viewed as the "momma's boy," and was often seen as a bit of a joke, according to Jean-Marie Quemener , a journalist who has written about Assad . (Even during the recent uprising, people would lampoon him in a satirical web series where he is labeled as "Beesho," or "baby Bashar.")

However, while the entire country focused on his alluring older brother, Bashar was educating himself. He learned to be fluent in French at the Arab-French Al Hurriya School in Damascus and graduated from high school the same year of the Hama massacre, during which an estimated 10,000 to 25,000 people were killed by his father. Bashar had a love for medicine, and he continued his education at the University of Damascus. As dedicated as he was to his country, he was always more attracted to the Western style of life than his father and siblings, so after finishing his residency in ophthalmology at the Tishreen military hospital outside of Damascus, Bashar then traveled to England in 1992 to study at the Western Eye Hospital.

At the same time, his father was grooming Bassel to become the future president and vivacious leader that the country expected him to be. Bashar was savoring a comfortable life in a luxurious home and continuing on as a deeply devoted medical student. He appeared to adore the anonymity that London offered him.

Bashar's years living in London made his attraction to the Western style of living to grow even stronger. His later speeches would indicate that he always wondered why Syria had not evolved in a similar way, and that he wished his country was more modernized.

Then one day in 1994, Bashar received the phone call that would alter his life forever. His brother Bassel had died in a car accident. Since that day many have questioned why Bashar's calculative father chose his quiet, subdued son to take his place, rather than Bashar's other brother Maher, who was much more similar to Bassel.

I remember when the images and posters of Bassel started to be replaced by that of Bashar in the streets of Damascus. His father, although sick, tried hard to market his son as the symbol of "hope." For almost two years after Bassel's death, Bashar was not in the public eye. He was being trained in military and political affairs.

After two years, Bashar was transformed. Even his low, soft, child-like voice seemed to be tougher, and his stance became more confident and powerful. But many Syrian people would say that though Bashar changed on the surface, he had not changed on the inside. They believe he was still an anxious man with vacillating moods, just as he was when he was a child. Despite these misgivings, Bashar is considered the most articulate Arab leader; he is the only one who speaks Fusha (formal) Arabic most of the time.

When he assumed power, the lifestyle the West still occupied Assad's mind -- In his inaugural speech he emphasized that it was time to begin modernizing Syria. But to modernize Syria and remake it in the "image" he desired, he needed to adopt neo-liberal and capitalist policies, both of which stirred up a strong resistance from his father's old guard, who founded the socialist and secular Ba'ath Party. Not knowing the long-term consequences of marrying neoliberalism with the authoritarian structure, Bashar gained short-term benefits with his vast changes, but he also planted the seed of revolution.

In the beginning of his rule, he introduced the Damascus Spring, which included some political reforms that would suit the economic changes he planned. But when he saw that the reaction to his political shake-up was endangering his own throne, he retreated to old policies of mass repression, relying on Mukhabarat, the secret security police, to enforce his commands.

Internal clashes and tensions between Bashar and his father's old guard were inevitable. Men such as Ali Duba (former head of the Syrian military intelligence and a close adviser to the Syrian president Hafez al-Assad) as well as hardliners such as his brother Maher al-Assad (commander of the Republican Guard and the army's elite Fourth Armored Division), held such opposing views to that of their new leader that chaos was certain to occur.

During his early rule, Bashar became aware of the discontent and used his power to retire some of the old guard, sweeping them from power to reduce the conflict he faced.

The gradual increase of neo-liberal policies and privatization exaggerated the inequality between the poor and the rich, which was especially felt in middle-class areas, and mid-sized and large cities. While a small portion of the crony capitalists and loyalists to Assad were able to benefit from these policies, the vast majority of the population was disenfranchised. The uprising in the Arab world (Tunisia, Egypt, Libya) in 2011 also sparked the revolution against Bashar, who was still perceived as an inept leader.

Unable to control the uprising, the old guard members who had been forced to retire, surged back to power to address the situation. During the uprising, some Alawite people started chanting "Bashar lal iyada wa Maher lal ghiyada," meaning, Bashar should go back to the clinic and Maher should become the leader. Did Bashar's mama's boy image contribute to emboldening the people to come to streets? Did Bashar's idealistic vision of creating a "Switzerland" Syria -- but still consolidating power at the top -- play a role in the uprising? Did his vast and sudden economic and neo-liberal reforms, which in the end only benefited his gilded circle, have an impact on the current civil war? Perhaps the combination of all of these factors led to the rampant rebellion and mistrust of the people that Bashar had been chosen to lead.

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Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-Syrian scholar, is the president of the International American Council on the Middle East. 

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