Cruel and cunning dictator shows no flicker of remorse
BASHAR AL-ASSAD seems diffident and does not fit our stereotype of the heinous dictator. But then nor did the mild-mannered Stalin – and neither did his ruthless father, Hafez, who founded the Assad dynasty’s rule in 1970.
There is not a flicker of remorse in Bashar al-Assad’s eerily composed interview, but that should come as no surprise.
When the mild-mannered Bashar was called home from London, where he trained as an ophthalmologist, to take over on his father’s death in 2000, few believed he had the killer instinct necessary. Yet seven years into a brutal civil war, Bashar al-Assad stands on the brink of victory. He is a survivor when a raft of Arab dictators have fallen in the wake of 2011’s Arab Spring uprisings. The secret of his survival has been a potent mix of cruelty, cunning, corruption and clan loyalty.
Whether or not we believe his claims that there never was a gas attack in Douma, no one doubts the litany of bloodshed imprisonment, and torture that have accompanied his rule.
For all his complaints today about the ‘colonial’ behaviour of the West, his own behaviour has been brutal.
The regime’s key weapons have been fear and division. Throughout the war, Assad has not hesitated to make life hell in rebel-held areas through siege warfare, barrel-bombs and chemical weapons. Many wondered why he risked Western intervention by using chemical weapons. If there is method in the madness, it is two-fold: gas is more terrifying than bullets and bombs, and by revealing that Western red lines are meaningless, it steals hope from the rebels. In addition, Assad has sought to polarise Syrian society by exploiting the country’s various minorities’ fear of Islamist fundamentalism. Sunni Muslim Arabs form by far the largest part of the population of Syria, but key territories are occupied by minorities, including Syrian Kurds, Armenians, Shia Muslims, Christian sects and Alawites such as Assad.
When Syria became caught up in the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, Assad saw the opportunity to divide and rule. He saw the moderate opposition as the immediate threat. Protesters demanding free elections could rally support across the board, unlike bearded jihadis. The result was a brutal armed crackdown.
Eliminating the moderate Sunnis left only Islamic fundamentalists as organised opposition. That frightened the Christians, Shiites and Kurds back into the Assad fold.
And so, with help from Russia and Iran, Assad has survived. Ironically, victory over his regime’s deadliest enemies could see the birth of new problems. His removal of the threat of fundamentalist takeover, which underpins the reluctant acceptance of his rule by many Syrians, may be the catalyst that brings his downfall.
VICTIM OF THE BRUTALITY: A Syrian child after a chemical weapon attack