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

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