A new doc­u­men­tary se­ries looks at how Syria’s rul­ing fam­ily helped plunge the coun­try into war

BBC History Magazine - - Contents -

The pick of new history pro­gram mmes s

“We wanted to ask how a trainee eye doc­tor could lead Syria to to­day’s dev­as­ta­tion”

The As­sads TV BBC Two, sched­uled for Oc­to­ber

As the Syr­ian civil war ap­pears to be head­ing to­wards a bru­tal con­clu­sion, it seems al­most in­cred­i­ble to re­flect that Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad was once re­garded as a re­former. Af­ter suc­ceed­ing his fa­ther, Hafez, in 2000, Bashar brought a sense of op­ti­mism to Syria. “[Peo­ple close to the pres­i­dency] re­ally be­lieved he wanted to mod­ernise the coun­try,” says Kate Quine, pro­ducer of a new se­ries trac­ing the history of the As­sad fam­ily and their rule of Syria.

It’s in great part the story of an ac­ci­den­tal pres­i­dent be­cause, as a se­cond son, Bashar never ex­pected to lead his coun­try. While he trained in medicine in Lon­don – the city where his wife, Asma, who worked for JP Mor­gan and was the daugh­ter of Syr­ian émi­grés, was raised – Bashar “was ex­pect­ing a quiet life”. It’s this phase of his story that gives the se­ries its cen­tral ques­tion. “We wanted to ask how a Bri­tish-born ju­nior banker and a trainee eye doc­tor could end up lead­ing Syria to the dev­as­ta­tion of to­day,” says Quine.

In 1994, fol­low­ing the death of his el­der brother, Bas­sel, “a charis­matic show jumper and mil­i­tary man” who had been groomed for the pres­i­dency, Bashar was sum­moned home.

“Those close to him have told the programme that it was a dif­fi­cult tran­si­tion for him, but he worked hard to trans­form him­self, and that he was a shy and ret­i­cent char­ac­ter, who had to learn to be a dif­fer­ent type of per­son very quickly,” says Quine. “We have been told that he was al­ways try­ing to live up to the rep­u­ta­tions of his fa­ther and his older brother, and that this de­fined him and the de­ci­sions he has made.”

Nowhere would this prove more fate­ful than at the out­break of the civil war. Many of those close to Bashar think he could have rid­den out the protests of 2011. In­stead, he chose a dif­fer­ent course of ac­tion. “He was still seen as a younger and more mod­ern leader than the Gaddafi/Mubarak gen­er­a­tion who were the fo­cus of the Arab Spring,” says Quine. “The programme learns he was told he could po­si­tion him­self as on the pro­test­ers’ side, he could con­cede to many of the de­mands – crack down on cor­rup­tion, de­liver the re­forms he had been promis­ing – and still main­tain power. But he de­cided to give a defiant speech, blam­ing a con­spir­acy against him, and pur­sue an in­creas­ingly bru­tal crack­down.”

Bashar al-As­sad waves to sup­port­ers at his fa­ther Hafez’s funeral, Da­m­as­cus, 13 June 2000

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