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