Assad Shows His True Colours

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was long popular with his people. Now, however, he is using brutal force to fight them. Can he maintain his grip on power? A commentary by Michael Thumann

By Michael Thumann

When the Syrian president, Hafez al-Assad, had over 10,000 people gunned down in the city of Hama in 1982, his son Bashar was 16 years of age and far removed from the world of politics. Back then, there was only one answer to a rebellion in Syria: mow it down. At the time, there was no Internet, no satellite television, and the borders were closed. One could only imagine the horrors of what took place in Hama.

Today, Bashar al-Assad is himself president of Syria, rising to power and succeeding his father in the year 2000. Now the whole world is watching Assad Jr. fight for his political survival.

Mobile phone cameras are capturing tanks in Deraa, people are being shot dead in Jableh, soldiers are patrolling the suburbs of Damascus with their rifles cocked. Last weekend alone, well over one hundred people died; hundreds of democracy activists are said to have been imprisoned; hundreds have gone missing.

The demonstrations against the dictatorship continue. The head of state has to make up his mind: to concede or to raze everything to the ground. It would seem that he has already scuppered his chances of a third option, namely to launch a courageous, swift process of reform. Will Bashar al-Assad survive this crisis?

Assad's concessions: too little, too late

Tanks in Deraa, people being shot dead in Jableh ... Assad is using violence to put down the rebellion; according to human rights activists, almost 600 people have already been killed

​​He has made many mistakes in recent weeks. Too many. He somehow wanted to allow change while at the same time suppressing the people; he announced that the state of emergency would be lifted yet allowed the police to wield their truncheons; he promised reforms ("at the right and appropriate time") yet sent in the troops. He allowed himself to be fêted by the puppet parliament in Damascus as a wise ruler. That was arrogant. More demonstrators took to the streets.

After weeks of protests, Assad finally brought himself to make some political concessions on Friday, 22 April. He lifted the state of emergency and abolished the infamous State Security Court. But these moves were followed by ruthless army tactics: there was blood on the streets of Deraa and Damascus, an unprecedented repression of the protests. Can one still believe anything this man says? How seriously must he be taken?

Since January, Bashar al-Assad has certainly had enough time to examine in detail all the mistakes made by President Ben Ali in Tunisia and President Mubarak in Egypt. He also saw how the rulers of Saudi Arabia consistently nipped all protests in the bud.

The lesson from Riyadh was that if you want to stay tough, you have to promptly remove the very first demonstrators from the streets, impose a general ban on protests and let it rain money on the people. The lesson from Egypt and Tunisia was that if you want to make concessions, do so quickly and in earnest, otherwise you will end up chasing the demands of the protestors.

As far as concessions are concerned, Assad's defensive tactics are reminiscent of the hesitation demonstrated by Ben Ali and Mubarak: too little, too insignificant, too late. It seems to be something in the genes of Arab rulers. It also seems to have much to do with Bashar al-Assad himself. Until now, almost everything he did was a success. Unlike Mubarak, he was actually very popular with his people for a long time because of his tough stance on Israel and the fact that he kept America at a distance. Why should things not work out for him this time around?

Handed power on a platter

For quite some time, the 45-year-old was the envy of his fellow rulers in the Near East. Bashar al-Assad never had to fight for power; it was presented to him on a platter. When his father set the army loose on the rebellious Muslim Brotherhood in Hama, the young Assad was at school at the Arab-French college in Damascus. Later, like many other citizens, he went to university, studying medicine in Syria and then in London and qualifying as an ophthalmic optician.

"Down with the system!" Major demonstrations against the Assad clan and the Baath Party's monopoly on power have taken place in the Syrian coastal town of Baniyas, a stronghold of the regime's opponents, in recent weeks

​​His father had actually singled out his brother Basil – not Bashar – to succeed him as head of state. But Basil al-Assad was killed in a car accident in 1994. It was at this point that Bashar al-Assad's political career began. When his father died six years later, everything had been arranged. In a region where intrigue and carefully aimed bullets often determine who takes over, this candidate simply walked into the president's office, smiled and took his seat.

He was young and popular. He seemed to lack the brutality and the shrewdness that had kept his father in power for so long. Visitors from the West found him pragmatic, pleasant, and open for change. In the year 2000, Bashar al-Assad announced political reforms and promised to combat corruption. Syrians who were hungry for democracy believed him and, after decades of silence, dared to express their own opinions. Independent discussion forums were established.

Restoration and modernisation

But the Damascene Spring was of short duration. By 2001, opposition activists were once again being imprisoned and human rights activists sentenced. The Baath Party remained the only legal political force in the country. Bashar al-Assad showed himself to be not a reformer but – as Volker Perthes, head of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, once put it – only as a moderniser; a man of technocratic renewal, a man who merely made improvements in efficiency that would not call into question the system of rule and would not increase freedom in any way.

The tide has turned on Bashar al-Assad; according to Michael Thumann, he is losing his reputation as a "good" dictator

​​Bashar al-Assad set out to computerise the country's bureaucracy, to enhance the image of its economy with a banking system and sound accountancy practices, and to bring the security services up to speed technologically. He modernised the foundations of his rule and the economy – just like Mubarak before him in Egypt. The only difference was that Assad was fortunate that many Syrians were satisfied with these changes for quite some time, while Mubarak – and particularly his son Gamal – were loathed for their programme of economic refreshment, which included rapacious privatisation.

Assad was also fortunate in the field of foreign policy too. Admittedly, things looked a bit tight for him following the assassination of Lebanon's prime minister, Rafik Hariri, in 2005 when the evidence seemed to point to Damascus. Assad made a U-turn following severe criticism from many Arabs and sanctions imposed by the French and the Americans and was forced to withdraw his troops from Lebanon. His back was against the wall; only Iran stood by him.

But his luck changed a few years later. Both his arch enemies, Jacques Chirac and George W. Bush, retired. The investigations against Syria came to nothing and were terminated. Assad was once again able to receive foreign guests of state in Damascus: from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Germany, and France.

In January 2011, the Americans sent an ambassador to Damascus again for the first time in many years. Syria's influence in Lebanon was on the increase and Assad was smiling again. He had successfully withstood all the international pressure and felt more secure than ever before. Then came the Arab Spring, the wave of revolutions in which Syria is now caught up.

Fighting alongside the dictator for survival

Now, the president has the secret services, the presidential guard, the police, the army, rifles, tanks and helicopters on his side. Syria is different to Egypt and Tunisia: here, the soldiers are loyal to the ruler, not to the people. In a country that is predominantly Sunni, they support the minority regime of the Alawite Bashar al-Assad. Together with the dictator, they are fighting for their survival.

Breaking their silence: Syrian opposition activists from the Facebook group "Syrian Revolution 2011" last Saturday called for a "Week on the lifting of the siege"

​​As the amount of blood spilled by the soldiers continues to increase, Assad's propaganda machinery is intentionally sending out messages of fear. A revolution in Syria, so the message goes, would not be a festival of joy like the one in Tahrir Square in Cairo; revolution in Syria would mean civil war like in Iraq, would be the work of al-Qaida, would be a victory for Sunni fundamentalists. But fear is no longer enough to frighten the demonstrators in Deraa.

In this southern city, the regime attempted to revisit the events of Hama in 1982: telephone lines were cut, the border to Jordan was closed, access roads leading to the city were cut off, and then the tanks were sent in. None of this prevented news of the brutality of the suppression from reaching the global public.

Silent repression is no longer possible in the Age of the Internet. Modernisation, for which the computer fan Assad stands, limits his options in a crisis. He cannot simply have Syrians shot week in, week out and remain the man he was.

It seems as if the tide has turned on Bashar al-Assad. In the Syrian rebellion, Assad is losing his aura as the "good" dictator. And some helpers from the security forces are advising the president to wield an iron fist in order to survive. Yes, he would be feared by all and yes, he would become the most hated man in Syria. Bashar al-Assad himself probably doesn't yet know whether he can really play this role.

Michael Thumann

© Die ZEIT/ 2011

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan editor: Lewis Gropp