David W. Lesch, author of Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad, writes: I got to know Assad fairly well over the years. I do not see him as either an eccentric or as a bloodthirsty killer, along the lines of Muammar al-Qaddafi or Saddam Hussein. People I know who have met all three readily agree with this assessment. There are those, however, who differ, viewing Bashar as a corrupt tyrant from the very beginning. Many of these people have never even been to Syria. Many of them have agendas that have been — or still are — assisted by this characterization. And almost none of them have ever met Assad or any other top Syrian official. They often base their position on the evidence of continued repression and repeatedly delayed reform. This is understandable. If they said that the Syrian system had been corrupt and repressive from the beginning of Assad’s rule, then I would wholeheartedly agree.
If they said that he was bound eventually to succumb to this system, even if he was altruistic in the beginning, then they would be correct. But Bashar was different from the typical Middle Eastern dictator, and this led many people, including me, to hope for the best — and maybe even indulge in a little wishful thinking. That Bashar was perceived by most who met him as a relatively ordinary person, and that this ordinary person then sanctioned a brutal crackdown on the uprising in what seems to have been a very matter-of-fact manner says something about human behavior and about how even normal people can become corrupted under the pressure of power and delusion.
Somewhere along the road, Assad lost his way. He either convinced himself, or was convinced by sycophants, that his well-being was synonymous with the well-being of the country, and that his brutal response to the protests was a necessary response. A self-reinforcing alternate reality was orchestrated and constructed around him, and there was no way of testing it against what was real.
A friend of mine, Ayman Abd al-Nour, is a prominent voice on things Syrian. He went to college with Bashar in Syria and got to know him well as a friend. Ayman was forced into exile several years ago because of his criticisms of the regime that appeared on his blog, All4Syria. “After he became president, when people showered him with compliments and inflated his ego, he became totally different — as if he was chosen by God to run Syria,” he told me. “He believed he was a prophet and started to build his own world.”
While the rest of the world thinks Assad has been delusional since his March 30 speech, it is my contention that he and his inner circle really believe — more than most people can imagine — that they have indeed been battling foreign conspiracies from the very beginning. The Syrian leadership simply has a different conceptual paradigm that frames the nature of internal and external threat to the country. From the Western point of view, it appears extremely paranoid; from the perspective of Damascus, it is based on historical circumstances. And the violence Assad has unleashed has helped to create a context in Syria whereby external forces are, in fact, involving themselves in the uprising — it has, to some extent, become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The Syrian government’s crackdown is a push-button, convulsive reaction to domestic threat. It is not that Bashar does not control the security forces — this is simply the way Syria has worked under the Assads. Syrian leaders reached into their pockets and pulled out what worked for them in the past, in this case what they found was much closer to Hama in 1982 than to anything else. The regimes of Hafez and Bashar al-Assad have always refused to make concessions from a perceived position of weakness — they will only do so from a perceived position of strength. Cracking down hard on demonstrators while offering political reforms are two sides of the same coin.
Thus, there was never much U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration could do to change Bashar’s response to the revolt. The United States tried to squeeze blood from a stone: It pushed for dramatic political reform from a system that simply is not built for it.
Assad’s removal perhaps will just be a matter of time — although it may take longer than many want. Unfortunately, it is unlikely to be a pretty sight. [Continue reading…]