Bashar al Assad’s talent for survival

Annia Ciezadlo writes: If there’s one thing those who know him agree on, it’s that Bashar Al Assad is awfully eager to please. Friends and even some enemies portray the Syrian president as a kind and generous man, always ready to use his connections to provide a favor: for a job, a heart operation, or just the permit the government has required, under Syria’s authoritarian form of socialism, to buy a tank of propane gas for cooking food. “Easygoing,” say diplomats who have faced him in negotiations. “I would have described him as a real gentleman, before this,” says a Damascene businessman who was part of Assad’s social circle and has now fled the country to escape its ongoing civil war.

The subtext here is that Assad is weak; the polite phrasing, among educated Syrians, has always been that he “does not have the qualities of a leader.” That is to say, he does not have the gravitas of his ruthless, gnomic father, Hafez Al Assad, who ruled the country from 1970 until June 2000. Other Syrians put it less delicately. They call him donkey, giraffe, taweel wa habeel — a Levantine putdown for a big, bumbling doofus. Diplomats, analysts, and a few heads of state have been just as harsh, predicting his imminent downfall since the day he took power.

Two-thousand thirteen was the year when it seemed as if those predictions would finally come true. As the uprising against him ground into its third summer, his regime lost territory and international legitimacy. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states lavished cash and weaponry on rebel fighters. Even the United States was reluctantly edging closer to supporting the revolution with something more than words. Then, on August 21, Assad’s regime used the nerve gas sarin to kill hundreds of Syrian civilians, crossing the “red line” that Barack Obama had said would prompt a U.S. military response. It looked like the end. If a formerly untouchable military dictator like Hosni Mubarak could go down in Egypt, then why not Syria’s lanky, lisping president?

What outsiders have been slow to realize is that in the game Assad is playing, a weak man (or one perceived that way) can cling to his throne just as tenaciously, and violently, as a strongman. Over the course of his reign, he has learned how to turn his biggest shortcomings—his desire for approval, his tendency toward prevarication—into his greatest assets. The world wants him to give up the chemical munitions he used against his own citizens, and he has begun to do that. The world wants an end to the conflict that has killed more than 100,000 Syrians and displaced millions more; his government is now willing to participate in peace talks. This nebbishy second son, who was never meant to inherit the family regime, has proved exceptionally talented in the art of self-preservation. [Continue reading…]

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