Bashar Assad, The Lethal Tyrant

The doctor turned despot kept his grip on power. Still he sits uneasily on his contaminated throne. As Syria disintegrates, another generation of turbulence awaits

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illustration by Jesse Lenz for TIME
illustration by Jesse Lenz for TIME

A few years ago, a high-ranking U.S. intelligence official was asked what he most wanted to know about Bashar Assad, the Syrian leader. “Whether he’s Michael or Fredo,” he replied. “Whether Syria’s [leadership] is singular or plural.”

The Corleone reference, from The Godfather, was apt. The Assads have run Syria as a mafia family business since 1970, when Bashar’s father Hafez Assad gained control in a Baathist coup. The Assads are ­Alawites, a Shi‘ite-related minority sect, and Hafez Assad ruled his 80% Sunni country with a relentless brutality. In 1982 he put down a rebellion by the Muslim Brotherhood in the city of Hama, killing an estimated 20,000 people.

Bashar Assad was not expected to succeed his father. He had been trained in England as an ophthalmologist and was married to a stylish investment banker. His charismatic older brother Bassel was the designated successor, but Bassel died violently in a car crash, and when Hafez died in 2000, Bashar became a rather unlikely President of Syria.

He didn’t look like a tyrant. He was gawky-tall, soft-spoken, with a halfhearted mustache and milky blue eyes. At first, some in the U.S. intelligence community believed he was a front man for a family consortium that included his older sister Bushra and her husband General Assef Shawkat, who controlled the Syrian intelligence services; there was also a younger brother, Maher, an alleged hothead in charge of the army’s Republican Guard.

When I interviewed Assad in 2005, it was difficult to tell if he was Michael or Fredo or someone else entirely. He was not at all bombastic or egomaniacal; he seemed a bit nervous. And yet he was thoughtful, eager to engage in a real conversation rather than filibuster the interview, the usual modus operandi for despots. He sat slouched on a couch—not exactly the body language of an aggressor—and seemed boggled by his predicament.

He knew he was dancing through a minefield. President George W. Bush had sent the “with us or against us” message to the region after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and Syria was trying to be both and neither. The government had allowed a de facto safe haven for the funders of Iraq’s Sunni rebels and for assorted anti-Israel terrorist groups. The Syrian intelligence forces were suspected of abetting Hizballah in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. And the Assads were Iran’s main ally in the region. Syria’s contradictory tangle of allegiances and private arrangements was, in fact, a perfect exemplar of the mind-numbing complexity of Middle East politics.

President-elect Lt. Gen. Bashar Assad, right, attends military training games in Syria, July 12, 2000.

SANA / AP

After his sudden appointment as president in 2000, Assad, right, relied heavily on advisers like army chief of staff Ali Aslan, left.

Assad talked wistfully about his desire to finish his father’s peace negotiations with Israel. He said he wanted to be a “good neighbor” in the region. He said he was intending to pull all Syrian troops out of Lebanon in the next few months—a statement immediately contradicted by his own government but which turned out to be true. As I was leaving, he said, “Send this message: I am not Saddam Hussein. I want to cooperate.”

That man—that slightly overwhelmed prisoner of the palace—seems very different from the Bashar Assad we’ve come to know. He is unquestionably Michael now. His brother-in-law, the intelligence director Shawkat, was killed in a Damascus bombing in 2012; his younger brother Maher was severely injured in another bombing. Bashar stands alone in the rubble, presiding over a regime that has surpassed the brutality of his father’s by orders of magnitude—an estimated 126,000 dead; more than 1,000, including over 400 children, killed by chemical weapons; hundreds of thousands wounded; more than 2 million refugees fled to neighboring countries. “He’s much worse than his father,” says Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. “He has killed relentlessly and without any attempt to reconcile with his opponents. He seems to believe that if he just keeps killing them, they will eventually give up.”

Shrewdness and Savagery

It appears to be working. The tide has turned his way in the civil war that began in the Arab Spring of 2011. He has survived, even though the bulk of the world—except for Iran, Russia and China—­wanted to see him deposed after his Aug. 21, 2013, chemical attack on the Sunni suburbs of East Damascus. He survived because, unlike Saddam, he had a very precise sense of his own mortality, a very precise sense of the steps needed to placate the U.S. and ensure his survival. In the process, he made Barack Obama seem irresolute and foolish, an American President who threatened military action, then backed down, then threatened again—before finally agreeing to a Russian-­initiated deal to get rid of the ­Syrian chemical stockpile. There was great skepticism that Assad would actually ­cooperate in this process, but he had made several very clear-eyed military and political calculations of the sort that eluded Saddam and most of the other myopic despots in the region. He knew that if he didn’t adhere to the deal, Obama would have no choice but to obliterate the Syrian air force—and Assad needed the air force far more than he needed the chemical weapons; it was his primary enforcement mechanism in his war against the rebels. He also realized that by agreeing to the deal, the Obama Administration would tacitly acknowledge his legitimacy as the leader of Syria. The U.S. and the rest of the world would have to negotiate with him over the terms of the disposal. It was a move that would have made Michael Corleone proud.

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37 comments
TIMEMIKE
TIMEMIKE

That video was freakin' nonsense. What's the agenda here? Geez. False allegations stated as fact. That's not right.

PresentMoment
PresentMoment

Worst dictator sub human ever lived , I am Syrian and I know first hand how ruthless Bashar and his thugs are , it is just insane that he is still on slaughtering women and children while the world is just watching , shame on humanity , shame , shame , shame !!!!!!!!!

bonkim2003
bonkim2003

Pity the US didn't take him out two years back - the Syrian tragedy could have been avoided.

koudsier
koudsier

shame on son Time, then is no excurse for this choice. You are Promoting a murderer.


kingfrosta
kingfrosta

Perhaps Joe Klein prefers the human organ eating, rabid jihadists as the new Assads of Syria? I think they will not want to be "good neighbours" with Israel.

ifthethunderdontgetya
ifthethunderdontgetya

Joe Klein, lest you forget:  You have no credibility left when it comes to foreign affairs.


P.S. You also have none left when it comes to domestic affairs.

~

MetiFejzullahu
MetiFejzullahu

I HATE THIS TERRORIST AND WHO VOTE BASHAR HE IS TERRORIST FUCK USA FUCK AMERICA FUCK ISRAEL FUCK BASHAR

SpikeLee
SpikeLee

"The U.S. has lost a great deal of stature because of Bush’s Iraq invasion and Obama’s vacillations."

Joe Klein is still pissed off that Barack Obama is not a warmonger, huh?

After thirty years or so, you'd think either he'd sober up and learn a lesson, or TIME would fire his ass for incompetence..

Ellie_LB
Ellie_LB

He said he was intending to pull all Syrian troops out of Lebanon in the next few months—a statement immediately contradicted by his own government but which turned out to be true." /////// and he just decided that?? well NO it was decades after syrian occupation, for decades they arrested and tortured opposition activists, activists that wanted their country free! Assad withdrew his troops from Lebanon after severe pressure, first it was the UN resolution 1559 that stated the withdraw of foreign troops from Lebanon and surrender of illegal weapon. the resolution was in 2004 and on February 14, 2005 former Prime minister Rafic Hariri was assassinated in an explosion, of course syria was to blame it wasn't the first time they assassinated Lebanese leaders since Syria's troops set foot in Lebanon during the war in the 70s. On March 14 2005, the Cedar Revolution took place, over 1M Lebanese took the streets to demand Freedom AND a month later Assad withdrew his troops. It ddnt end there, in June the first assassination of the Cedar Revolution Leaders took place, 8 assassinations, 2 attempted assassinations and 10 explosions from 2005 till 2008 alone! that was before the syrian war started, before pretending 'to fight terrorist' and to 'protect Christians'. Oh yes speaking of Christians, the 10 explosions listed above, are  in Christian Lebanese areas except for Tripoli which is Sunnite/Christian, the 2 attempted assassinations and 6 out of the 8 assassinated anti-syrian politicians are Christians. All of this murder and terrorism were before the syrian war started. Not to mention that during the Lebanese war it was Syria that bombed Churches, Christians villages and cities because at a time the Christians were the only opposition to syrian presence in Lebanon. 

Ramiqal
Ramiqal

if the devil will come alternative for assad we will very happy because there is no worst of assad 

Ramiqal
Ramiqal

iam now in syria , assad will leave soon and we are trust in that because the killers and dictators they can kill and kill but they cant stay for ever , if the devil will com alternative for the killer assad we will very happy

TarekLamaro
TarekLamaro

Where is the United nation from this news ? Where are the human right ? Or Syrian people deserve to get killed from a dictator ? He's shelling his people with fighter plane missiles ? Big barrel bomb dropped by helicopter ? Shelling people with a tank designed to go for big war ? Killing almost hundred and 50,000 Thousand innocent people ??? Killing 10,000 Thousand Children ??? Destroying 4 million home ? 4 million Syrian refugees outside Syria ? And 3 million inside Syria lost their home ? And missing 400,000 innocent people ???? Where is the United nation !!!!!!! From that madman called Bashr Al Assad !!!!!!!! He's a mass killer deserve one bullet between his eyes .


koudsier
koudsier

It is interesting you have removed my comment. What type of media you are. No wonder you are promoting people like him

TweetingTasio
TweetingTasio

I'm certainly no apologist for Assad, but the previous commenter is correct to point out that this article is untruthful.  Klein refers to the 8/21 chemical attack as if there were no doubt that it was ordered by Assad, even though this accusation has not in fact been satisfactorily proven.  The truth is that ever since the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War, 'Time' and the rest of the mainstream media have been pushing a fairy-tale narrative about a band of dedicated and noble freedom fighters against a ruthless and brutal tyrant--a narrative which is very useful if one wants to generate a public opinion that might support military intervention against the current Syrian government.

But the reality is that conflict is much more complicated, and U.S.-led military intervention back in August probably would have ignited a regional--and possibly even a world--war. And what were mainstream media outlets like 'Time' doing?  Misrepresenting the facts of the case and implicitly cheerleading the Obama Administration's drive for war!       

amadeus
amadeus

Allent  
You can not rule a country for 30 years then after you die your son become the resident in less than 5 minutes and won the elections in 99% unless you are a brutal dictator.
If Bashar is really Syrian and loves his country, he will let it go a long time ago, but he destroyed ~70% of Syria just to stay in power.

Luckily for him - and you -, we are living in an unjustifiable world.



Allent
Allent

This is the most BIAS article i have ever read.. According to NATO facts.. 70% of Syria supports Bashar Al Assad 20% are neutral and ONLY 10% support the opposition.. THe majority of the Syrian population support their leader. 

Now who is the opposition that Bashar is fighting? The majority of the rebel groups have links to Al Qaeda. Al Nusra Front, ISIL, Jaysh Al Islam. All organisations that are recognised by the United States as being terrorist organisation The War of terror that the U.S was fighting after 01, they are now funding these same terrorists to bring down the Syrian regime.

Hafez Al Assad built the country. Before he took power there was over 10 different coup. The Assad family brought stability to Syria..

The chemical weapons allegations against Bashar are clearly false. There are ammateur video online showing that it was the rebels using the chemical weapons. 

This article has absolutely no validity to it.


josephinehydehartley
josephinehydehartley

@PresentMoment 


Keep your hair on. The man's an opthalmologist by profession. I prefer to think he's probably doing his best in chaotic circumstances.

Rio
Rio

@koudsier    good he kills enemies of the West.

SadiaAqeelRandi
SadiaAqeelRandi

@TarekLamaro it seems like you get your facts from a comic book. You are implying that if a soldier is sitting in a tank and is fired upon, he is supposed to sit there and wait to be killed? Yes where is the human rights for all the people kidnapped by the rebels? where is human rights when rebels are clearing schools and making them bases? where is human rights when the rebels are stealing and extorting? Where is human rights when a mock up islamic court is cutting of peoples heads? I suppose u dont need human rights for the rebels, viva freedom. What is really needed is a bullet between your eyes, so your brain can be andjusted from all the propoganda the media has been feeding u

Dan_Jefferies
Dan_Jefferies

@TarekLamaro A little late for that wouldn't you say? The U.S. screamed for help early on and the U.N. was filled with nothing but the sound of crickets. Now that the opposition has been hijacked by jihadists calling for colonization whilst beheading the nearest available American or priest, welp, good luck with that.

SadiaAqeelRandi
SadiaAqeelRandi

@amadeus Why not start with Saudi, qatar, bahrain, oman, kuwait. Since these countries have been governed by the same family since their existence. And they dont even have an election? If an intruder comes into your home, you have every right to defend yourself with what ever means. that is common sense. Same way assad is defending syria from the wahhabi funded whos only aim is to burn syria and spread saudi influence. I mean how stupid are u to not realise this? how can the international community sit aside and see al-qaeda and jihadi groups fighting in syria under a revolution umbrella?

Dan_Jefferies
Dan_Jefferies

@amadeus  Nice try my friend but that is not the issue raised by Allent. Kim Dung Hill is a tyrant so let's invade N. Korea eh wot? wot? That argument, which is not the issue raised by Allent, is old hat and waste of our time.
Would you like to argue the point Allent raised, that the author is biased? I'll be glad to engage you but I'm  afraid you may come out worse for teh ware...)
Dan_Jefferies
Informing the masses

ghoste433
ghoste433

This piece of article is written by a jew propaganda for israel.No wonder no body is buying this propaganda rag and they want to sell it.The jew want american soldiers to fight and die for israel.

PresentMoment
PresentMoment

Where did I get your so pathetic information from ?? I am Syrian and you have no clue what you are talking about , I still cannot use my real name because I am afraid for the safety of my family and friends , Assad and his thugs are the worst subhumans the history has ever witnessed , I remembere how we used to be forced to go and elect Assad when votung , and if you ever thought of not eclecting Assad , you can say good by to your family and yourself , so please do not post something like this unless you had lived in Syria , well, you could have lived in Syria but you could also be part of the 15% who are ruling Syria , I don't know , but no honest person will tell you that the Assad regime is not a ruthless one .

Ellie_LB
Ellie_LB

@Allent oh please! dictatorship and extremism are the two faces of one coin! The regime is not different from those fanatics. But how would you know? u're either brainwashed or trying to brainwash,or both! Lets start shall we? '70% of syria support Bashar Al Assad': Who the hell are you kidding?? he is a minority and represents a minority and that is why he INHERITED the presidency after his father who ruled since 1971 died. There is no free press in Syria, one ruling party, the Baath, dozens if not hundreds of journalists and opposition leaders were locked up under ground because they dared and spoke up for democracy, you call that stability? Political and military figures fled and formed the syrian national coalition, those are terrorists? Journalists like Michel Kilo are terrorists? You want to talk about Nusra and ISIS terrorists? then do tell, who set the islamists free from the prisons? wasn't it Bashar with the decision of general amnesty? and those coming from foreign countries, the regime doesn't know about them? please, it has become pro, considering what and who was he exporting to Iraq ever since the iraqi war started. And speaking of Iraq, why didn't you mention the iraqi and Hezbollah jihadists fighting for assad? by orders from the Islamic Republic of Iran of course. See Allent you are the BIAS by posting such an ignorant comment with no validity to it especially since your precious Assad family crossed the syrian border and occupied Lebanon. 

Ramiqal
Ramiqal

@Allent hafez assad built the country !! looool , if the devil will come alternative for assad we will very happy because there is no worst of assad 

Dan_Jefferies
Dan_Jefferies

@RINOandPROUD@MetiFejzullahuHere's a good example of the problem as it stands today. The guys who hate Assad hate the U.S. and Israel as well. No way I'm backing giving those guys weapons.

PresentMoment
PresentMoment

The revolution stayed peacfull for six months , even after Bashar forces killed over 4000 innocent people ( Bashar concent to this) but then people could not take it anylonger watching thier children bieng slaughters on front of them and thier women bieng raped in front of them , they had to defend themselves , what would you have done ? I am Syrian and I know very well the type of subhumans we are dealing with , Bashar and his thugs are no more than ruthless killers that run the country with fear and intimidation , well, people had enough !

50 years of ruling a country with iron fist is enough,!!!! The world has changed !!

SadiaAqeelRandi
SadiaAqeelRandi

@Ellie_LB If Assad falls the middle east will burn. Syria will be governed by goat herders from saudi arabia who will be cutting of heads of people like you. You are a saudi troll and u get paid to make these comments, mybe some saudi prince is laying with your sisters and u r happy with that. Assad is in Syria and will remain in Syria. It is logic, that if the people were against him then he would be long gone, dont forget the army is from the people and not mercernaries from chechnya. And if your argument is that hezbollah is fighting for bashar, then you are stupid to think that a neighbouring lightly armed group can keep the government afloat.

SadiaAqeelRandi
SadiaAqeelRandi

@Ramiqal @Allent You are a troll. You copy paste the same statment over and over. Shows your inelligence level. Now go get your dollars from your saudi masters

Ellie_LB
Ellie_LB

@SadiaAqeelRandi "mybe some saudi prince is laying with your sisters and u r happy with that" /////// classy really classy, that doesn't only prove that you are the troll but how uneducated you are with no manners. Your 'Logic' doesn't make any sense, 'the army is from the people', so is the army of N. Korea, so were the armies of worldwide dictators from Germany to Italy to Argentina. U did not reply to the facts that I've mentioned all u did was insult in a disgusting disrespectful way. so yes u're the troll, u're the one who's probably getting payed with your "If Assad falls the middle east will burn" statements I really pity people like you. and  please you sound ridiculous by describing Hezbollah as a  "lightly armed group", after all everything you wrote is ridiculous, disgusting and disrespectful. 

Ramiqal
Ramiqal

looool yes all the people against assad get the money from saudi , today they will send to me 50$ loooool , maybe you think we are like you get the money 

from iran ! go to hell with assad and iranians terrorist


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