The horrors of the Syrian civil war have largely extinguished the hopeful mythology of the Arab Spring uprisings, and they have surely dispelled any misconceptions about the true nature of Bashar al-Assad, his close family, or his regime. With the United States poised to launch a military strike on his regime and begin an unpredictable new chapter in the conflict, it’s important to understand the man now at the center of the narrative. To get inside the mind of Assad is to see the tyrant in full bloom, an expert propagandist at the peak of his powers, shrewd beyond the recognition of many of his contemporaries, and utterly cynical.
Bashar has mastered the trick of the dictator’s circular logic: the very fact that he has survived as president through two-and-a-half years of a brutal civil war is proof positive that the Syrian people are behind him. The rebel ranks are full of “terrorists” because Assad has done everything in his power to transform a secular uprising by disaffected Arab youth into a fight-to-the-death sectarian civil war to which extremists are attracted like moths to a flame, up to and including releasing Sunni jihadists associated with Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Al Nusra Front from his own prisons. His minority coalition of Alawites (a Shiite offshoot), Christians and Druze must hang together or hang separately precisely because the Assad regime has now committed so many atrocities that retribution killings are inevitable in defeat.
Bashar is clearly betting on his ability to hold together, through an intricate web of sectarian and familiar connections, the tight core of elites and minorities that undergird the Assad dynasty. Taking a page directly out of his father’s handbook, Bashar has given his hot-headed younger brother Maher the job of regime enforcer as a commander of the Republican Guard and the elite 4th Infantry Division. In 1999 Maher reportedly shot his sister’s husband in the stomach in a fit of anger, and a number of experts suspect that he was behind the recent chemical weapons attack that reportedly killed more than a thousand Syrians. Bashar’s brother-in-law Mohammed Hamsho of Hamsho International Group maintains the regime’s close ties to Syria’s business elite (the United States and European Union have both sanctioned Hamsho and his companies). Bashar’s paternal cousins Fawaz and Munzer are in charge of the brutal Alawite militia known as the Shabiha, reporting directly to Maher. Meanwhile, his maternal uncle and cousins in the Makhlouf family head the security, intelligence and telecommunications sectors. According to a recent report in The Times of London, uncle Mohamed Makhlouf is currently holed up in Moscow’s Ukraina hotel where he is overseeing the Assad family’s extensive deposits in Russian businesses and banks.
As the current crisis has intensified, experts say that decision-making that once included significant input from Hafez al-Assad’s old cronies in the military forces has been tightened. “The Assad dynasty is ruled very much like a Mafia-family, with decision-making increasingly centralized into the hands of Bashar and a few key family members,” said Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow in the Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and co-author of the recent report “All the Tyrant’s Men.” Unlike the situation in Egypt, he notes, the Syrian military and security forces are tightly controlled by members of the Alawite minority who are not pledged to protect the Syrian state, but rather see their own fate and that of their families tied directly to the fortunes of the Assads. “Unfortunately, nothing we or anyone else has done has been able to crack the cohesiveness and unity of the ruling elite.”