Perhaps it’s the mortician’s mournful gaze, or the starched Western suits, or the quiet reticence of a middle son who grew up in the shadow of a more dynamic brother. There might even be a trace of the eager-to-please manner of the ophthalmologist he seemed destined to become. Whatever it is about his demeanor, powerful men and women chronically underestimate Bashar al-Assad.
With Congress weighing whether to approve a military strike against Syria and begin an unpredictable new chapter in the conflict, it’s important to understand the man now at the center of the narrative. How Assad will respond to U.S. military force, or to alternatives such as placing his chemical-weapons stockpiles under international control, is a key question on the minds of many lawmakers. In interviews, observers who have spent years watching Assad say they now see a 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.
But the narrative was far different even 10 years ago. When Assad assumed the presidency of Syria after his father’s death in 2000, extending three decades of hereditary dictatorship, he was feted in Paris and lauded by Jacque Chirac, then the president of France, as the vanguard of a new generation of more-modern, reforming Arab leaders. Noting his apparent meekness in comparison with his tyrannical father, Hafez al-Assad, one European diplomat remarked that Syria would become “a dictatorship without a dictator.”
In 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell traveled to Damascus to seek Assad’s counsel as a leader the United States could do business with. In March 2011, at the onset of the Arab Spring uprisings, then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton insisted that the United States had no intention of intervening in Syria the way it had in Libya. “There is a different leader in Syria now,” she said. “Many of the members of Congress from both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he’s a reformer.”
Now, with the blood of more than 100,000 Syrians on his hands and the White House saying definitively that his regime recently gassed more than a thousand men, women, and children to death in the suburbs of Damascus, it’s clear that those formidable leaders, all expert judges of character, somehow fundamentally misread Assad.
They might argue instead that he has fundamentally changed, that once again absolute power had corrupted absolutely. But Assad, for one, is having none of it. He has already begun publicly defending his actions, including an interview with CBS’s Charlie Rose that aired this week in which he argued there was little evidence that chemical weapons were used and that he had done nothing to earn his reputation as the Butcher of Damascus.
“The imperative question is: Has the nature of this person changed? The media can manipulate a person’s image at a whim, yet my reality remains the same. I belong to the Syrian people. I defend their interests and independence, and will not succumb to external pressure. I cooperate with others in a way that promotes my country’s interests,” Assad told France’s La Figaro newspaper recently. “This is what was never properly understood; they assumed that they could easily influence a young president, that if I had studied in the West I would lose my original culture. This is such a naive and shallow attitude. I have not changed; they are the ones who wished to identify me differently at the beginning.”
Read the full profile on the cover of National Journal Daily, September 10, 2013.