Assad: dark days for the dictator
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Assad: dark days for the dictator

His father was a hard, ex-military autocrat and didn't care who knew it. He has a soft gaze and came to power hinting at democracy and reform. But there the dissimilarity ends. Syria's President Bashar al-Assad has proved himself as uncompromising as the late Hafez. But will his rule last any longer?

world Updated: Jul 20, 2012 02:50 IST

His father was a hard, ex-military autocrat and didn't care who knew it. He has a soft gaze and came to power hinting at democracy and reform. But there the dissimilarity ends.

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad has proved himself as uncompromising as the late Hafez, who ran the Arab republic with an iron fist for 29 years and, on his death in 2000, left his son a formidable apparatus of power, based on single-party rule, repression of opponents and a network of spies and informers.

Bashar was only 16 when Assad senior ordered one of the bloodiest atrocities in modern Arab history: the 1982 massacre of at least 10,000 Syrians in Hama to crush a revolt by Sunni Muslims.

The tactic worked. The lesson may have been learned.

Assad's opponents accuse his forces of killing at least 13,000 people, including thousands of unarmed civilians, since March 2011, when Sunnis once again challenged the ruling Alawite minority led by the Assads. He describes his foes as foreign-backed terrorists who have killed thousands of people.

A world that had once seen the young Assad, just 34 when he came to power, as a hope for change watched with shock as this ophthalmologist with a wife who has a taste for London fashion proved to be one of the toughest rulers in the Middle East.

"Our age, like any other, is the age of the powerful only; and there is no place in it for the weak," he told Damascus university students last month.

A few weeks earlier, he had told the new parliament: "When a surgeon ... cuts a wound, the wound bleeds. Do we say to him: 'Your hands are covered in blood'? Or do we thank him for saving the patient?"

In a classified 2009 United States diplomatic cable, Bashar is described as a man who sees himself as a philosopher-king, but heads a group of leaders uncompromising in their determination to hold on to power.

"They persist in a lie even in the face of evidence to the contrary. They are not embarrassed to be caught in a lie," says the US assessment, made public by Wikileaks.

Ten years earlier, as Hafez's failing health moved the US embassy to consider the likely successor, another US diplomatic cable shows how far Bashar was underestimated.

"Eldest son Bashar is far from a sure bet to follow in his father's footsteps, and in any case would never enjoy his father's absolute grip on power," it said.

Although he did not have to seize power like his fighter-pilot-hero father, Assad lacked the earlier era's advantages.

The Soviet Union's protective Cold War embrace is long gone, even though Moscow remains a firm ally. In the YouTube age, massacres like Hama cannot be concealed. News of the Arab Spring spreads rapidly through the internet, which Syria's secret service once tried to keep out.

On Wednesday a suicide bombing in Damascus delivered the heaviest blow yet to Assad's rule, killing his defence minister along with one of the members of Assad's innermost circle, his brother-in-law Assef Shawkat.

As the uprising has intensified, there are signs that the pressure is taking a personal toll.

Hacked emails to and from his wife Asma's iPad reveal interest in the anti-ballistic Bullet Blocker barn coat, a casual jacket that can stop a .357 Magnum slug.

"I was asked several times last week why I look pale, and whether it was because of the pressures. I said 'no'. In fact I was a little ill," Assad told the students.

Unlike the late Saddam Hussein, who wore a pistol on his hip and fired rifles with one hand, the willowy Assad shows no outward sign of the ruthlessness, menace or indeed charisma of the archetypal autocrat.

But his language is as defiant as any strongman's as he fights insurgents who he sees as the tools of the Western states and Sunni Arab monarchies that make clear they want him out.

Syria is under attack from the money, media and technology of foreign powers and their Arab agents "using lies, deception and black propaganda", he told Syria's young, educated elite.

"Resistance prevents chaos. Resistance has a price and chaos has a price, but the price of resistance is much less than the price of chaos."

Groomed for power
Bashar was thrust into the spotlight when his elder brother Basil died in a car crash in 1994. Groomed by his father Hafez as next-in-line to succeed him, he was accelerated through the army to the rank of colonel, and became president six years later.

The "Damascus Spring" that followed his early promises of reform in 2000 rapidly fizzled out.

Now, 16 months into a rebellion that has become the bloodiest and most intractable of the uprisings that swept the region, Assad has proved more durable than the four Arab autocrats toppled by people power or armed revolt since 2010.

Neither spiralling violence nor a collapsing economy nor international isolation have shaken his power base, centred on a clan within the Alawite minority, on intelligence services, and on an army of over 300,000 men.

Assad's younger brother Maher commands the Republican Guard. His brother-in-law Assef Shawkat was, until Wednesday, the deputy defence minister.

Assad shows no sign of bending, driven not least by the fear of Alawites who believe they would be slaughtered like sheep if the largely Sunni rebels are victorious.

Lacing his political analysis with quasi-scientific language, Bashar describes a world in which powerful countries are driven to manipulate Arabs to serve their interests "exactly like cell metabolism, which needs the sugar that generates energy essential for the life of the cell".

But the terminology of the London-trained eye specialist ends with a harsh flourish.

"It will not be President Bashar who will bow his head nor the head of his country. We only bow to God almighty," he assured the students.

The leaked US embassy cable says Assad "is neither as shrewd nor as long-winded as his father but he, too, prefers to engage diplomatically on a level of abstraction that seems designed to frustrate any direct challenge to ... his judgment".

"He would prefer to see himself as a sort of philosopher-king, the Pericles of Damascus," US charge d'affaires Maura Connelly wrote.

"The President responds with anger if he finds himself challenged by visitors, but not until after the meeting. He seems to avoid direct confrontation."

With news of Wednesday's suicide attack on the heart of his government at a national security building in Damascus, the day of such a confrontation may be getting closer.

Assad in Latakia?
Mystery surrounded the whereabouts of Assad on Thursday, as battles raged in the centre of Damascus a day after a bomber killed his top security chiefs.

According to opposition sources and a Western diplomat, Assad is in the coastal city of Latakia, directing a response to the assassination of three of his top lieutenants.

The Syrian leader made no public appearance and no statement after a bomb in the heart of the capital killed his powerful brother-in-law, his defence minister and a top general, drawing fierce army retaliation with heavy artillery against the rebels.

On Thursday morning, residents said there was no let-up in the heaviest fighting to hit the city in a 16-month revolt against Assad's rule, now into its fifth day.

The fighting came within sight of the presidential palace, near the security headquarters where the bomber struck a crisis meeting of defence and security chiefs.

Residents in the Midan and Kafr Souseh districts said they heard explosions and heavy gunfire as helicopters buzzed overhead.

Checkpoints around Midan and the ancient walled Old City of Damascus had been removed, they said. It was unclear if security forces had changed tactics to prevent rebels from targeting soldiers, or if it was a temporary move in the heat of battle.

On Wednesday, an explosion which nearly no residents heard struck at the heart of Assad's government. Following the attack, rebellious neighbourhoods were plunged into fierce battles.

Assad's brother-in-law Assef Shawkat, a top commander and one of the pillars of the Assad clan's rule, was killed in the Wednesday blast along with defence minister Daoud Rajha.

Another senior general was also killed and the heads of intelligence and the interior ministry were wounded, deeply damaging the security apparatus of the Assad family, which has ruled the country with an iron fist for four decades.

The army shelled its own capital from the surrounding mountains as night fell on Wednesday. Government troops, having vowed retaliation for the assassination, fired machineguns into the city from helicopters.

Rebels, massed in several neighbourhoods, are armed mostly with small arms and rocket-propelled grenades.

Activist videos posted on the Internet showed bloodied bodies lying in the street.

Local media, citing security sources, said Assad was still in the capital but gave no further details.

National Security building bombed
On Wednesday, a suicide bomber struck the National Security building in the Syrian capital Damascus, killing the defence minister and President Bashar Assad’s brother-in-law — the harshest blow to the Syrian regime since the uprising began.

Syrian state-run TV said the blast came during a meeting of cabinet ministers and senior security officials in Damascus, where four straight days of clashes pitting government troops against rebels have sent tensions soaring.

Defence minister Dawoud Rajha, 65, a former army general, was the most senior government official to be killed in the Syrian civil war as rebels battle to oust Assad. General Assef Shawkat, the deputy defence minister and one of the most feared figures in Assad’s inner circle, was also killed. He was married to Assad’s older sister, Bushra.

Interior minister Mohammed Shaar was wounded and in stable condition, state TV said.

Syrian state TV also confirmed that General Hassan Turkmani, head of the regime’s crisis cell and assistant to the Syrian vice president, was also among those killed.

Former Syrian defence minister General Hassan Ali Turkmani, defence minister Daoud Rajha and Assef Shawkat, the brother-in-law of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are seen in this combination photo. (Reuters)

India-backed UN resolution vetoed
Russia and China on Wednesday vetoed a draft United Nations Security Council resolution that would have threatened Syria with new sanctions. India was among 11 countries voting for it.

The resolution would have given the Assad government 10 days to withdraw its forces from populated areas. Else, though not specified, the sanctions would have included asset freezes and international travel restrictions on Syrian officials.

The rejected resolution had recommended putting special envoy Kofi Annan's peace plan in Chapter 7 of UN charter, which allows the council to authorise actions ranging from diplomatic and economic sanctions to military intervention.

"It is regrettable that the Council has not been able to adopt the resolution today and send a joint message," said India's permanent representative Hardeep Singh Puri.

India had supported the resolution because it wanted to facilitate "united action" in support of Annan's peace plan.

Crisis unit
The generals killed and wounded in the bombing form the core of Assad's crisis unit to crush the revolt, which grew out of protests inspired by Arab Spring uprisings that unseated leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

The armed forces chief of staff, Fahad Jassim al-Freij, quickly took over as defence minister, avoiding any impression of official paralysis.

"This cowardly terrorist act will not deter our men in the armed forces from continuing their sacred mission of pursuing the remnants of these armed terrorist criminal gangs," Freij said on state television. "They will cut off every hand that tries to hurt the security of the nation or its citizens."

The bombing appeared to be part of a coordinated assault on the capital that has escalated since the start of the week. Rebel fighters call it the "liberation of Damascus" after months of fierce clashes which activists say have killed 17,000 people.

Neighbouring Jordan's King Abdullah said violence may have ruled out the possibility of a negotiated power transition.

"The realities on the ground may have overtaken us, therefore I think the clock is ticking and we have... reached the point where the political option is too late," he told CNN in an interview.

Rebels were jubilant at their success in penetrating into the capital. Abdullah al-Shami, a rebel commander based in Turkey, said: "I expect a speedy collapse of the regime ... and it means we will not be in need of outside intervention, with the regime beginning to crumble much faster than we envisaged."

Yet some opposition figures said victory would still not be easy.

"It is going to be difficult to sustain supply lines and the rebels may have to make a tactical withdrawal at one point, like they did in other cities," veteran opposition activist Fawaz Tello said from Istanbul.

"But what is clear is that Damascus has joined the revolt."

Demonstrators gather during a protest against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad at Kobani, near Aleppo. (Reuters)

Fears of destabilisation
A security source said the bomber who struck inside the security headquarters was a bodyguard for Assad's inner circle. Anti-Assad groups claimed responsibility.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the Damascus blast and expressed grave concern over the use of heavy weapons.

"Time is of the essence," he said. "The Syrian people have suffered for too long. The bloodshed must end now."

The UN Security Council put off a scheduled vote on a Syria resolution until Thursday and US President Barack Obama telephoned President Vladimir Putin of Russia, Assad's main ally, to try to persuade Moscow to drop support for him.

Western leaders fear the conflict, which has been joined by al Qaeda-style jihadists, could destabilise Syria's neighbours: Israel, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan.

US defence secretary Leon Panetta said: "This is a situation that is rapidly spinning out of control." He called for maximum global pressure on Assad to step down.

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said "the decisive fight" was under way in Damascus.

British Prime Minister David Cameron, whose government has sponsored the sanctions resolution, said on Thursday it was time for Assad to go to avoid an all-out civil war.

Assad's rule nearing its end?

Syrian army defectors and rebel commanders based in Turkey saidthe bomb that killed three top military officials in Damascus would hasten the end of President Bashar al Assad's rule, predicting more defections and divisive internal feuding.

Brigadier Fayez Amr, a senior member of defectors' group, the Joint Leadership of the Higher Council, said the attack was a turning point in the 16-month-old uprising.

Intense clashes were reported late on Wednesday in centre of the capital and the army was shelling its own capital from the surrounding mountains as night fell.

"The regime might now resort to more lethal weapons in retaliation but the biggest loser will ultimately be the regime. The strength of the regime no longer matters when it faces the will of a people against soldiers who have lost their will to fight and when a soldier knows he is fighting his own people. Victory is closer than ever now," Amr told Reuters.

Ahmad Zaidan, spokesman for the Higher Council of the Revolution's Leadership, an opposition group, said the blast was a major blow to the morale of the army, 50,000 of whom - out of 280,000 - the opposition estimates have deserted.

"It's the beginning of the breaking of the chain, the regime has lost control now and those around Bashar al Assad whom he relied on are gone. The regime's foundations have been shaken. It's just Bashar now who's left," said Zaidan.

Dozens of soldiers had defected in Idlib province in the last few hours, he said.

Abdullah al-Shami, a rebel commander, who has led rebel attacks in Aleppo, the country's largest northern city said: "This this is a qualitative shift that will further demoralise any one who supports the regime."

"I expect a speedy collapse of the regime... and it means we will not be in need of outside intervention with the regime beginning to crumble much faster than we envisaged," he said.

Young Syrians training in a camp along the border inside Syrian territory, fired shots in the air and shouted "Allahu Akbar" (God is Greatest) and embraced each other in celebration.

However, Muhaiman al-Taiee, a senior officer in the Front for Syrian Revolutionaries, an umbrella group that coordinates major rebel brigades, said organisational weakness among armed opposition groups meant Assad could still win more time.

"Unfortunately if we had been better organised these momentous events would have brought an immediate collapse of Assad's rule. But ... we still have some way to go," he said.

First Published: Jul 19, 2012 13:22 IST