President Bashar al-Assad, once regarded as a reformer but now regarded as a tyrant by his many detractors after a decade of war and repression, looks set to extend his family’s dynastic rule of Syria even further with an election on Wednesday. Assad, 55, is running for a fourth term after being labeled “an animal” by the US for gassing his people and a “great fighter” by Iran for defying Washington and Israel.
He has no serious challengers, and the Syrian opposition and Western nations see the election as a farce designed to cement his hold on power. The conflict that began in 2011 with peaceful protests before spiraling into a multi-sided conflict that has fractured the Middle East country and drawn in foreign friends and enemies alike has defined Assad’s years as president.
He has reconstructed much of his state with the assistance of Russia and Iran, aided by the fact that his allies have always been more committed to his survival than his enemies have been to his defeat. Syria, on the other hand, is an economic disaster. Despite his military success, his opponents mock him for “ruling over rubble.”
From the beginning of the conflict, Assad set about crushing his opponents with a single-minded determination reminiscent of his father, Hafez al-Assad, crushing insurgents in the early 1980s. Assad’s supporters praise the surgeon, claiming that he saved Syria from foreign-funded jihadists intent on slaughtering religious minorities and dispatching militants to attack cities around the world.
His opponents see him as a dictator who burned Syria rather than relinquish power, destroying cities with barrel bombs and stuffing prisons with opponents. Assad frequently portrays himself as a humble people’s leader, appearing in films driving a modest family car and in photographs with his wife visiting war veterans in their homes.
But he always seemed to exude confidence, even when things looked bleak for him, as in the months before Russia joined his war effort in 2015, and when he publicly admitted that he couldn’t hold all of Syria due to a lack of manpower.
Activists and Western countries accused Assad of carrying out chemical attacks, such as the sarin strike in Ghouta in 2013 that suffocated hundreds as they slept, as well as bombing hospitals, schools, and marketplaces, mass killings, and torture. He vehemently denied accusations of war crimes and abuse, claiming that the evidence was fabricated at times and questioning what he could gain from such evil.
According to UN investigations, Syria’s military and security forces frequently targeted civilian infrastructure, used illegal weapons, and tortured and killed dissidents. Allegations of chemical weapons attacks prompted limited Western air strikes on Assad in 2017 and 2018. However, his foreign adversaries largely avoided direct confrontation with his forces.
It contrasts with the decisive military role played by his friends – Russia, Iran, and the Iranian-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah – as a result of alliances formed by his father, whose 30-year rule set in motion many of the dynamics that defined his son’s reign. Bassel, his father’s other son, had been groomed to succeed him. When Bassel died in a car accident in 1994, Bashar went from being an obscure London eye doctor to the heir apparent in an instant.
He liberalized the rigid state-run economy, freed hundreds of political prisoners, allowed free-speech salons, and made overtures to old adversaries in the West. Within a year, his police were imprisoning dissidents, and economic reforms contributed to what US diplomats described as “parasitic” nepotism and corruption in a 2008 embassy cable released by Wikileaks.
While the elite flaunted their wealth, drought drove peasants from villages to city slums, where the revolt against Assad would erupt in 2011. His father’s land reforms, which had once ensured their loyalty, had long been forgotten. The visit of British Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2001 was the pinnacle of Assad’s flirtation with Western leaders. When US soldiers toppled Saddam Hussein’s statue on a Baghdad roundabout two years later, Assad feared they were planning a Syrian sequel.
According to Washington, he opened the border to jihadists in order to stymie American efforts in Iraq and prevent any new adventures. However, the civil war in Iraq spawned the al Qaeda branch that became the Islamic State, adding new fire and blood to Assad’s state’s war.