Dictators in History: Bashar al-Assad

Time for another in my occasional series of posts discussing real-life dictators and comparing them to Carlos Almanzor, the fictional dictator in my novel Revolution Day. This time I have decided to look at Bashar Al-Assad of Syria, having recently watched the intriguing BBC TV series about him.

Assad is different in many ways from the other dictators I have looked at in this series. For one thing, the others are no longer in power and, with the single exception of Robert Mugabe, are all dead, whereas Assad is still very much alive and in power. Another key difference is that whereas the others typically seized power in a coup or revolution, or in some cases (e.g. Mugabe again) gained it initially through a more or less constitutional process, only to subvert or discard such processes later on, Assad is unique in inheriting it from his father, Hafez al-Assad.

Whilst Hafez was pretty much the archetypal strongman dictator, Bashar is a very different character, at least at first sight. Born on 11 September 1965, he was the second son and thus not expected to succeed his father – that role was earmarked for his more charismatic brother, Bassel. Shy and reserved, Bashar studied medicine, first at Damascus University, and subsequently at the Western Eye Hospital in London. However, everything changed when Bassel died in a car accident in 1994. Bashar returned to Syria and from then on was groomed as his father’s successor, taking over power on Hafez’s death in 2000. In December of that year he married Asma Akhras, who was of Syrian parents but born and educated in the UK.

At first, it seemed like the new regime was interested in reform. There was an amnesty for political prisoners, and Asma toured the country engaging with local communities and championing causes such as women’s development. Even fairly early on, however, there were signs that some things had not changed. The political debate which had been tolerated at first was soon suppressed, and there were some suspicious deaths – notably of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafic Hariri in 2005.

Matters came to a head during the Arab Spring in 2011, which led to protests in Syria, as in other Arab Countries, calling for political reform. The regime responded with violence, and the clashes escalated into what would become the Syrian Civil War. This continuing conflict has had a ruinous effect on the country, with up to half a million dead so far and almost half the Syrian population displaced. At times, Assad’s days seemed numbered, but with extensive support from Russia he held on and has latterly gained the upper hand in the conflict. In doing so, however, he has relied on measures every bit as brutal as those employed by other dictators featured in this series, including chemical weapon attacks on his own people. Thus, while Assad has clung on to power, the hopes for moderation and reform that were raised when he first succeeded his father have been well and truly dashed.

Bashar and Carlos

Bashar Al-Assad was not one of the various dictators I had in mind when I created Carlos. However, watching the BBC series drew my attention to some striking parallels between the two. Both originally pursued a professional career – Assad as a doctor, Carlos as a lawyer. Neither was initially expected to take power and they came upon it almost by accident, albeit in very different ways. On taking charge of their countries, both initially seemed disposed towards reform – and both were supported down this route by a politically active and charismatic wife.

Nevertheless, the regimes of both men ultimately descended into autocracy and repression – and Assad, despite his mild manner, has presided over atrocities far worse than anything I attributed to Carlos. There remains some scope for debate about the extent to which those atrocities have been instigated by Bashar himself, or reflect an inability to control (and/or a need to placate) hard-line factions within the regime and his own family. One thing that he has displayed very clearly, however, is an iron determination to stay in power and a willingness to accept whatever measures were necessary to achieve that end. This too is something that he shares with Carlos.
As to his motivations, it is interesting to speculate whether, like Carlos, he has convinced himself that he alone can be trusted with the stewardship of his nation, or whether – like Carlos’ nemesis, vice-president Manuel ¬¬– he craves power for its own sake. With someone as inscrutable as Bashar Al-Assad, it is difficult to tell, but it is tempting to see him as the living embodiment of the phenomenon I tried to dramatise in the novel: the way power corrupts even those who begin with honourable motives.

You may wish to know that, for a few days only, the e-book of Revolution Day is available on Amazon for 99p or equivalent. You can find out more about the book, including excerpts and reviews, here.

One thought on “Dictators in History: Bashar al-Assad

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s