Bashar Al-Assad was supposed to be different.
The Syrian president was supposed to be a reformer. He was supposed to be liked and respected by his people. Assad was Syria’s great hope. Ten years after succeeding his father and ten years of unfulfilled promises later, Assad proved that this image was a farce, an illusion used to string his people along, playing to their desires for a more open society. When the wave of revolution washed over Syria, Assad did what every other Arab authoritarian has done: crackdown and kiss his people. More so, he betrayed the hopes of a nation.
As Syria teeters on the brink of total chaos and possible civil war, the fear has indeed been broken. Unfortunately, revolution is coming at a high cost with hundreds reported dead, hundreds of lives that could have been saved had Assad lived up to his promises
One month ago, writing this seemed unlikely. Walking through Damascus just two days before the unrest in Darra bubbled over to ignite the current unrest, the city was going about its business as usual. People were laughing, tourists were flocking to the Great Ummayad Mosque, and young couples were enjoying each other’s company in packed coffee houses throughout the old souk.
Even as recently as one month ago, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton took a great leap of faith saying, "There is a different leader in Syria now, many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he’s a reformer.”
As is with all authoritarian regimes, Assad's picture peeked from every nook in Damascus and beamed down from billboards above the highway. But unlike in Tunisia, Egypt, and Bahrain, there seemed to be a genuine trust and hope in Assad. In those other countries, Ben Ali, Mubarak, and even King Hamad’s face peered down at you from behind the counter of whatever shop you had entered. But unlike in Syria, the moment you inquired about those leaders, the moment the shopkeepers trusted you weren’t tied to the government, they would voice their despair and lament their leader’s faults. Not so in with Assad. He was different. He grasped the severity of the Syrian people’s plight.
Ripe with the same economic and social conditions that sparked revolutions elsewhere, unrest swirled around Syria, yet failed to breach its borders. The longer Syria remained calm, the more commentators cautiously began to assert that Syria’s support of its leader was veritable. Several factors were offered for why Syria was different. One theory was that he was younger than the old Syrian guard and that his push for economic liberalization created a sense that he understood the majority youth population. Another explanation offered is that while relatively religiously diverse, Syrians had seen the horrors of sectarian violence that has ripped apart neighboring Lebanon and Iraq and were willing to support Assad ahead of their religious beliefs to maintain the peace. Assad’s tough stance on Israel helped win him public support as well.
These were the rationales pushed as possible substitutes to the elephant in the room: nobody had really challenged Assad and the government because of the powerful legacy of fear created by his father. Scholars and analysts wanted to believe that the brutal capabilities of Syria’s mukhabarat (secret police) coupled with the memory of the massacre in the city of Hama during which President Hafez al-Assad (the current president’s father) crushed an uprising by the Syrian brotherhood – besieging the city and killing as many as 20,000 to 30,000 people – were not the main reasons for the Syria’s (recently broken) silence. It was Assad’s popularity that Syrians were responding to, not his father’s legacy.
But like father like son, Assad has betrayed Syria.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons