By Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi
In 2007, when my last article was published and I took a break from writing, Syria was a country with two faces. One face was that of a dictatorial police state, allied with Iran against US and Israeli interests. The other was that of a young leader, trained as an eye doctor in Britain, with a clean history. Unlike his elder brother, Bassel, and younger, Maher, Bashar’s hands seemed bloodless. Like Michael Corleone in the “The Godfather”, he was apparently disconnected from the “Family’s” dirty business.
The other brothers were heavily invested in the patriarchal, sectarian family-led regime. The heir-apparent, Bassel, created the secretive militia, known today as “Al-Shabbiha” from the sect’s youth. He prepared them to support the Alawite regime on a rainy day, like today. Maher is the heartless executioner who would drive fear into the hearts of any enemy or potential enemy.
Bashar instead chose to stay away from politics and action, and went to Britain to study medicine, hardly a profession suited for a future leader of his Ba’ath led country.
Then, again, like in “The Godfather”, the elder brother was killed in his car, and the second in line was called back from Europe to take his place, as the Crown Prince of the revolutionary, anti-royalty Republican President. Hafez “Al-Assad” (formerly "Al-Wahsh," which means “the beast”) was orchestrating a political position for his son, but fate disrupted his plans.
At 34 (six years short of legal presidential age), and before he was fully prepared, death again interfered, taking his father away, which put Bashar in charge of the “Family” and business.
He was a fresh, young and innocent face, who started with a few economic and political reforms that earned him some popularity home and abroad.
Not for long, however. The assassination of Lebanon’s Rafiq Al-Hariri was blamed on Syria. The Syrian reaction to the accusation cost them their economically profitable and strategically vital control of Lebanon. The situation got worse, as Syria’s relations with most of the world soured. It lost its preeminent position in the Arab world and strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates.
Together with the global financial crisis of 2007, the effects on the country’s economy were dire. The harsh suppression of complaints and dissent ended a relative calm and peace in the country and hurt Bashar’s image as a kind leader.
Still Bashar was relatively beloved and his country was united behind him. Later he managed to steer his country away from stormy waters, fixing relations with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon and the rest of the Arab world without sacrificing the strategic alliance with Iran. He also created a new lucrative alliance with historical enemy and superpower neighbor, Turkey. The future looked brighter for his country and leadership.
Then came the Arab Spring. Arab youth revolted across the Arab world. Syrians were encouraged. As elsewhere, what started as demands for certain reforms, including the abolishing of the half-century old Emergency Law, turned with the military crackdown into a full-fledged revolution. The true colors of the Godfather showed. When the dominance and survival of his “Family” were in danger, he called on his mafia soldiers, the “Shabbiha.” Supported by the elite Maher-led Fourth Division of the army, they used the worst tactics to frighten the dissidents, including rape, torture and mass killing.
Syria, in five years, went from a stable, united, secured country, to a failed, isolated, condemned state drawn into a bloody civil war. And Bashar, who had been a relatively popular leader, became a war criminal, using his armed forces to bomb his own cities, killing his own people.
What happens next is in the hands of God, the army and a sympathetic, but reluctant to interfere, world. Dr. Khaled Batarfi is a Saudi writer based in Jeddah. He can be reached at Kbatarfi@gmail.com