“If he can fly out of Damascus,” said Semyon Bagdasarov, a Middle East expert in Moscow — at this, he laughed — “there is also the understanding of responsibility before the people. A person who has betrayed several million of those closest to him.”
Many Syrians still share al-Assad’s belief that he is protecting the Syrian state, which helps explain how he has held on this long.
At a lavish lunch hosted by a Lebanese politician in Beirut in September, prominent Syrian backers of al-Assad — Alawites, Sunnis and Christians — spoke of the Syrian president, over copious glasses of Johnnie Walker scotch, as the bulwark of a multicultural, modern Syria.
However, one friend of al-Assad, stepping out of earshot of the others to speak frankly, said the president’s advisers are “hotheads” who tell him: “‘You are weak, you must be strong.’”
“They are advising him to strike more, with the planes, any way that you can think of. They speak of the rebels like dogs, terrorists, Islamists, Wahhabis,” the friend said, using a term for adherents to a puritanical form of Islam. “This is why he will keep going to the end.”
The friend added that even though al-Assad sometimes speaks of dialogue, he mainly wants to be a hero fending off a foreign attack.
“He is thinking of victory — only victory,” the friend added.
Such a crisis is the last thing that was expected for the young Bashar al-Assad. He was the stalky, shy second brother with the receding chin, dragged from a quiet life as a London ophthalmologist after the death in 1994 of his swaggering older brother, Basil al-Assad, who crashed his sports car while speeding toward the airport — along the very road that is now engulfed in fighting.
Bashar al-Assad’s father, former Syrian president Hafez al-Assad, held power from 1970 to 2000, raising a second-tier clan from the oppressed Alawite minority to power and wealth. However, critics say the al-Assads used four decades in power not to promote meaningful ethnic and religious integration, but to cement Alawite rule with a secular face.
After the uprising began as a peaceful protest movement in March last year, Bashar al-Assad rejected calls for deep reform — from his people, from Turkish officials who spent years cultivating him, even from militant groups he had long sponsored, Hamas and Hezbollah, which, according to Hamas, offered to arrange talks with the rebels.
Instead, Bashar al-Assad took his father’s path. To put down an Islamist revolt in the 1980s, Hafez al-Assad bulldozed entire neighborhoods and killed at least 10,000 people. His son now presides over a crackdown-turned-civil war that has killed four times that many, and counting.
In a government that has become even more secretive, it is impossible to know exactly how Bashar al-Assad makes his decisions.
Some people say he wanted to reform, but his father’s generals and intelligence officials, along with his mother, convinced him that reforms would bring their downfall.
“There are two Bashar al-Assads,” said Juergen Todenhoefer, a German journalist who interviewed him in July.