One is a quiet man “who doesn’t like his job” and wants a way out, the other wants to show his family and the world: “I’m not a softy,” Todenhoefer said.
Others say that Bashar al-Assad’s reformist impulses were always meant only to bring access to the luxuries and approval of the West.
The al-Assads were raised by their father and their uncles — aggressive men — to believe “they were demigods and Syria was their playground,” said Rana Kabbani, the daughter of a prominent diplomat who knew them growing up.
Turkish officials say that in frequent talks during the revolt’s first months, Bashar al-Assad listened calmly to their criticisms, took personal responsibility for the government’s actions and promised to seek resolution.
“Either he is a professional liar or he can’t deliver on what he promises,” said a senior Turkish official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Now, the 47-year-old Syrian president faces a set of unpalatable choices. Fleeing to become an Alawite militia leader is likely hard to imagine for Bashar al-Assad, who grew up in Damascus, reached out to and married into the Sunni elite, and was even mocked in his ancestral village for his Damascus accent, said Joshua Landis, an Oklahoma University professor who studies Syria and Alawites.
Bashar al-Assad was long believed to take advice from his mother; his brother Maher, who heads the army’s feared 4th Division; his brother-in-law Asef Shawkat; and his cousins, the Makhloufs.
However, his mother is believed to have fled Syria in recent weeks. Shawkat, the former Syrian deputy minister of defense, was killed in a bombing in July. The Makhloufs are believed to be spiriting money out of the country. Maher has been reported to have lost a leg in the bombing, but to still be commanding troops.
Turkish, Russian, Syrian and Lebanese analysts agree: Bashar al-Assad’s main advisers are now his father’s hardliners and the leaders of the shabiha militias that have carried out attacks on government opponents.
If there ever existed moderates in the government who might cajole Bashar al-Assad to hand power to a successor who could preserve the Syrian state, that option now appears increasingly remote.
“So much blood has been shed and it’s impossible to do this,” Bagdasarov said.
An Alawite businessman in the coastal region who said he knew Bashar al-Assad’s circle said the one person who might persuade him to leave is his wife, Asma, but she has taken little role in the crisis. She and their children have either left, or been prevented from leaving by Maher, or have insisted on staying — depending on the latest rumor from an edgy Damascus.
Additional reporting by: Kareem Fahim and David D. Kirkpatrick in Beirut, Ellen Barry in Moscow, Russia; Sebnem Arsu in Istanbul, Turkey; Rick Gladstone in New York and an employee of the New York Times in Tartus, Syria.