Syrian President Bashar al-Assad sits in his mountaintop palace as the tide of war licks at the cliffs below.
Explosions bloom over the Damascus suburbs. His country is plunging deeper into chaos. The UN’s top envoy for the Syrian crisis, Lakhdar Brahimi, met with al-Assad in the palace on Monday in an urgent effort to resolve the nearly two-year-old conflict.
How al-Assad might respond to Brahimi’s entreaty depends on his psychology, shaped by a strong sense of mission inherited from his iron-fisted father; his closest advisers, whom supporters describe as a hardline politburo of his father’s gray-haired security men; and al-Assad’s assessment — known only to himself — about what awaits him if he stays: victory, or death at the hands of his people.
From his hilltop, al-Assad can gaze toward several possible futures.
East of the palace lies the airport and a possible dash to exile, a route that some say al-Assad’s mother and wife may have already taken. However, the way is blocked, not just by bands of rebels, but by a belief that supporters say he shares with his advisers that if he flees, he will betray both his country and his father’s legacy.
He can stay in Damascus and cling to — even die for — his father’s aspirations, to impose a secular Syrian order and act as a pan-Arab leader on a regional and global stage. Or he can head north to the coastal mountain heartland of his minority Alawite sect, ceding the rest of the country to the uprising led by the Sunni Muslim majority.
That would mean a dramatic comedown: reverting to the smaller stature of his grandfather, a tribal leader of a marginalized minority concerned mainly with its own survival.
Brahimi was close-mouthed about the details of his meeting, but has warned in recent weeks that without a political solution, Syria faces the collapse of the state and years of civil war that could dwarf the destruction already caused by the conflict that has taken more than 40,000 lives.
A Damascus-based diplomat on Monday said that al-Assad, despite official denials, is “totally aware” that he must leave and was “looking for a way out,” though the timetable is unclear.
“More importantly, powerful people in the upper circle of the ruling elite in Damascus are feeling that an exit must be found,” said the diplomat, who is outside Syria, but whose responsibilities include the country.
Yet others close to al-Assad and his circle say any retreat would clash with his deep-seated sense of himself and with the wishes of increasingly empowered security officials, whom one friend of the Syrian president’s has come to see as “hotheads.”
Al-Assad believes he is “defending his country, his people, and his regime and himself” against Islamic extremism and Western interference, said Joseph Abu Fadel, a Lebanese political analyst who supports al-Assad and met with Syrian government officials last week in Damascus.
Analysts in Russia, one of Syria’s staunchest allies, say that as rebels try to encircle Damascus and cut off escape routes through Hama Province to the coast, the mood in the palace is one of panic, evinced by erratic use of weapons: Scud missiles better used against an army than an insurgency, naval mines dropped from the air instead of laid at sea.
However, even if al-Assad wanted to flee, it is unclear if the top generals would let him out alive, since they believe that if they lay down arms they — and their disproportionately Alawite families — will die in vengeance killings, and need him to rally troops, Russian analysts say.
“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.
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.