From a spark of hope to utter ruin: Syria’s journey since the Arab Spring has seen Assad preside over a decade-long humanitarian catastrophe

By Kit Roberts


IN 1994, the younger son of a rather prominent Middle-Eastern family woke up to some unexpected news.

His older brother had died suddenly, leaving him as the sole heir to the dictator of Syria.

The quiet, introverted younger brother had chosen to pursue a career in medicine, studying in London and specialising in ophthalmology. Throughout his youth, he had always been the outsider sibling, living in the shadow of their father’s first born.

The elder brother was Bassel Al-Assad. The rambunctious son of Hafez, president and dictator of the Syrian Arab Republic, Bassel was born to rule. He was the epitome of manhood, loving fast cars and pretty women, raised as heir-apparent to Hafez and to Syria. 

But in 1994, Hafez’s carefully laid plans for his legacy were thrown into disarray when Bassel died in a car accident in Damascus. Suddenly, the future of the Al-Assad family looked uncertain, with ambitious senior figures suddenly being faced with the prospect of no Assad to follow Hafez. 

The torch of inheriting the presidency of Syria was suddenly passed onto Bassel’s quiet and withdrawn younger brother. Bashar had left Syria by this time, moving to London to pursue a career in medicine. He was reportedly a hard worker, arriving early and staying late, perhaps to counter the image of being the president’s son.

Hafez, however, immediately acted on political expediency and started work on Bashar. The young doctor was summoned home, fast-tracked through to a position in the army, and began to shadow his father. In a series of events bizarrely reminiscent of Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘The Godfather’, the quiet younger brother was instructed, a support base was built for him within the military, and his image was established in Syria’s people. 

Fast forward six and half years, and after nearly thirty years in power, Hafez Al-Assad died. Bashar was at this point still legally too young to become president, the minimum age being forty. To facilitate his ascension, the constitution was altered to allow someone thirty-four years old to hold the office – coincidentally Bashar’s exact age at the time. 

The years following Bashar’s ascension appeared at first glance to show signs of cautious liberalisation. Bashar and his British-born wife Asma engaged in a major international charm offensive, courting favour on the world stage in Paris and London. 

Asma even received a profile in Vogue. The magazine described her as “a rose in the desert”, and Syria as “the safest country in the Middle-East”. The article has since been removed from Vogue’s website. 

At home, subtle but noticeable relaxations began. People found they could get away with writing or saying something that they could not under Hafez.

Bashar gave all the signs of optimism. He was young, educated, and had lived in the West, all of which emboldened certain circles, such as the media and academia.

This illusion of liberalisation came crashing down in the late 2000s. As Bashar settled into power, liberalising reforms stopped, and the new rules were established. The limits might have briefly been a little wider, but in reality the boundaries were just as impenetrable as ever. In 2005, Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri was assassinated by car bomb in Beirut. Many in Lebanon suspected the involvement of the Syrian secret service. In 2007, opposition parties were banned and Bashar was elected to another seven year term. 

Unrest began in Syria in 2011. For all his appearance of liberalising, Bashar was still his father’s son, the heir of a ruling dynasty. The clamour for democracy that shook the Arab world nonetheless reached Syria.

Protest erupted in Syria in January 2011. By July, Hilary Clinton had declared that Bashar had ‘lost legitimacy’. By August, President Obama had given a statement urging Bashar to step down. 

In Syria however, protests were being met with increasingly bloody crack downs. The mukhabarat, the Syrian secret service, routinely kidnapped, tortured, and murdered protestors and their families. All of this only further stirred anger. Opposition grew, and organised. 

At the UN, Russia repeatedly vetoed any attempt to meaningfully intervene either diplomatically or militarily in the country. Though it is not confirmed, it is not difficult to imagine Bashar’s reaction to the fate of Gaddafi in Libya, killed brutally and publicly. 

The civil war that followed has been saturated with media coverage. In the midst of the incursions of Daesh, Russian interventions, and the well-documented war crimes with chemical weapons and deliberate bombing of schools and hospitals by Syrian loyalist and Russian military, a strain of conspiracy theorists and Assad supporters has emerged, gaslighting the people who have witnessed chemical attacks and barrel bombings. 

Not even some of the most well-respected authorities – the late Robert Fisk, to name one – on the region were immune.

The rise of Daesh, IS, in north-eastern Syria also provided Bashar with the opportunity to improve his public image. Under the pretence of fighting IS, itself ideologically opposed to Syria’s ostensibly secular Ba’ath Party, Bashar has been able to cultivate the image of himself as the saviour of Syria, sidelining Kurdish efforts by the PKK.

Activist Syrians in exile now look to world governments to resist the renormalisation of relations with Bashar. By Bashar’s own objectives, he has won. Not only is he still alive, but also still in office. Indebted to Russia and Iran, yes. Presiding over a humanitarian and economic catastrophe the scars of which will not heal within the lifetime of our grandchildren and great-grandchildren, yes. But still in power, still unmoved. 

If the Arab Spring sprung into life in Tunisia, it could be said to have ended in Syria. The buck stopped, dead, with the Al-Assad family. 


Featured Image: Freedom House @ Flickr

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