Both Mubarak of Egypt and mad dog Qaddafi in Libya tried it, but it was in Syria where the concept of an inherited dynasty [read transfer of brutal dictatorship onto one’s kin] actually succeeded. With the death (by natural causes) of Hafez Al Assad in June 2000, after three bloody decades in power, Bashar was not the chosen one to succeed his father, but due to the death of his brother Basil in 1994 in a car accident, his destiny was already etched out for him. One wonders though whether much of the bloodshed we have witnessed in recent months, where this tyrant has just mowed down civilians with live rounds rather like pest control, is actually all about proving something to himself, after living in the shadow of his father who never saw him as a leader at all.
Is what is happening in Syria now history repeating itself following the slaughter in Hama in 1982 where Bashar’s uncle – under the instructions of Dad – wiped out a largely Sunni civilian population of around 20,000 civilians, according to the pompous but thorough Arab Affairs historian and journalist Robert Fisk. And if so, is his Syrian slaughterhouse merely the growing pains of a leader who actually never was really leading himself, but a puppet of party officials of his Dad’s generation?
Does Bashar have a deflated and rather pathetic ego that can only be nursed by dabbling in a spot of genocide? Is slaughtering over 1,000 civilians a bit like rough sex? Or a bit like a midlife spasm of growing your hair long and getting a huge motorcycle?
We seem to be witnessing a brutal Arab leader whose inferiority complex is to plunder Syria’s history back into the dark ages of murder, torture and mayhem simply because of a sibling who never got enough milk as a baby and was never seen with the same admiration as his brother. His professional background is a curious mix. An eye surgeon who at one point was a tank commander is odd to say the least, and not at all what one would expect from an uncharismatic figure who looks uncomfortable in any number of suits and at any angle on television. Perhaps this is why he rarely does TV interviews with Western journalists or that satirical magazines do not exist in Syria.
But a tank commander is a man who doesn’t wish to see close up the lucid brutality of his actions behind the turret, and as Peter Ustinov once said to a British army general who was interviewing him, “who also likes the idea of going into battle sitting in a comfortable seat.”
Though there are grounds to this complexity, and not merely because the lanky leader looks as though he has been the victim of some horrible facial surgery which went wrong, leaving him with the caricaturist’s sketch of a man who looks like his head was squeezed in a vice – no doubt one of the many torture tools used by his own loyal secret service scumbags. It’s not all about looks though. Bashar always suffered from a lack of credibility as Syria is often described by Western diplomats as a “dictatorship without a dictator,” which means he is not really “hands on.” He lacks the conviction of what he is instructing his army to do and increasingly shows signs that he is not his own man. He is not his own dictator but is steered and manipulated by the old guard of the Ba’athist party – which quickly shot down in flames Bashar’s modern vision of Syria when he took office in 2000. Early mumblings of political and economic reform were soon downgraded to economic reform only.
But paranoia. Dear God if this Alawite butcher has done nothing to carry the torch for his dad, he has certainly sustained the healthy paranoia which permeates every level of Syrian society and which I have witnessed first hand. Bashar has continued running the country based on an ugly but effective manifesto of bullying and intimidation, but something unimaginable by Hollywood; fear is the common currency known only too well to all humble Sunni Syrians. They fear their neighbors may be police informers, such is the level of terror and intimidation by the secret police in this country – a country so insecure about its own legitimacy to rule that its leader condones the habitual imprisonment of journalists and poets. Think about that for a moment. Poets.
Bashar’s grip is a loose one, despite the brutality he is capable of reeling out on his own people. But the paranoia and insecurity about being a leader and his own tribe running a large Sunni majority with a steel hand in an iron glove has just been cranked up to new levels of delusion with the “pest control” approach he has to protesting civilians. And here, but only here, is he a chip off the old block of his dad which might explain why his own wife no longer stands by her man, but is believed to be in London – and it’s not for the summer sales which are just about to kick off but more likely to distance herself from a lunatic who can no longer be taken seriously by his people, his party – or we suppose his family. Why is she in Kensington buying lingerie when she should be by her man if he has really any legitimacy? Bashar is out of control and has lost all his senses if he thinks he is going to renegotiate “reform” after the massacres of recent weeks.
It reminds me of an anecdote which buzzed around Beirut for a while, when I lived there. His father was said to have been handed the election results of a so-called free and fair presidential election. But the vote was only 98 percent in his favor and so it saddened him, when told by an aide. “But this is a fantastic result! What could possibly make you happier?” the advisor asked.
Hafez Assad turned to the aide and a small smile appeared on his wrinkled face, before replying: “The names of all those which represent the two percent.”
(Martin Jay is a veteran foreign correspondent who has worked extensively in Europe, the Middle East and Africa for most major international TV networks. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)