Raised on power, Assad risks all
BEIRUT (Reuters) - His father had a face of stone and a hard glare. He has a mild gaze and a weak chin. But there the dissimilarity ends.
Syria's President Bashar al-Assad has proved himself as uncompromising as the late Hafez, who ran the Arab republic with an iron fist for 29 years and bequeathed a formidable, police-state dynasty to his son in 2000.
Bashar was only 16 when Assad senior ordered one of the bloodiest atrocities in modern Arab history: the 1982 massacre of at least 10,000 Syrians in Hama to crush a revolt by Sunni Muslims.
The repression worked. The lesson may have been learned.
Assad's opponents accuse his forces of killing at least 13,000 people since March 2011, when Sunnis once again challenged the family's ruling Alawite minority. He describes his foes as foreign-backed terrorists who have killed thousands of people.
A world that had once seen Assad as a hope for change in Syria watched with shock as this ophthalmologist with a London fashionista wife proved to be one of the toughest rulers in the Middle East.
But Assad sees himself as a surgeon who must spill blood to save the life of a patient threatened by a foreign cancer.
"Our age, like any other, is the age of the powerful only; and there is no place in it for the weak," he told Damascus university students this month. A week later, he told his cabinet: "When one is in a state of war, all our policies and capabilities must be used to secure victory."
In a classified 2009 diplomatic United States cable, Bashar is described as a man who sees himself as a philosopher-king, but heading a brutal regime of yes-men who lie.
"They persist in a lie even in the face of evidence to the contrary. They are not embarrassed to be caught in a lie," says the assessment of his regime, made public by Wikileaks.
Ten years before, as an ailing Hafez moved the U.S. embassy to consider the likely successor, a 1999 cable shows how far Bashar was underestimated.
"Eldest son Bashar is far from a sure bet to follow in his father's footsteps, and in any case would never enjoy his father's absolute grip on power," it said.
Although he did not have to seize power like his fighter-pilot-hero father, Assad lacked the earlier era's advantages.
The Soviet Union's protective Cold War embrace is long gone, even though Moscow remains a firm ally. In the YouTube age, massacres like Hama cannot be concealed. The Arab Spring is borne like a virus on the internet, which Syria's secret service once tried to keep out.
As the uprising has intensified, there are signs the pressure is taking a personal toll.
Hacked emails to and from his wife's iPad show interest in the anti-ballistic Bullet Blocker barn coat, a casual jacket that can stop a .357 Magnum slug.
"I was asked several times last week why I look pale, and whether it was because of the pressures. I said no. In fact I was a little ill," Assad told the students.
Unlike the late Saddam Hussein, who wore a pistol on his hip and fired rifles with one hand, the willowy Assad shows no outward sign of the ruthlessness, charisma and menace of the archetypal autocrat.
But Assad's language is as defiant as any strongman's as he fights insurgents he sees as the tools of the Western states and Sunni Arab monarchies that make clear they want him out.
Syria is under attack by the money, media and technology of foreign powers and their Arab agents "using lies, deception and black propaganda", he told Syria's young, educated elite.
"Resistance prevents chaos. Resistance has a price and chaos has a price, but the price of resistance is much less than the price of chaos," the 46-year-old president said.
Bashar was thrust into the spotlight when his elder brother died in a car crash in 1994. Groomed by Hafez as next-in-line to succeed, he was accelerated through the army to the rank of colonel and became president at age 34. His early promise of reform fizzled almost completely.
Now, 16 months into a rebellion which has become the bloodiest and most intractable of the uprisings which swept the region, Assad has proved more durable than the four Arab autocrats toppled by people power or armed revolt since 2010.
Neither spiraling violence nor a collapsing economy nor international isolation have shaken his power base, centered on the Alawite clan, intelligence services and the army of over 300,000.
Brother Maher commands the Republican Guard. Brother-in-law Assef Shawkat is deputy armed forced chief-of-staff.
Assad shows no sign of bending, driven not least by the fear of Alawites sure they would be slaughtered like sheep if Sunni rebels are victorious.
Lacing his political analysis with quasi-scientific language, Bashar describes a world in which powerful countries are driven to manipulate Arabs to serve their interests "exactly like cell metabolism which needs the sugar that generates energy essential for the life of the cell."
But the terminology of the London-trained eye specialist ends with a harsh flourish.
"It will not be President Bashar who will bow his head nor the head of his country. We only bow to God almighty," he assured the students.
The U.S. embassy cable says Assad "is neither as shrewd nor as long-winded as his father but he, too, prefers to engage diplomatically on a level of abstraction that seems designed to frustrate any direct challenge to ... his judgment."
"He would prefer to see himself as a sort of philosopher-king, the Pericles of Damascus," charge d'affaires Maura Connelly wrote. He responds with anger if he finds himself challenged by visitors, but not until after the meeting.
"He seems to avoid direct confrontation," she wrote.
As fighting intensifies, even around Damascus, the day of such a confrontation may be getting closer. (Editing by Matthew Tostevin)
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