(Reuters) - His father was a hard, ex-military autocrat and didn’t care who knew it. He has a soft gaze and came to power hinting at democracy and reform. 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, on his death in 2000, left his son a formidable apparatus of power, based on single-party rule, repression of opponents and a network of spies and informers.
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 tactic worked. The lesson may have been learned.
Assad’s opponents accuse his forces of killing at least 13,000 people, including thousands of unarmed civilians, since March 2011, when Sunnis once again challenged the ruling Alawite minority led by the Assads. He describes his foes as foreign-backed terrorists who have killed thousands of people.
A world that had once seen the young Assad, just 34 when he came to power, as a hope for change watched with shock as this ophthalmologist with a wife who has a taste for London fashion proved to be one of the toughest rulers in the Middle East.
“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 last month.
A few weeks earlier, he had told the new parliament: “When a surgeon ... cuts a wound, the wound bleeds. Do we say to him: ‘Your hands are covered in blood’? Or do we thank him for saving the patient?”
In a classified 2009 United States diplomatic cable, Bashar is described as a man who sees himself as a philosopher-king, but heads a group of leaders uncompromising in their determination to hold on to power.
“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 U.S. assessment, made public by Wikileaks.
Ten years earlier, as Hafez’s failing health moved the U.S. embassy to consider the likely successor, another U.S. diplomatic 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. News of the Arab Spring spreads rapidly through the internet, which Syria’s secret service once tried to keep out.
On Wednesday a suicide bombing in Damascus delivered the heaviest blow yet to Assad’s rule, killing his defense minister along with one of the members of Assad’s innermost circle, his brother-in-law Assef Shawkat.
As the uprising has intensified, there are signs that the pressure is taking a personal toll.
Hacked emails to and from his wife Asma’s iPad reveal 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, menace or indeed charisma of the archetypal autocrat.
But his language is as defiant as any strongman’s as he fights insurgents who he sees as the tools of the Western states and Sunni Arab monarchies that make clear they want him out.
Syria is under attack from 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.”
Bashar was thrust into the spotlight when his elder brother Basil died in a car crash in 1994. Groomed by his father Hafez as next-in-line to succeed him, he was accelerated through the army to the rank of colonel, and became president six years later.
The “Damascus Spring” that followed his early promises of reform in 2000 rapidly fizzled out.
Now, 16 months into a rebellion that has become the bloodiest and most intractable of the uprisings that 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 a clan within the Alawite minority, on intelligence services, and on an army of over 300,000 men.
Assad’s younger brother Maher commands the Republican Guard. His brother-in-law Assef Shawkat was, until Wednesday, the deputy defense minister.
Assad shows no sign of bending, driven not least by the fear of Alawites who believe they would be slaughtered like sheep if the largely 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 leaked 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,” U.S. charge d‘affaires Maura Connelly wrote. “The President responds with anger if he finds himself challenged by visitors, but not until after the meeting. He seems to avoid direct confrontation.”
With news of Wednesday’s suicide attack on the heart of his government at a national security building in Damascus, the day of such a confrontation may be getting closer.
Editing by Kevin Liffey