BEIRUT (Reuters) - As a smiling President Bashar al-Assad and his British-born wife Asma cast their votes for a new constitution, his troops were shelling desperate civilians and rebels in Syria’s third city of Homs, heart of a revolt against his rule.
Lacking Saddam Hussein’s thuggish swagger or Muammar Gaddafi’s quirky menace, Syria’s soft-spoken leader Assad looks an unlikely entrant to the Middle East’s array of autocrats with blood on their hands.
Yet after killing thousands in an 11-month crackdown on protests, the London-trained eye doctor has outraged nations, including the United States and Britain, which once hailed him as a potential reformer.
Some who know Assad, 46, said this was an easy mistake given his charm, mild demeanor and reforming instincts, which they say gave way to an obdurate self-belief with a knack for manipulating the world community.
One of his former Syrian advisers said he had become convinced he was “God’s chosen one” as he settled into office.
And an American academic, David Lesch, who met Assad several times to write his 2005 book “The New Lion of Damascus,” noted a similar change in the leader’s character.
“I personally witnessed Bashar becoming more comfortable with power,” he told Reuters. “Over the years, he started to believe the sycophants and the propaganda around him that the well-being of the country was synonymous with his well-being.”
The president, dressed in a navy blue suit, escorted the First Lady through a cheering crowd to the voting booth in Damascus on Sunday.
Nearly 60 civilians and soldiers were killed that day in a violent backdrop to the constitutional referendum that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has labeled “phoney” and “a cynical ploy.”
Those who know Assad say he is convinced that he is fighting a foreign-inspired uprising involving Islamic militants and army traitors that he is intent on crushing.
Both supporters and detractors say Assad is beholden to powerful interests, after failing to change a rigid and corrupt governing system dominated by his family and members of his minority Alawite sect of Islam in mostly Sunni Muslim Syria.
“He’s in what we call a ‘dictator’s dilemma’ ... If he reforms now he’s going to undermine those people (the security services) on whom he’s relying on so much to maintain order. So he’s really stuck,” said Andrew Tabler, author of “In the Lion’s Den: Inside America’s cold war with Asad’s Syria.”
Assad had not been groomed for leadership, but his older brother and heir apparent Basil died in a car accident in 1994, leaving Bashar to take over after their father’s death in 2000.
Hafez al-Assad, whose family name means lion, ruled Syria with an iron fist for 30 years, typified by his response to an Islamist uprising in Hama in 1982, when his forces killed thousands of civilians and razed parts of the city.
Many hoped things would change under his youthful son, who at first allowed public debate known as the “Damascus Spring” to flourish in a long-closed society. That optimism was reinforced by the modern image of his wife, a former banker hailed by Vogue fashion magazine as a “rose in the desert.”
“I think he was, indeed, a committed reformer in the beginning,” Lesch said.
Ayman Abdel Nour, a former adviser to Bashar al-Assad, said he was “shy, nice, would listen to you like any normal person” - before Syria’s old guard instructed him on how to rule.
“After a year and a half, he started thinking he’s God’s chosen one to rule Syria. He ended the Damascus Spring and jailed its leaders. Since then, he has been living in a cocoon,” said Abdel Nour, who turned against Assad and now lives in exile. “He thinks people worship him.”
Assad seems reluctant to change course because he does not believe he is facing a genuine popular uprising and still promotes reform plans that few expect to defuse the unrest.
Faced with a growing population and dwindling resources, Assad, who heads the ruling Baath party, started by liberalizing the economy, but altered little else, a policy Oklahoma University’s Syria expert Joshua Landis called “foolish.”
“He wanted to preserve the Baath party and the power of the Assad family while opening up the country to foreign trade ... he wanted to do this without offering the rule of law, the balance of powers, or an independent judicial system,” he said.
“Poverty was on the rise and a crushing income gap was opening up that made expanding corruption and abuse of power all the more odious to the average citizen whose standard of living was falling. The ‘authoritarian bargain’ as it is called, broke down,” Landis added.
Assad appears convinced that, despite decades of stasis, his opponents will accept his pledge that a constitutional referendum and parliamentary elections will bring real change.
“While the rest of the world thinks Assad has been delusional ... it is my contention that he and his inner circle really believe, more than most people can imagine, that there indeed have been foreign conspiracies from the very beginning,” Lesch said.
“I think he sincerely believes the reforms he has announced ... will make a significant difference and reduce the intensity of the rebellion,” he added.
Syrian state television said nearly 90 percent of voters approved the new constitution, which will drop an article making Assad’s Baath party the leader of state and society, allow political pluralism and enact a presidential limit of two seven-year terms. Parliamentary polls would be held in three months.
But the presidential term limit is not retrospective, implying that Assad, already in power since 2000, could serve two further terms after his current one expires in 2014.
Though shunned by fellow-Arab leaders and by former friend Turkey, Assad is still counting on allies such as Russia, China and Iran to support him on the world stage.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called the referendum “an important step on the path of reforms.”
Washington has said it is against military intervention, but last week appeared to open the door to eventually arming the Syrian opposition, saying if a political solution to the crisis were impossible it might have to consider other options.
In emails hacked by Internet activists Anonymous purportedly from Syrian officials ahead of an interview with America’s ABC News, advisers tell Assad to manipulate the U.S. public.
“Don’t talk reform. Americans won’t care, or understand that,” the e-mails said. “American psyche can be easily manipulated when they hear that ‘mistakes’ have been made and now we are ‘fixing it’.”
Some who had been close to the presidential circle had not been convinced that Assad, who was quoted last year as saying reform might have to wait until the “next generation” was genuinely seeking change.
“Very early on I found that the regime he headed was just so corrupt and so unable to reform, and also brutal, that this image that Bashar put across was just not worth betting on,” said Tabler, who once worked for Asma’s charities as an adviser and travelled on a state visit to China with her husband.
“His duplicitous nature has been very successful ... in confounding the international community,” said Tabler.
Lesch, now writing a new book “Syria: The Fall of the House of Asad,” said: “In my mind Bashar’s initial vision failed, and what has come into being even if he survives is a much different animal akin to a North Korea in the Middle East.”
Abdel Nour was pessimistic about the future of Syria, where unrest has spread from rebellious provinces to the capital.
As army defectors and rebels fight back, revenge killings of Assad loyalists have occurred, raising fears of civil war in a mixed nation of Sunnis, Alawites, Christians, Kurds and Druze.
“This will escalate and leave only one solution: to kill all the protesters,” Abdel Nour said.
Additional reporting by Nour Merza, editing by Peter Millership and Alistair Lyon