Smooth talker hides his bloody hands

President Bashar al-Assad (background) promises reform while leading  the worst repression in Syria since 1982. Photo / AP
President Bashar al-Assad (background) promises reform while leading the worst repression in Syria since 1982. Photo / AP

In April, as the Arab Spring was convulsing the Middle East and North Africa, Syria's Bashar al-Assad gave a speech full of fine words.

After the swearing in of a new government, he talked about the need for "transparency" and to "close the gap" between the "state's institutions" (read his family) and "Syria's citizens". He also talked about "reform" - particularly economic - and the need for "dignity". Finally he talked about his pain at the "blood that had been spilled".

It all sounded good except, critics of the regime alleged, for one detail. Assad had waited two days to deliver the speech while his security forces finished operations in Latakia and Deraa, both centres of opposition.

The claim was made to al-Jazeera by Ayman Abdel Nour, a former Ba'ath party reformer, now editor-in-chief of the All4Syria news agency: "He received a report from the head of intelligence and the army saying: 'We have finished, everything is calm and we are the winner."'

Except the rebellion against his family's rule was not over, nor was the bloodshed. Instead, the speech came at the beginning of the worst repression in Syria since his father crushed an Islamist uprising in 1982.

By last week, as the United Nations Security Council condemned the months-long crackdown in Syria, more than 1630 civilians were reported to have been killed - as well as more than 370 members of the security forces - with no end to the violence in sight.

Last week Assad pulled the same trick again, announcing an end to one-party rule in his country - an announcement that was delivered even as his security forces were still killing Syrians protesting against his power.

In the midst of all of this Assad, paradoxically, has seemed distant and diminished, even as his tanks pounded Hama last week.

Part of the reason is that in his few public appearances at least he has stuck to his script of offering a faint hope of change. He has eschewed the kind of melodramatic theatre of personality embraced by Muammar Gaddafi or the arrogant entitlement that was displayed by Egypt's former president Hosni Mubarak.

The sense of distance has been amplified by the shrewd calculation to keep out the international media.

But then Assad has always been difficult to fathom. An awkward but intelligent Anglophile who trained as a doctor in London and married a Syrian-English wife, Asma, his skill before the bloody crackdown - if it was that - was always to give the impression of being the antithesis of his authoritarian father, Hafez. He wasn't supposed to succeed his father in the first place. That was to have been his brother, Basil, who was killed in a car crash in 1994.

What followed Hafez's death in 2000 was a seamless transition that has been described as marking the emergence of the "first Arab republican hereditary regime".

His greatest success since coming to power was persuading journalists, academics and diplomats that he was open to the possibility of genuine reform. Indeed, two years ago the Observer was told by someone who knew the family: "[Assad] has inherited a lot of baggage from his father, Hafez ... I do believe he can conceive of a future where he is no longer in power."

After the events of the last few months, that assessment seems almost impossible to credit. What Assad has achieved appears to be what conjurers call "misdirection", persuading observers to look the wrong way. Perhaps that should not have been a surprise for, as Human Rights Watch has noted, during his first decade of rule he failed to improve human rights in his country.

In 2008, amid a brief thawing in relations, his courts were imprisoning pro-democracy activists - even as he was being courted by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Foreign Secretary David Miliband.

And even on the most charitable reading - that Assad is a weak figurehead for a family franchise that includes more ruthless figures - the notion adopted by many Western diplomats at the beginning of the crisis seems more fanciful with each passing day.

But then the flip-side of Assad's regime was always in evidence. He has allowed al-Qaeda in Iraq to set up bases on his territory for fighters heading across the border. Syria was also charged with assisting the re-arming of Hezbollah after the 2006 Israeli war against Lebanon - which it does not dispute - and accused of setting up a project with North Korea to construct a secret nuclear reactor, subsequently bombed by Israel.

Some, like the Palestinian-American commentator Lamis Andoni, have argued that the two faces of Assad and his regime have been two aspects of an identical objective - a self-serving ambiguity in the pursuit of what she has called "survival at any cost".

The reality is that Assad, far from being an exception among Arab dictators, is using the same tactics as Mubarak, Gaddafi and other leaders.

In the book The Arab Authoritarian Regime, written three years before the Arab Spring, Martin Beck argued that "liberalisation" was used by authoritarian regimes as often as repression to prolong the regime's life. Assad has now tried both. His liberalisation largely followed the Chinese model, more interested in the economy than in political rights.

And while he has spoken of political reform, his default mode has been repression. "Assad has decided to shut this down," one Western diplomat told the Guardian this year. "The regime is playing survival tactics. It's a security-led approach first, second and third."

In retrospect, his curious choice of language to describe the Arab Spring in January in an interview in the Wall Street Journal - even before the first stirrings of discontent in his own country - was suggestive of a man without much understanding of events. "If you have stagnant water you will have pollution and microbes," he said, referring to fellow Arab regimes. "So what you have been seeing in this region is a kind of disease." Microbes?

Certainly his use of tanks to storm the city of Hama does not suggest someone concerned with the human consequences of his repression.

By last week, after months of betting pointlessly on the illusion of Assad he has himself promoted, Washington at last signalled it could no longer tolerate the killing in Hama, Damascus and elsewhere.

"Syria would be a better place without President al-Assad," White House spokesman Jay Carney said as it emerged that the United States had opened contacts with Syria's opposition.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said he had sent personal letters to Assad, urging him to launch reforms, reconcile with the opposition, restore civil peace and build a modern state. Failing that, the Russian leader said, Assad is "doomed".

The al-Assad file

Early life
Born on September 11, 1965, in Damascus, the son of Aniseh and Hafez al-Assad. He studied ophthalmology at Damascus University and in London. He is married to Asma Assad, nee Akhras, who is of Syrian descent but was raised in west London.

Best of times
During the brief moment of the Damascus spring, after he came to power in 2000 following the death of his father, when he released political prisoners and began promising the liberalisation of his police state.

Worst of times
The widespread international condemnation that followed the tank assault on the city of Hama last week.

What he says
"We want the people to back the reforms, but we must isolate true reformers from saboteurs." - June this year

What others say
"I believe that he lost all sense of humanity."
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon after the assault on Hama

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