Dropping the Facade: Bashar Al-Assad Won Western Credibility as Syria's Modernizer-A Fiction Useful to All Sides, until the Uprising Exposed It

By Harkin, James | The American Prospect, January-February 2013 | Go to article overview

Dropping the Facade: Bashar Al-Assad Won Western Credibility as Syria's Modernizer-A Fiction Useful to All Sides, until the Uprising Exposed It


Harkin, James, The American Prospect


In 1994, Bashar al-Assad was appointed chairman of the Syrian Computer Society. It was the only official title he would hold before landing the country's top job, president, in 2000, but the appointment seemed to speak volumes about the direction in which his country was headed. This was two years into President Bill Clinton's first term, in the same year that Tony Blair was elected as the leader of Britain's Labour Party. Modernization was all the rage.

Bashar, the mustachioed Mr. Bean of the Assad family, had not expected to be groomed for politics. The Computer Society gig only rolled into his lap because of the death of his older brother Basil. But he was perfect for it. For the previous two years he'd been living off Sloane Street in London, training as an ophthalmologist, wooing the beautiful, thoroughly modern British-Syrian Asma al-Akhras, who would go on to become his wife, and spending a huge amount of time online. "Interested in computers," David Lesch wrote in his 2005 hagiography The New Lion of Damascus, "he found the freedom of Internet access in London positively enlightening, especially since the Internet would not enter Syria for several more years to come; indeed, every morning the first thing he did was surf the Internet, especially the Top 40 Billboard chart to see which songs were popular.... He learned a great deal about the level of technological modernization necessary in an increasingly globalized world, something he would assiduously work to duplicate in a small way in his homeland."

Even while Assad was being propelled through the ranks of the Syrian army to full colonel in the 1990s, and before he assumed the presidency on the death of his father Hafez (the original "Lion of Damascus"--"Assad" means "lion" in Arabic), he was working hard, Lesch explained, to increase the rate of Internet penetration in Syria. By the turn of the century, Internet cafes had begun to sprout up in Damascus, and computers appeared in Syria's universities.

Assad's geeky enthusiasm for the Internet helped him build bridges to reformers and the intelligentsia, and when he arrived in the presidential palace he brought a number of people from the Syrian Computer Society into government. These new politicians, Lesch tells us in the 2005 book, weren't reformers in the traditional sense but rather technocrats, "tasked with the job of modernizing Syria, implementing administrative reform in the various ministries to which they were assigned, and examining the economic weaknesses of the system and devising ways to correct it."

In the first seven months of Assad's presidency, between his inaugural address in July 2000 and February 2001, there followed the Damascus Spring, a heady period of liberalization in which the Baathist regime released some political prisoners, mothballed an infamous prison, licensed a sprinkling of newspapers, and tolerated a sliver of dissent. This civil society movement ended in an abrupt backlash by the regime's old guard, who felt that their new president had gone too far, too fast; by fall 2001 many activists were being sent back to prison.

But Syria's young president was playing a long game, Lesch suggested, outflanking his rivals by embarking on economic reform. He issued licenses for a few private banks, let investors set up a few private, semi-autonomous universities, pushed on with his anticorruption drive. In the perilous geopolitical environment after 9/11, Assad also did his best to navigate a path for Syria--warming to the West by stepping up intelligence-sharing on al-Qaeda with the CIA and trying to appease neoconservatives in the Bush administration who'd had Syria in their sights even before they made war on Iraq.

Rifting on the posters in Syria that showed Assad and his late father in military fatigues, staring out like mafiosi from under dark sunglasses, Lesch likened Assad's predicament to that of Michael Corleone in The Godfather--the accidental don who starts out by securing his authority, sweeping away the old guard in order to realize his dream of making the family business legitimate. …

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