The Cult of Bashar Assad

Even the Syrian President's father didn't want him to rule Syria. But the accidental dictator won't give in

Bryan Denton /The New York Times

President Bashar al-Assad of Syria presides over the annual Arab summit meeting in Damascus on Saturday, March 29, 2008.

To understand the man President Obama is seeking Congressional approval--and international support--to punish for hideous crimes against his own people, you have to go back to his father, Hafez, and his murderous relationship with the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that tried to take his life.

In 1982, Hafez, a member of the minority Alawite Muslim faith, made his final push to rid Syria of the Brotherhood, whose members came from the country's Sunni majority. In a brutal attack on their enclave in Hama, an ancient city 135 miles (215 km) north of Damascus, the military obliterated mosques and caravanserai that dated to the dawn of Islam. Anywhere from 10,000 to 30,000 people were killed in the assault.

Three decades later, Bashar Assad, who turns 48 on Sept. 11, is fighting a civil war very much in the manner of Hafez. His military is destroying Syrian cities held by antiregime rebels--who are again overwhelmingly Sunni--and his forces are slaughtering armed opponents and civilians alike. The death toll from Bashar's campaign, more than 100,000 in over two and a half years, has long since eclipsed the casualties from Hafez's pogroms against the Brotherhood.

But while Hafez received only lingering international scorn for his assault on Hama, Bashar now faces the prospect of U.S.-led air strikes. In Damascus, the mood is a mix of the sanguine and the defiant. In a recent interview with France's Le Figaro newspaper, Assad dismissed Obama as "weak" and warned that action against his regime would destabilize the entire Middle East.

Bashar expects to outlast his enemies, domestic and international. Officials and friends of the dictator tell Time that he believes the civil war is a repeat of his father's battle against the Brotherhood. "Muslim fanatics nearly killed his father (and) to Assad, they are back," says a former government official who has long known the Assads and still maintains ties to the regime. "He believes he is the last bastion of resistance against the Islamic terror threat. He does not care if people will still be calling him a murderer in 10 years, because he knows in 100 years he will be called a hero."

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