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

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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 June 26, 1980, and the pivotal moment of Bashar Assad's youth. He was just 14 when the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood tried to kill his father Hafez, then the country's President. As the elder Assad waited to greet a foreign delegation at a government palace for guests in Damascus, would-be assassins lobbed hand grenades and sprayed machine-gun fire at the President. He survived, reportedly kicking away a grenade. The Brotherhood did not.

What happened that day and over the next two years greatly influenced the teenager who would eventually, unexpectedly, take his father's place. The regime struck back at the Brotherhood with lethal force and a massive campaign of intimidation, torture, disappearances and extrajudicial killings. 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. Whole neighborhoods were bulldozed flat. Anywhere from 10,000 to 30,000 people were killed in the assault. The entire Brotherhood leadership was liquidated; so too were their families. In a report on the massacre, the human-rights group Amnesty International noted that government soldiers allegedly pumped lethal cyanide gas through hoses into houses where suspected insurgents lived, killing everyone inside.

To outsiders, the destruction of Hama was a horrific crime against humanity, one involving the use of poisonous gas to kill civilians, an act outlawed internationally since World War I. But the young Bashar, according to several people who know him well, saw Hafez's actions in a very different light. If a unified Syria and the Alawite-dominated regime were both to survive, he learned from his father, dissent could not be tolerated. Any sign of rebellion was an existential threat that must be quashed with overwhelming force--and international law be damned.

Three decades later, Bashar, 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 2½ years, has long since eclipsed the casualties from Hafez's pogroms against the Brotherhood. And Bashar may have exceeded his father in his use of weapons of mass destruction: on Aug. 21, according to the Obama Administration and several other governments, including those of Britain, France and Turkey, Assad's military launched a chemical-weapons attack against several rebel-controlled neighborhoods in the Damascus suburbs, killing anywhere from 350 to more than 1,400 people. (The regime denies it used chemical weapons, saying the opposition, in a bid to tarnish the government, is responsible.)

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