“Bashar Al Assad: An Intimate Profile of a Mass Murderer”
One recurring theory about Assad, which the regime has perhaps subtly encouraged, holds that he is not really running his country, but is in thrall to a shadowy set of figures that varies according to whom you’re talking—in some versions, it is his father’s old circle; in others, the Alawite elite. (This theory was especially appealing to the Western governments who once hoped that high-level defections could help weaken Assad, and perhaps even supply his replacement.) Most of the former regime officials I spoke to rejected that idea. “This is a kind of one-man show,” says a former regime official. “The system will not collapse as long as Assad does not collapse. Any other person is replaceable.”
Under the deus ex machina set in motion by Russia, Assad has until the middle of 2014 to facilitate the removal and destruction of all of Syria’s chemical-weapons stockpiles and manufacturing capabilities. Even though this agreement does nothing to threaten Assad’s hold on power—Moscow can veto any U.N. punishment for the regime’s failure to comply—it has been widely celebrated. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which is overseeing the process, won the Nobel Peace Prize. Assad joked in front of reporters from a Lebanese newspaper that he should have received the award himself.
When I asked one former regime official about what will happen next, he suggested the following scenario: International chemical weapons inspectors are operating out of the fortress-like Four Seasons Hotel in Damascus. Assad knows that a few of these inspectors will be Western intelligence agents. Syrian operatives will figure out who they are and quietly approach them with tips: a known terrorist is in this province; we have pictures; we’re fighting Al Qaeda, just like you. “And I will not be surprised at all if the American and Syrian intelligence agencies work together again,” says one defector. “If not today, tomorrow. If not directly, indirectly. The door will be open.”
The last time Bashar Al Assad stood for reelection in Syria, where the presidential term lasts for seven years, was in May 2007. He had no credible opponent and won with 97.6 percent of the vote. Instead of his father’s Pyongyang-style extravaganzas, Bashar celebrated with a more postmodern spectacle: an exquisitely orchestrated “uprising” of support, part Roman triumph, part faux Orange Revolution. Crowds of people danced debkeh in the streets with choreographed spontaneity, waving torches and posters of Bashar and singing: “We love you, yes! We love you!”
Syria’s next presidential election is scheduled for May. In an October interview with the German newspaper Der Spiegel, Assad played coy about whether he will seek a third term. “I cannot decide now whether I am going to run,” he said. “It’s still early, because you have to probe the mood and will of the people.” But he seemed to like his chances. “Who isn’t against me?” Assad said. “You’ve got the United States, the West, the richest countries in the Arab world, and Turkey. All this and I am killing my people, and they still support me! Am I a Superman? No. So how can I still stay in power after two and a half years? Because a big part of the Syrian people support me.” Besides, Assad added, “Where is another leader who would be similarly legitimate?”