Seven years in power and now starting a second mandate, Bashar al-Assad remains an enigma rarely seen in public. He seems to be assured of the support of the powerful Syrians who backed his father before him, but he has not won Hafez al-Assad’s stature on the international stage.
Last May he was the only candidate in a ballot that saw him win another seven year term. Yet, Bashar al-Assad is a man who never intended to enter politics. Destiny thrust him into the role when his elder brother died in 1994 and his father called him away from medical studies.
Hafez al-Assad died six years later and Bashar’s crash course in power was over. He took over Syria aged just 34 and promised a social and political spring. He was out of the shadows of the older generation like others in the region, Abdullah in Jordan, or Mohammed VI in Morocco. He was a young man, at the right time.
But, even seven years ago, there were doubters, like Hafez al-Assad’s biographer Patrick Seale. “President Assad’s legacy is, in my view, so strong that any successor would be bound to follow in his footsteps and would not depart from that legacy,” he said.
And, effectively, spring was short and summer never came. The old guard was able to keep control, and, seven years on, little has changed. The media is censored, opponents of the regime have been arrested and Bashar tries to say his promises were misunderstood and too many “red lines” were stepped over.
The one significant event is the enforced pullout from Lebanon, a loss of power and prestige that could have been fatal for Bashar, and may still be. Syria is under ever-greater international pressure. Yet Syria is unbowed and endures. It has not been plunged into the chaos of some of its near neighbours. Bashar tries to scores points by alternating belligerence in dealing with Israel and the US and keeping a low profile.
“The political scene contains many hot points which are mixed together and points at changing of the Arab identity to serve some foreign countries, especially Israel”, is typical of his recent impenetrable public comment. Some observers see Bashar as less bloody than his father but more of a gambler and a political opportunist. Can seven more years be any different?