Jean-Marie Quemener is a photographer and journalist. He has served as editor in chief at Gamma Images and as a foreign correspondent for Le Figaro. He has spent most of his career reporting from conflict zones, particularly Africa and the Middle East. Based in Lebanon for seven years, he worked as a freelance correspondent for several French media outlets including France 24, Radio France, Le Point, Marianne and VSD. His book, ‘Docteur Bachar, Mister Assad: Ses Secrets et Ses Mysteres’ (Encre d’Orient) was released in October. An English translation is forthcoming.
What kind of childhood did Bashar al-Assad have? What did it mean for Assad to grow up an Alawite?
Bashar’s childhood was quite odd and hectic. He had an older sister, Bushra, an older brother, Basel. Bushra had a very strong personality, but was a girl, meaning she could not enter political life. Basel was like his father, only a bit wilder. He was athletic, popular with the girls, cut out for the army and quite charismatic. But Bashar was a mother’s boy. He grew up in the shadow of both his brother and his father. More importantly though, he grew up with an absent father, as Hafez was a workaholic. Bashar always felt stifled by his social position, uncomfortable with being constantly followed by bodyguards, embarrassed when people knew his name.
As for the Alawite factor, let’s not forget his father was the leader of the secularist and egalitarian Baath party. Furthermore, the status of the Alawites within Islam is ambiguous. Being Alawite was not so much a matter of religion as it was a matter of land. Bashar felt Alawite mainly because he comes from an Alawite village [Qardaha], which was acquired only recently by the Assads, Bashar’s grandfather to be precise. In this sense, being Alawite wasn’t a problem for Bashar. However, being Alawite quickly became a problem in terms of the conduct that was expected of him. Bashar was aware of his unusual social position. He was Hafez’s son. But he didn’t want to be Hafez’s son. He wanted to be Bashar, to be himself, which meant being withdrawn, an introvert. Paradoxically, one of the consequences of this character trait was a relative intellectual independence, which played a part in his move to London later on.
What do we know of his time in London? How was he thought of amongst colleagues?
First off, Bashar moved to London to escape. He had studied medicine in Damascus – to a very high level – and specialised in ophthalmology. He had a knack for science because the area fits his personality, requiring a methodical, clinical, objective approach in which opinion takes a back seat. Bashar slipped comfortably into the scientific routine. The anonymity of London also suited him. He made very few friends among his fellow interns. They all knew him to be Bashar al-Assad but, as well-educated and etiquette-conscious Englishmen, remained mindful of his privacy. Also, Bashar did not come across as the stereotypical Middle-Eastern rich kid. Instead he was tall, with a fair complexion and blue eyes, and his reserve and discretion worked to his advantage. Bashar was extremely shy, almost to the point of social ineptitude. But in a way this helped him. It also didn’t hurt that he was very good at his job. Like all extremely shy, goal-oriented people, he was a monomaniac in regards to ophthalmology, his studies, his patients, and – incredible as it may seem today – he was also very compassionate. His fellow interns as well as the hospital administrator at St Mary’s Hospital in London, Dr Schulenburg, admitted that he had a special relationship with his patients, making them feel as if, for their half-hour consultations, all that mattered to him was their health and their lives. This may also explain why many journalists who interview Bashar are quite indulgent toward him, as he managed to build a similar kind of relationship with them. And I think this is also what protected him from the Western media for so many years.
To what extent was Assad the ‘Reluctant President’?
Bashar very much appreciated his life in London. He had three brothers, Basel, Maher and Majed. When Basel died in 1994, he expected Maher, not himself, to become the heir. Maher was a younger, slightly wilder version of Basel. He had many qualities his father valued, in particular soldierly ones. By 1994, Bashar had been in London for only a couple of years when he met Asma al-Akhras. She was British with Syrian origins, not the other way around. She had been living in London for 25 years and worked at JP Morgan. Her family was Syrian-Sunni elite, with close ties to Hafez al-Assad. Bashar knew full well that Syria wasn’t the ideal place for her. It wasn’t for him, either. He wanted to remain anonymous, become a top ophthalmologist and just be included in his community of peers, in which he felt he could find himself and live his life. But in one way of thinking, it was natural for Bashar to take over after his father. So for the first and only time in his life, Bashar went against his father’s wishes. For him, what was going on in Syria was no longer his own reality. And he was also deeply affected by the loss of Basel, his role model, protector, and the person he had always wanted to be but never would. After his death Bashar grew miserable, and was deeply disinclined to replace him, not only because it was psychologically difficult to come to terms with replacing a loved one who had just died, but also because he knew he was incapable of really replacing him. And this is where the classic Shakespearean tragedy began. Bashar doggedly tried to escape his fate; one chance after another was quashed. His older brother was more talented than him but ended up dying. He tried to escape to London but was forced to return to Syria.
How was the road paved for his ascension to office?
Bashar’s first lie as a statesman was that the succession had been unplanned and unprepared – between his brother’s death in 1994 and his father’s in 2000 he was actually being groomed for exactly this. He quickly understood– and his father was there to remind him lest he forget– that there were several levers to be worked. So long as his father was there, he kept a tight paternal lid on things. However, Bashar managed to grab hold of the domestic matter that was Lebanon (for some in the Syrian regime Lebanon is a part of Syria and at the time there were still 40,000 Syrian troops in Lebanon). His education began there, under three main influences, those of his father, the old guard and in particular the Generals who fast tracked his military training and helped him rise through the ranks at blistering speed (in six years Bashar had become a general). Also, he was already building ties with the Syrian business communities in Damascus and Aleppo and became more familiar and comfortable in these circles, a legacy of his London days.
When Assad first came to power how did he established himself?
For six years he had been planning this takeover. First, he progressively got rid of many in the old guard. He also quickly understood that he who controls the security forces controls militarily and operationally, and therefore filled key security service positions with trusted allies. Furthermore, he understood – particularly because his uncle Rifaat had tried to overthrow his father – that he needed to strengthen family ties. And close ties can be guaranteed through vested interests. Key positions and spheres of influence were distributed among family members. His wife became the humanitarian face, his brother, commander of various elite forces and army divisions, his brother-in-law was granted control of the security services and his cousin, Rami Makhloof, command of the business sector. Eventually, he also understood that he must rely, in the bigger picture, on his clan, and on the Alawite region.
How did Syria’s regional position and its perception in the West evolve during the early years of his presidency?
Abroad just as domestically, there was a fundamental misunderstanding. Bashar was young; he was 34 when he came to power. He had attended a French school and worked in London. He was seen as Westernised and much softer than his father – at least until the events in Deraa last March. And Syria had oil, which meant there were international spheres of influence at play. When French president Jacques Chirac attended Hafez’s funeral, the only Western head of state to do so, he was clearly staking a claim in Syria’s oil fields for Total. The French were really disappointed when they didn’t get those contracts. Which is also why they stopped supporting Bashar soon after. But at the time, there was a general consensus among Western diplomats – whether French, British or American – that Bashar was much more tractable, and his country therefore much more permeable to their prodding for new markets. It turns out they were completely wrong.
Were Assad’s reformist intentions sincere or disingenuous?
There is no way to be sure. The optimistic version is that Bashar let many things happen because he needed to understand the country he had just inherited. At the time, there were still many things he didn’t control but genuinely wanted to do something about. As a scientist, he observed what was unfolding before him. During the Damascus Spring of 2000-01, literary, political and philosophical forums known as muntadayat mushroomed in Syria. Bashar drew from them for a better understanding of his country. But there is also a more pessimistic version – although they are not mutually exclusive and I tend to think the whole story is a combination of both. At this time, Bashar did not yet have Syria under total control. When the Damascus Spring flowered, he was not in a position to confront strong, politically influential opponents within the Baath party. In 2000, he didn’t completely understand and know how to manage all the ramifications, inner workings and power struggles within the party. At best he wanted to seize the emerging spirit of reform, at worst was looking for the right pretext to prove he was an Assad. I think there was a middle ground. He probably was quite sincere at first. I can very well see this man trying to revive a certain idea of liberalism, whether economic, political, philosophical, or social, while at the same time being very quickly overwhelmed by events. Such an opening after 30 years of dictatorship, no wonder the levees broke! In 2000, Bashar released 600 prisoners, among which many opponents and Islamists, and closed the prison in Mezzah. But by doing so he opened the floodgates.
Assad was a guest of Sarkozy for Bastille Day in 2008, to much controversy. Do we know how cordial their relationship was?
We need to go back in time. Until Hariri’s death, Jacques Chirac was quite pro-Syrian, both intuitively and for economic interests, as he hoped to secure oil contracts for Total. When Rafik Hariri died, France, whose last real zone of influence in the region was Lebanon, unsurprisingly sided with Lebanon and thus butted heads with Bashar. Much later, when the French researcher Clotilde Reiss was detained in Iran, President Sarkozy turned to Bashar al-Assad so that he might exert pressure on his ally Ahmadinejad. French-Syrian relations warmed up, at the expense of the Franco-Lebanese partnership. This would not have been an unwise strategy but, just like his predecessor, Sarkozy failed to understand who he was dealing with. Bashar is very good at deceiving people. Once again, his shyness is an asset: he is not a hothead and will not automatically resort to force. He is very good at analysing all the parameters involved and biding his time before striking unexpectedly, with devastating effect. Besides, at the time he had an ace in the hole. The Second Gulf War was unfolding on his doorstep and the US needed him to secure Syria’s border with Iraq. In short, President Sarkozy tried to play in the big leagues and got burnt.
How has the French government reacted to events of the last few months in Syria?
France missed both the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. So when the Libyan and Syrian revolutions broke out, France decided it was time to act, and more importantly to speak out: France played a leading role in denouncing the Syrian regime and welcoming opponents. Of course there is also definitely a degree of opportunism and political realism. But I think Syria, as well as the Syrian people, need France. More specifically, they need what France represented 40-50 years ago, after the mandate. What we need to understand is that Syrians consider themselves Mesopotamians. For many, Damascus is the centre of the Arab world. And France still has a role to play there, but as a partner, ally and adviser, not as an occupying or mandated power. Aside from the measure of opportunism there is in supporting the opposition in the midst of this revolution, I think Alain Juppé [French Minister of Foreign Affairs] is genuinely appalled by what is happening in Syria. It troubles him as a Republican, just as it would any Republican, whether at the right or left of the political spectrum.
What was Bashar’s reaction to the protests as they began to grow? When did he begin to consider them as a serious threat?
Bashar is a doctor: he observes the wound then stitches it up. It all started in Deraa. Kids had been caught spray-painting a wall with slogans heard during the Egyptian revolution. It wasn’t that serious. But the governor and the head of security in the region decided to jail them. Their parents pleaded in vain for their release. Then they decided to protest. Shots were fired and an 11-year-old girl was killed. And that was when the people from Deraa started to revolt. Bashar stitched. He sacked the governor and the head of security. But it had already gone too far: people, including children, had died. And it was popping off all around him. Egypt fell, then Tunisia. And Bashar, who was the one to introduce widespread Internet access to Syria, suddenly faced a 2.0 revolution he hadn’t see coming. So he stitched again: he shot at the crowd. And of course it didn’t calm things down. Bashar refused to understand that the pressure was that of a neglected, forgotten youth. Almost half of the Syrian population is under 25, and uncontrollable. They won’t kowtow to the Baathists, or the traditional opposition for that matter, whom they see as the other side of the same coin. They are impulsive, proud, and applying what they observed in Egypt and Tunisia. And Bashar can’t understand them. For one, he is too old already. And nothing during his life or his father’s prepared him for this. Ironically his father was a champion of pan-Arabism, and now Bashar is getting boomeranged in the face by pan-Arabism 2.0.It could be a fatal blow.
Should Alawites fear for their future in Syria?
Yes and no. Twelve died in riots in Latakia [in March]. This is quite significant. But so far, the Alawite region has been relatively spared. Neither his clan, his family nor his tribe are seriously at risk in that sense. But for the Alawites themselves however, things could become much more complicated. At the moment, being an Alawite gives you access to positions of great influence. Bashar ‘Alawised’ all state control levers, and in particular those of the army. He has had a deep-seated fear of the army ever since his uncle Rifaat’s attempt to overthrow his father. In fact, Bashar suffered multiple traumas, from the absence of his father as a child, the burden of power on his father’s, his brother’s and now his shoulders, to the suffocating duties of a clan and family head. When you combine all these fears and insecurities, you get the ultimate trauma, which is what is happening to Bashar today and what he has been running away from all his life. And there you go: the doctor who simply wanted to help people becomes a butcher.
How did you go about researching the book? Did it specifically involve time in Syria?
No, I spent seven years in the Middle East, working and living in Lebanon. I often went to Syria however. Damascus is very relaxing compared to Beirut. Yet at the same time there is always something going on, a permanent restlessness. The Damascus Spring revealed it, but it has always existed and will always exist, no matter what happens next. Syrians are educated and cultured people who are passionate about the res publica. But this is true of all Arab countries. But I didn’t go to Damascus specifically for the book. The main reason is that I’m more or less persona non grata there. Because I tend to write about what I see, that’s my job. And it seems that what I see isn’t what the regime sees. One of us must be wrong.
What are the difficulties in writing a book on events that are constantly evolving?
Actually, contrary to what I usually do, I decided not to deal with everyday developments and headlines. When I say ‘headlines’ I mean the details, not the basic issue of a man slaughtering his people. Otherwise I’d still be writing this book. Just recently Amnesty International reported that hospitals were being used as torture chambers. This needs to be checked, but it would be incredibly ironic: a doctor allowing acts of torture in a hospital. An ill thing.
Will the Assads cede power or will they fight to the last man?
They can’t cede power! In many authoritarian-ruled countries, power is seized, sometimes forcibly taken, but never ceded. There are too many people depending on you. In Bashar’s mind, ceding power would be tantamount to betrayal, against his family, his clan, his sect, and, in the bigger picture, against Syria, the Baath ideology, pan-Arabism and secularism.