Fouad Ajami on the Syrian Rebellion: How a People Conquered Fear to Challenge a Despot of Unspeakable Cruelty
Yalla Erhal Ya Bashar” (“Come on Bashar, Leave”), the crowds had taken to chanting. More poignantly, in Hama, the young people carried placards that read, “Like Father, Like Son.” Back when he had come into power, Bashar al-Assad had made a good first impression, if only because he was different from his intimidating, stern father Hafez al-Assad. His father had been a peasant boy, born in the Alawi mountains and married into his own community; he had come into the coastal city of Latakia, and he had plotted his way to the summit of political power. So many of Hafez al-Assad’s peers and rivals had fallen to assassins’ bullets or perished in Syria’s cruel prisons, dispatched there by Assad himself.
In contrast, Bashar had been the entitled prince, schooled in the best academies in Damascus and with a stint of time in London behind him. He had known no hardship. In the manner of a society eager for deliverance, it was hoped that he would open up the big prison that Syria had become under his father.
Outsiders prophesied good tidings for Bashar. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who had gone to the Old Man’s funeral in 2000 and met the son, came back with a favorable report: he was a “reformer,” she said, bent on modernizing his country. French President Jacques Chirac took it upon himself to induct the young ruler into the respectable order of nations. Bashar married well, which was his first olive branch to his country. His wife was a Sunni, the London-born daughter of a cardiologist, Fawwaz al-Akhras, who lived in self-imposed exile in London and spoke discreetly of the sins of the old regime. The bride had worked for J. P. Morgan in London and was on her way to pursue a Harvard MBA when she met and then married Bashar. There was talk of a “Damascus Spring” at the beginning of his reign.
Small gestures mattered. Bashar made his way to restaurants now and then without heavy security. He was head of the Syria Computer Society and promised openness in a country where the ownership of fax machines was restricted. Western cigarettes, banned by his father, were now available. There was a boom in tourism and a respectable flow of investments from the Gulf states. Art galleries and five-star hotels changed the drab atmosphere.