It's hard to reconcile the diametrically opposite public identity with which Bashar al-Assad is characterized as President of Syria with the quiet, soft spoken, even intellectual personality he projected as a medical student second son of his "hard as nails" political leader father, Hafez al-Assad. It is explained best by the words of a onetime close friend of the late President Hafez, "Family solidarity and honor is the driving force of Bashar al-Assad.": He gave up his dream of a life dedicated to medicine when his father told him of his older brother's death in an auto accident - and that it was Bashar's responsibility to assume the role of heir-apparent to the leadership of his country.
Of course it all sounds honorable and self-sacrificing – and that would be true. However, it's straight out of Mario Puzo's story, The Godfather. That's closer to the environment into which Bashar was born and which he accepted. It was the world in which his father, Hafez, grew up from an impoverished family of the Alawite Shia sect in Syria. From these low ranks Hafez had risen in the Syrian wing of the Baath Party. It was a battle all along the way, and the story of that rise was made very clear repeatedly to young Bashar and his two brothers and sister. Bashar was the middle brother and thus free of the expectations that fell on his older sibling. This is the Middle East and tradition is it's guide and control.
The truth is that Hafez was very proud of his bright and talented second son. Bashar went to the French School in Damascus and then graduated from medical college at Damascus University. His older brother, Bassel, was the tough guy and natural leader – at least that is how he was portrayed at the time. Bashar served briefly as an Army doctor and then went to Britain to do graduate study in ophthalmology. He met and married a UK citizen of Syrian background. A perfect choice. And then the telephone call came in 1994 and Bashar's world spun to an opposite pole.
What followed must have been a difficult transition, as the self-effacing Bashar now became "the President's son and heir to the leadership of Syria". Six years of assignment to various military positions was accompanied by regular promotions suitable to his new role. He was given responsibility for the Syrian military presence in Lebanon in 1998. The "new" Bashar took over by an election one month after his father's death in 2000. The transition to political leader and military commander had not been yet completed, but the trappings and commitment was there. Bashar was President and knew it.
Of course the way was not as smooth as the process suggests. He still had his exiled uncle, Rifaat, with which to contend. The latter had always intended to take over when his brother died, but now was in no position to vie for that leadership post. Rifaat was charged with corruption in France, so he dashed away to Spain. He did this several times, until his successful efforts at bribery freed him from his travels. However, the Alawite community strongly backed their new leader and uncle Rifaat had to accept his expatriate life of wheeling and dealing in France.
In any strong dictatorial government there must be a trusted individual to assume the role of enforcer. In military terms, this became Bashar's younger brother's job. Officially, Maher al-Assad took over five different commands, but in reality he was his older brother's "enforcer". By 2013 Maher commanded the elite Fourth Armoured Division and the Republican Guards. Within Maher's chain of command was included the central Hezbollah unit in Lebanon and the separate Hezbollah field commanders operating in Syria. The longest serving Assad family paramilitary asset (also under Maher's command) is the mainly Alawite group known as Shabiha. These toughs have grown from a regime strong-arm gang into what is now a brutal, but loyal, group of urban street fighters specializing in intimidating the civilian population. Part of this intimidation included the assassination in Homs of the famed correspondent, Marie Colvin, and photographer Remi Ochlik. Reportedly, this action was under the direct order of Maher al- Assad.
The Russians took on an active political role in 2012 when it's Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, attacked "Western Powers" for fomenting civil war in Syria. By 2014, several military bases in Raqqa were lost in spite of heavy use of Alawite elite forces. The losses to these special units brought strong condemnation from Alawite leadership that their sons were being sacrificed in disproportionate numbers. By 2015, a round of assassinations accompanied the governmental losses. This situation brought the Russians into a more obvious support role. The BBC reported in 2016 that Alawite leadership was seeking to separate from Bashar's governance. In trying to curry favor with his Russian friends, Bashar praised Russia's air campaign with succeeding far more than the U.S. in the campaign against ISIS. The new American President Donald Trump initiated what he termed "a new friendly campaign" with Syria. However, that halted as a result of the Syrian poison gas attack on Douma and the U.S., U.K. & France air and missile attack in 2017.
It is said that power leads to corruption and absolute power brings on absolute corruption. In spite of various articles seeking to explain Bashar's altered personality due to such things as being bullied as a child by his older brother and neglect by an absent father, it appears clear that the now infamous middle son has succumbed to this ancient adage. And there's nothing fictional about the result. Syria, with or without its Godfather, now awaits another "sitdown" between Trump and Putin. However, not to be forgotten behind the scene is the nefarious presence of Iran that has acted in support of the Assad family since the 1979 Iranian Revolution. While there is no direct relationship between the Persian Shia and the Alawite Arab Shia, such connections, tenuous though they might be, have meaning in the Middle East. When it comes to power plays, that can mean a great deal.