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Syria's Assad: An accidental heir proves resilient

Tuesday - 9/10/2013, 5:34am  ET

FILE - In this Tuesday, July 13, 2010 file photo, Syrian President Bashar Assad, right, and his wife Asma Assad, listen to explanations as they visit a technology plant in Tunis. In the eyes of many, Assad is a murderous autocrat who would do anything to cling to power. But for his supporters, he is a nationalist hero fighting Western imperialism, a stabilizing presence who ensures a secular rule in a turbulent region wracked by sectarian wars. (AP Photo/Hassene Dridi, File)

Associated Press

BEIRUT (AP) -- Those who knew Bashar Assad in earlier days say he was uncomfortable being the son of a president and never wanted to lead. A soft-spoken, lisping eye doctor, he enjoyed Western rock music and electronic gadgets -- an accidental heir to power.

Yet Assad, who turns 48 on Wednesday, has proven to be relentlessly resilient, branded by opponents a brutal dictator who kills with chemical weapons.

His willingness to do whatever it takes in Syria's civil war, unleashing his military's might against entire towns and cities, has so far succeeded in keeping his regime core in power, even as large swaths of his country fall from his control or turn into devastated killing fields.

Nearly three years into the uprising against his family's more than 40-year-rule, he has defied every prediction that his end is near.

The West once had the impression Assad was weak or incompetent, said David Lesch, professor of Middle Eastern history at Trinity University in San Antonio. "It took this unleashing of violence and bloodshed for people to reassess their view of Bashar."

"There is revision, people saying he's a lot tougher than they thought," said Lesch, author of "Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad," who had unusual access to Assad, meeting him regularly from 2004-2009.

In the eyes of opponents, Assad is a murderous autocrat who would do anything to cling to power. The U.S and its allies accuse him of resorting to gassing his own people, a claim the regime denies.

But for his supporters, he is a nationalist hero fighting Western imperialism and ensuring stable, secular rule in a turbulent region wracked by sectarian wars.

Assad himself appears fueled by an unshakeable belief that Syria would collapse without him, that he is not crushing a popular rebellion but fighting an attack by foreign-backed terrorists.

In a televised speech to parliament in June 2012, he likened his crackdown to a doctor trying to save a patient.

"When a surgeon... cuts and cleans and amputates, and the wound bleeds, do we say to him, 'Your hands are stained with blood?'" Assad said. "Or do we thank him for saving the patient?"

The question that has always been debated about Assad is whether he leads his regime or is led by it.

The leadership he inherited was meticulously built by his father, Hafez Assad. The Assad family and its minority Alawite sect held the most sensitive positions in the military and intelligence agencies. But they weren't the only ones: Select families from the Sunni majority and from Christian and other minorities were given powerful posts or economic spheres that invested them in the regime, one of the most autocratic in the Middle East.

The son remains as reliant on them as his father did, if not more.

"He is not the strongman. How can he be?" an exiled cousin, Ribal al-Assad, told the AP in London. "He didn't come up through the military ranks ... He didn't put these people in, his brother did and his father did. He's more afraid of being assassinated by one of them than he is of Western airstrikes."

Bashar Assad's first months as president after succeeding his father in 2000 ushered in hopes he would loosen his father's iron grip. Even after it became clear he too would not tolerate dissent, he was still portrayed by many as a reformer at heart, fighting against an old guard who restricted his ambitions.

Even some of his strongest critics in the current war once believed he could be a positive factor.

As a senator, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited him repeatedly, dining with Assad and his wife at a restaurant in Old Damascus in 2009. Former French President Nicholas Sarkozy invited him to Bastille Day celebrations in 2008. Even after his forces fired on protesters at the beginning of the uprising against him in March 2011, Hillary Clinton suggested he was different from his father -- a "reformer" who should be given a chance.

So how did a purported reformer become a leader who Kerry now compares to Adolf Hitler?

"It's like a Greek tragedy," says Jean-Marie Quemener, whose biography of Assad, "Docteur Bachar, Mister Assad," was published in France in 2011.

"At each step of his existence, he had every chance of choosing the right way. But each time, either the rug was pulled from under him, or he took the wrong decision," he told The Associated Press in Paris. "Each time, his destiny was forced."

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