The subtext here is that Assad is weak; the polite phrasing, among educated Syrians, has always been that he “does not have the qualities of a leader.” That is to say, he does not have the gravitas of his ruthless, gnomic father, Hafez Al Assad, who ruled the country from 1970 until June 2000. Other Syrians put it less delicately. They call him donkey, giraffe, taweel wa habeel—a Levantine putdown for a big, bumbling doofus. Diplomats, analysts, and a few heads of state have been just as harsh, predicting his imminent downfall since the day he took power.
What outsiders have been slow to realize is that in the game Assad is playing, a weak man (or one perceived that way) can cling to his throne just as tenaciously, and violently, as a strongman. Over the course of his reign, he has learned how to turn his biggest shortcomings—his desire for approval, his tendency toward prevarication—into his greatest assets.
For years, many Western analysts and diplomats have viewed Assad as malleable, even naïve. But his former aides describe a man who is accustomed to being underestimated and adept at exploiting those misperceptions. Before negotiations, Assad would tell his team to let the other side think they had won: “Give them always nice words, nice meetings, nice phrases,” Abdelnour recalls him saying. “They will be happy, they will say good things about us, and they cannot withdraw from it later.” In the end, though, Assad rarely delivers on the concessions that he grants so courteously. He always has an excuse, a variable beyond his control.
On March 30, 2011, as the conflict escalated, he gave a defiant and conspiratorial speech casting himself as the victim of “foreign powers” who had stirred up insurrection in a bid to destroy Syria. “They adopt the principle,” he said of his enemies, “of ‘lie until you believe your lie.’ ”
In fact, it is Assad who has done exactly that. Calmly and deliberately, he has painted a picture that in the beginning was not completely accurate: The demonstrators, he said, were jihadists who would bring Afghanistan-type chaos to the country. Then he sat back and waited for it to become true. “He’s very strategic. From the very first day, he was talking about terrorists and Syria’s national unity,” says a former regime official, who has now defected to the United States. “People were talking about democracy, human rights, silly stuff—not silly, but not strategic—and he is talking about Al Qaeda.”
“The regime has been extraordinarily successful with a very disciplined and single–minded disinformation campaign,” says Hof. “Even in the executive branch, you’ve got people arguing over what’s the bigger threat, Assad or Al Qaeda. You’ve got people worrying about all kinds of hypotheses—what if Assad were overthrown? What would happen to Syria? As if what’s happening to Syria is something we can all live with.”
Syria’s next presidential election is scheduled for May. In an October interview with the German newspaper Der Spiegel, Assad played coy about whether he will seek a third term. “I cannot decide now whether I am going to run,” he said. “It’s still early, because you have to probe the mood and will of the people.” But he seemed to like his chances. “Who isn’t against me?” Assad said. “You’ve got the United States, the West, the richest countries in the Arab world, and Turkey. All this and I am killing my people, and they still support me! Am I a Superman? No. So how can I still stay in power after two and a half years? Because a big part of the Syrian people support me.” Besides, Assad added, “Where is another leader who would be similarly legitimate?”