New Lion of Damascus must fight or flee as violence reaches doorstep

By Syed Mansur Hashim, The Daily Star/Asia News Network

DHAKA, Bangladesh — The New Lion of Damascus; that was how American academic David Lesch portrayed Bashar al-Assad in a biography. To the rest of the country, Assad is better known as “Bessho,” (baby Bashar). Despite having lost three of his closest confidantes in what was undoubtedly an audacious attack inside one of the most heavily guarded sites in Damascus, the national security headquarters, Assad hangs on to power defying the world.

Both the serving defense minister and deputy defense minister were taken out by a suicide bomb. This coupled with a string of top military leaders totaling some 24 generals defecting in the last couple of weeks had both the opposition and foreign observers believing Assad was done for. Unfortunately, things are seldom that simple in the Middle East. Assad still has his younger brother Maher al-Assad, commander of the army’s Fourth Division, who has driven rebel forces out of a Damascus district. As long as Maher commands, Assad has hope. The chain of events that has unfolded since the inception of the Syrian uprising means there is no turning back the clock. Yet Assad hangs on defiantly, albeit with support from foreign friends who block the U.N. from endorsing a military intervention.

What is ironic here is that Assad was never destined to lead his people. His father Hafez Al-Assad had been grooming Bassel to take the reins of government, which was cut short in 1994 in a car accident outside Damascus. Assad was recalled from London, given a crash course in military and political affairs, and the government machinery went into overdrive to revamp the image of the “new leader” in waiting. Known as a quiet introvert, Assad inherited his father’s inner circle and within two years a new Bashar had emerged, outwardly more confident with a better physique and carefully tailored voice to fit that image. As Assad took the reins of government in mid-2000, there was anticipation that he would break away from the repressiveness of Hafez’s policies and usher in hope. Initial steps taken by the younger Assad pointed to a more optimistic future. A number of political prisoners were released from prison, discussion forums sprouted up in the capital city on the future direction of the country. There was genuine talk of reform as foreign advisors were sought to help revamp the administration and technocrats, for the first time, were brought in to tackle the bureaucracy.