Bashar al-Assad

Author(s): Ken Feltman, Ekaterina Egorova, Elizaveta Egorova
Project Date of completion: 1/1/2013

Many publications about Bashar al-Assad wonder how a modest and shy young man could turn into a bloody dictator. In our opinion, there is nothing to be surprised at. Many dictators of the XX and XXI centuries were modest and even shy teenagers. Such personalities as Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Saddam Hussein, Lukashenko and Milošević were neither aggressive nor particularly cruel in their childhood. As a rule, bloody dictators grow up in the families with mothers bringing them up.  The mechanism of turning a quiet boy into a butcher is well shown in Hitchcock’s films.

In a number of cases, dictators were growing up in one-parent families where fathers either left them early or were not present at all. This was the case in the families of Saddam Hussein, Lukashenko and Milošević.  Another type of a family, growing up a dictator, is a family where fathers were present but did not take part in bringing up their sons for different reasons like being busy at work or because of drinking. Such were the families where Stalin and Hitler grew up. Finally, the third family type has the fathers who did not pay attention to the upbringing of their children because of being busy at work and having other sons they tied up their hopes with. A future dictator felt a pang of envy of his brother and a shortage of parental love. For instance, Lenin and Bashar al-Assad were brought up in the families of the last type.

Bashar’s father, Hafez Assad, was, in fact, excluded of the process of raising his children because he was totally engaged in his work. He tied up all his hopes with his elder son Bassel, an aggressive macho, who was groomed to continue his father’s business –a dictatorial rule. There were other children in the family with psychological qualities much better than those of Bashar.  Among them were his youngest brother Maher, a copy of his elder brother, and his sister Bushra, a charismatic and strong personality, who simply had a bad luck to be born a girl.  Otherwise, she would have played one the first violins in the Assad’s family orchestra.  However, Bashar is, certainly, not the most incapable child in the family. His younger brother Majid is said to have suffered from mental disorders.

Bashar had mixed feelings about his father and elder brother. He loved, admired and envied them, being aware of his lower qualities compared to them. His father provided him with a good European education. Bashar had become an ophthalmologist, lived and worked in London. When his elder brother died in an automobile accident, his father recalled Basahr to serve the interests of the family, the party and the state. He had to live up to his father’s expectations.

Being a pragmatic and pedantic person in his studies, Bashar carefully started to prepare, studying the intricacies of military matters and the state management.   The main thing for him was not to let his father down, to continue his father’s business and to deserve his father’s approval. When his father passed away and Bashar succeeded to ‘the throne,’ he was desperately attempting to match his father and his requirements even stronger.

It was not a simple matter. Having personal qualities that were quite different from those of his father and elder brother, Bashar felt it inherently difficult to reproduce the model of hard leadership.  He began to adjust the political system to himself, trying to modernize it.  However, when Bashar found out that many citizens were not willing to live in the Assads’ empire, he came to the conclusion usual to many politicians with a low self-esteem: deadly enemies pose a threat to everything that is dear to him, including the cause of his father, his clan and the party. The existence of a clear and psychologically drawn enemy immediately triggered off the same mechanisms that had already been used at the time of Hitler, Stalin, Lenin, Hussein and other dictators.

The analysis of Bashar al-Assad’s personality allows us to make more detailed assessments and forecasts. Bashar al-Assad is a personality with a low self-esteem, requiring a continued compensation.   He is well aware of the need to prove to himself and other people that he is worthy of his father and able to cope with the presidency not worse than his brother.

Bashar al-Assad is always in defense against something that poses a threat to his self-esteem, including criticism and accusations.  The most unpleasant criticism for him is to be accused of weakness. Therefore he rejects all accusations of being cruel not because he does not want to look bloodthirsty but due to the fact that it is pragmatically beneficial. The Syrian President often uses negative forms in his speech in English. There may be several of them in one phrase.  This means that he has a deep feeling of unease in a given conversation, compellingly denying what he believes to be not too bad.

He is sure of doing the right thing and sees no need to change his behavior. President Assad is absolutely indifferent to the criticism on the part of people and organizations that do not deserve his credit, all those that are outside the limits of his family, be it the West, the United Nation, foreign journalists, other Arab countries or protesters in his own country. Their criticism does not touch him because he correlates his self-esteem only with the requirements that tie him up with his father who is Bashar’s role model. Their assessments are not able to make him change his behavior.

The main motive of Bashar al-Assad’s political activity is a very high need for power and no fear of it. Power is not only a means of compensating his low self-esteem. Having power helps him to come close to an ideal, to an image of a real leader as he sees it taking into account the model of his father. Bashar al-Assad will not give up power himself unless his family faces a serious threat. But even in this case, it will be difficult for him to make a decision about his resignation voluntarily. Anyway, the reason for such a decision should be so important that his father, Hafez, would have understood and approved it.

President Assad has also a high need for control over people and situations. This is caused by both his high need for power and strong sense of danger. He is apprehensive of many factors that may do him harm, including his brutal youngest brother, the party elite, protesters and, finally, enemies from abroad. All these opponents are quite powerful to destroy everything that is so dear to him. And Bashar needs to control these people and the situation continually. He feels himself rather uneasily in the situations when has no full control over his interlocutor. His facial expression, gesticulation and numerous repetitions of words in sentences show this during the interviews with foreign correspondents, for instance, with Barbara Walters.

President of Syria has a remarkably low need for achievement.  He neither strives for success nor has fear of a failure. He is, probably, well aware of his inability to implement any major breakthroughs either in economy or the social and political development of the country.    Some attempts to modernize the country turned out to be inadequate. Therefore, his main problem is to preserve his power according to Hafez’ model. He believes such a goal to be achievable and is ready to undertake considerable efforts to solve this problem. Such an index as a positive valence shows this.

Superficial in his social ties, Bashar does not need any approval or support on the part of his people and has no fear of being rejected.   When he says that the support of his people is the main thing for the President, he does not really need that support. Until he is able to contain his people’s anger and protest, he will put up with hatred and indignation of millions of people as well as with their reluctance to tolerate his power. The only person causing his fear of being rejected was his father. Now no other reference people exist for him.

All dictators of the world are typical in their desires to dominate the external circumstances and to cover them with their public duty. They explain this referring to the needs of people and not to their own desires.  Bashar is not an exception here. His inner need “I wish” is eight times stronger than his outer need “I have to.” He skilfully explains his brutal suppression of the protests with a public need to fight terrorists rather than with his own desires and orders.  His desires are an important imperative for his actions in the state and he is ready to continue them for all that. However, an important question is an object of his desires. The main thing must be in keeping line with the standards of Hafez Assad’s presidency and preserving this model.

Bashar is quite balanced. Impulsiveness and excitability are not typical of him. He does not produce an impression of a happy man, full of energy. He is, probably, somewhat asthenic, feeling discomfort from psychological overloads.  He is neither hysteroid nor demonstrative. It is important for him to be rather than to seem. And he is not prepared to play the role of a good fellow for the sake of image benefits.

The main psychological conflict Bashar had been suffering from for a long time was over when his elder brother died and his father, Hafez, decided to groom him for the future ruler of Syria. But like many dictators he is notable for a high degree of suspiciousness and paranoidness.  Taking into account an attempt of Hafez’s brother to overthrow Hafez himself, Bashar has misgivings about his aggressive youngest brother Maher.  Moreover, his low popularity among the party elite, numerous opponents abroad and the hatred on the part of the majority of the population enhance his apprehensions. He trusts nobody suspecting many people of plots and treason. Such anxiety leads to a considerable destruction of personality.

Bashar Assad thinks it is important to analyse information exactly and carefully. He is ready to use every opportunity to make the information more precise. To make a decision he needs the factual, detailed and comprehensive information. He is inclined neither to exaggeration nor to underestimation. While analysing different facts, he considers them from different sides without ignoring controversial details. However, his analysis of the reasons is many times deeper than his analysis of the possible consequences. This leads to miscalculations in the forecasts.

Making a decision, Bashar Assad assumes overall responsibility for it, thus demonstrating certain courage. He is a very pragmatic politician able to weigh up for and against. He is also ready to make tactical manoeuvring. However, all these manoeuvres are performed inside a specific tunnel built up within his system of beliefs. And he is not going to change his beliefs. Once he changes them, he will destroy his fragile self-esteem that practically means his personality catastrophe. Therefore, he will correlate all decisions with the code of his father’s principals. And he is ready to die for that.

Bashar Assad is quite an active personality. And his activity is inherent rather than a forced one. He avoids using the passive voice while speaking about himself. This means that he perceives himself as the main subject of actions seeing no forces that may direct him, neither other members of the family nor members of the party elite. However, while speaking in the name of the party, he uses a word “we” far more frequently that “I”. This, probably, reflects the protocol characteristics of the presidential speech.

On the whole, his speech in English is not rich in expressions that may be interpreted as a sign of his lack of confidence, embarrassment or shyness.  These qualities remained in his pre-presidential past. At present, Bashar Assad is quite a mature authoritarian personality who copes with his daily dictatorial duties pretty well. At first we wanted to call this article In the Shadow of Tough Men, now we believe that he managed to come out of their shadow. The dead dictators still seem to have been tougher, though.