Five days before President Hafez al-Assad passed away, I visited his son, Dr. Bashar al-Assad, in his house in the Syrian capital Damascus. This was the first time I had met Bashar, although I was well aware that he constituted a major part of the Syrian ruling system during the final two years of his father’s reign. He used to attend some of his father’s meetings with leaders, especially in the last months of his [father’s] illness preceding his death. However, there wasn’t a single portrait of Bashar [in government offices], nor was his name mentioned by anyone, but later on it became clear he was ruling all of Syria from behind the curtain. He initially came across as a disciplined and mysterious character. Even during that first meeting, Bashar was keen to reiterate that all his statements were merely personal opinions, and that he played no official role. Yet in my estimation, because the president’s son was arranging meetings and conducting public relations, it seemed he was being groomed for the presidency, especially at a time when rumors were spreading about his father’s deplorable health, and the possibility that he may bequeath power to his son. The future of Syria’s role seemed vague to everyone, perhaps with the exception of Bashar himself.
Following my return to London, and before I completed my assignment, Hafez al-Assad passed away. The interview was published the following day. This concerned the Syrian embassy in London, for they feared that the interview could be misunderstood, and that people would think that the president’s son had been giving interviews before his father’s corpse was even buried. I requested that they read the introduction, in which I was honest and indicated that the interview was conducted before the president’s death.
I met with Bashar al-Assad several times later, before and after he became president, together with my friend and colleague Ibrahim Awadh. However, when [Lebanese Prime Minister] Rafik Hariri was assassinated, my contact with Bashar was broken off, as he regarded me as an aggressive element participating in a hostile campaign against him. For my part, I had a feeling that my dealings with him had become an extremely sensitive issue, and the way in which the Syrian regime was dealing with us had become extremely dangerous. This estrangement continued until the beginning of this year, when I met President al-Assad once more. Yet it was clear that confidence between us was lacking, despite the exchanged pleasantries during the one-off meeting.
Although our meetings were long, often lasting for at least three hours, there is little I can say about the reality of the Syrian President; in terms of what he thinks and does. Despite his personal warmth and politeness, he remained, and continues to be, somewhat ambiguous to this day. He has maintained the same old image which first struck me before he became president. I believe that, to this day, he still receives his guests in a small sitting room in his house, located atop a hill. The house is practically deserted, except for one servant and an aide, whilst everyone would expect the president’s residence to be swarming with workers and visitors. Throughout the years in which I paid visits to that house I saw only one solider, passing in front of our car carrying a teapot. I imagined that a full battalion must be hiding in the bushes nearby. This deserted and mysterious house, which Bashar al-Assad has continued to use even after he assumed the presidency, serves as an accurate metaphor for his character.
Ten years have elapsed since I first met Bashar, and more importantly, a decade has passed since he came to power in Syria. However, I will admit that I’m still perplexed and cannot fully understand him, despite the relatively long time and despite what I know and hear about him.
I wonder why he has failed to manage the country, although he had previously outlined a clear political and developmental program in what was known as his inauguration speech. Why did he say all that he said to us, whether he intended it to be published or in private, yet fail to put this into practice? Throughout many years, there has been an overwhelming impression that although Bashar is inside the circle of power, he does not have complete authority and there are others within the family and inner circle who actually make the decisions. Such a conviction was strengthened because of the clear gap between what he used to say and what is happening now. This discrepancy prompted me to ask him as to why he has failed on several occasions to fulfill what he previously said. Indeed, the answers I often heard gave the impression that he was the sole decision maker. Sometimes he would explain his actions by claiming to have discovered something different, and sometimes he would claim that he now wanted to imitate the Chinese model, not the Russian one. I was eventually convinced that if he was not the sole decision maker, then he is certainly the man who makes the final decision.