Killings destroy Bashar al Assad's image as different from his brutal father

When the Syrian president came to power in 2000 he sought to project an image of a young, hip and open-minded reformer who has little in common with his late father, a brutal dictator who ruled the country with an iron first for 30 years. Now many in Syria would admit to the son being the more brutal of the two.

The Syrian president, Bashar al Assad, and his wife Asma walking in a street in Paris during a two-day official visit to France. Switzerland said on May 24, 2011 it has frozen any assets that Mr al Assad may have in the country. Miguel Medina / AFP Photo
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CAIRO // For most of his nearly 11 years in power, Syria's president, Bashar al Assad, sought to project an image of a young, hip and open-minded reformer who has little in common with his late father, a brutal dictator who died in 2000 after ruling Syria with an iron first for 30 years.

Now 45, Mr al Assad has invested time and effort trying to win hearts and minds with help from his fashionable, Britain-born wife, Asmaa. An attractive couple, they showed up unannounced at Syria's trendy restaurants. In jeans, they took walks around the old quarter in Damascus. They frequently watched ballets and concerts from front row seats at the city's opera house.

Mrs al Assad headed charities, visited schools and championed youth advancement. Mr al Assad, a British-trained eye doctor, adopted the spread of internet access as his pet project.

It was all, or at least it seemed to be, a far cry from the style of his late father.

Even so, the younger al Assad's response to 10 weeks of protests in his homeland has shown striking similarities between father and son. In fact, given the high expectations that rode on the younger al Assad when he took office in 2000, many in Syria would admit to him being the more brutal of the two.

Nearly 1,000 people have been killed by Mr al Assad's security forces and militiamen since the uprising began. Judging by evidence such as this, the Syrian president is determined to crush the ongoing revolt by force.

In many ways, his stance is similar to that of Libya's Colonel Muammar Qaddafi and Yemen's president Ali Abdullah Saleh, leaders who have clung to power in the face of popular revolts through the use of force against unarmed civilians.

It's possible that all three leaders - Mr al Assad, Colonel Qaddafi and Mr Saleh - will eventually end up before the International Criminal Court charged with crimes against humanity.

And these are not the only examples that Mr al Assad might want to consider.

Egypt's Hosni Mubarak was toppled in February by a popular uprising after 29 years in power. He faces the possibility of being tried for crimes punishable by death. Just a few weeks earlier, Tunisia's former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali found refuge in Saudi Arabia after a last-minute escape from his own capital. Iraq's Saddam Hussein was hanged in December 2006, nearly four years after a US-led invasion overthrew his regime.

For now, the legacy of Mr al Assad is disappointment. His rise to power tempted many in his country to hope for freedom and democracy, only to be painfully let down.

That hope was boosted by a brief period in the first few months of Mr al Assad's rule when the Syrian leader freed hundreds of political detainees and allowed Syrians to openly debate reforms.

Disenchantment soon began when the activists behind these "forums" of discussions were arrested and their gatherings banned. Those detained were tried and convicted on charge of seeking to undermine "the spirit of the nation".

Those Syrians willing to give their leader the benefit of the doubt blamed hardline members of his father's inner circle for the crackdowns in the early 2000s. The president, they argued, was not yet fully in charge and the so-called old guard was still calling the shots.

As the arrests continued over the years, including the imprisonment of elderly and seriously ill activists, many Syrians began to realise that it was their young leader, not the remnants of the old regime, who was behind the suppression. Mr al Assad, many concluded, was just as ruthless as his late father, who brutally crushed a Sunni-led revolt in the early 1980s.

While showing zero tolerance for dissent of any kind, Mr al Assad pressed on with the liberalisation of the economy, building on the few cautious steps taken by his father in the late 1990s to dismantle the country's Soviet-style economy.

Foreign banks were allowed for the first time. Investors built private universities and imported consumer goods Syrians had long craved. In just a few years some districts in Damascus were transformed; expensive cars were seen parked outside buildings where an apartment cost $500,000 (Dh1.8 million) or more. Expensive restaurants were packed and boutiques selling designer clothes were doing brisk business.

Yet through the economic upturn, Mr al Assad remained adamant about blocking political reforms. It was his hope that economic prosperity would compensate for the lack of freedoms.

The strategy backfired. The slow pace of reform became one of the root causes of the ongoing revolt. The liberalised economy only benefited those close to the president and a small clique of businessmen from the small and rich merchant class in Damascus and Aleppo. Wealth did not trickle down to ordinary Syrians or rural areas.

The facade of peace did manage to fool many observers, not least European leaders who hosted the president and his glamorous wife on state visits.

Mr al Assad, meanwhile, forged close relations with increasingly influential Turkey next door, giving his rule a significant boost in the region.

Perhaps bolstered by such support, Mr al Assad continued to advocate for peace with Israel, but only if the Jewish state was ready to hand back the Golan Heights it captured from Syria in 1967.

To strengthen his hand with Israel and moderate Arab nations, he maintained the close ties forged by his late father with the Shiite Hizbollah in Lebanon and with non-Arab Iran.

Somehow, it all seemed to work for Mr al Assad.

He steered his nation out of the international isolation imposed on Syria over its alleged role in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri. He escaped United Nations reprisals over suspicions that a site bombed by Israel in his country was a nuclear reactor secretly being built with help from North Korea.

Everything seemed to be going well. That is, until about three months ago, when the uprising broke out.

Today, Mr al Assad's world is crumbling. The young leader who once carried so much promise has become an international pariah.

Not so long ago, the European Union was Mr al Assad's main international backer, giving him support when the former US president George W Bush spoke of regime change in Damascus after Saddam's 2003 ouster.

Last week, the EU imposed an assets freeze and a visa ban on Mr al Assad and nine members of his clique over the increasing violence in Syria. The US has also imposed sanctions, with President Barack Obama saying in a speech last week that Mr al Assad should lead his country to democracy or "get out of the way".

However, Mr al Assad appears to be undeterred by punitive global and seems to have learnt little from the events in Tunisia and Egypt.

The Syrian uprising began on an ambitious, but relatively moderate, note: a demand for reforms that protesters wanted Mr al Assad himself to introduce.

He responded by ordering the use of deadly force against them. The violence has only galvanised the resolve of the protesters who continue to call, not just for reforms anymore, but for the end of Mr al Assad's hold on power.

Perhaps the young leader did indeed have his father in mind when he ordered the use deadly force against protesters. After all, when the senior al Assad decided to bomb the city of Hama in 1982, to crush an uprising by Sunni Islamists, it left thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, dead.

The brutality earned the late president another 18 years in office, and a peaceful death in bed.