Like Father, Like Son: Bashar Al-Assad, The Man ''Re-elected'' President Of Syria With 99.9 Percent Of The Vote June 2014
10 March 2015
By Amir Taheri
In the past few days I have been bombarded with messages drawing my attention
to the emergence of a new chorus on Syria. The new song is sung by all sorts
of people: British and American journalists, Israeli pundits and former
officials, Russian and Iranian government mouthpieces, United Nations
emissaries, and TV ''experts'' from east and west.
The new song is about Syria and it has this refrain: ''Assad is part of the
solution!'' The narrative behind the new song is equally simple: the choice
left in Syria is between bad (the Assad regime) and worse (the self-styled
Caliph Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi).
One pro-Israel commentator asks: Why should we ditch the Assad family, who
guaranteed the security of Israel's borders for four decades, and risk having
the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) massed close to Golan?
Assad is also cast as a lesser of the two evils when it comes to the future
of Iraq. Since ISIS is seeking to dismember Iraq, wouldn't it be wiser to
help Assad, who would be happy to remain in his own neck of the woods even if
that means massacring his own people? Even if Assad is succeeded by the
Muslim Brotherhood and not ISIS, shouldn't we be concerned about the threat
that such a regime in Damascus might pose to others, notably Jordan and
For his part Bashar Al-Assad, the man ''re-elected'' president of Syria with
99.9 percent of the vote in June last year, misses no opportunity to apply
for his father's old job as a pawn of big powers engaged in the deadly chess
game that is the Middle East today. That was the tune that Hafez Al-Assad
played when I first met him in 1973. At the time Tehran regarded him as an
enemy. However, he used our interview to propose the idea of him switching
sides and counter-balancing Iraq under Saddam Hussein, who was an enemy of
Iran at the time. Once diplomatic channels moved into high gear, Assad
succeeded in selling his new narrative to the Shah's government.
A year after our interview I ran into Assad again during the Islamic Summit
Conference in Lahore, Pakistan. Foreign Minister Abbas Ali Khalatbari—who
headed the Iranian delegation—was reluctant to meet Assad, partly because he
had no instructions on the subject from the Shah. The Pakistani hosts,
however, were keen for Khalatbari to receive Assad. At the time, Pakistan was
an ally of Iran and a member of the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) and
its Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, whom I had known since 1971, believed
that Assad could be ''more useful inside the tent than outside.''
Bhutto was trying to prevent what he saw as a Soviet-India axis from
dominating the region. In 1971, India backed by the USSR, had invaded and
divided Pakistan into two halves, the eastern half becoming Bangladesh. In
that context Bhutto had midwifed the US-China rapprochement and had also
succeeded in wooing Libya's Muammar Gaddafi away from the Soviets. So, it was
no surprise that the Pakistani leader was keen to bring Hafez Al-Assad ''on
In the end, I believe the Pakistanis tried to force an ''accidental'' meeting
between Khalatbari and Assad. This came one evening as Khalatbari was dining
with four or five of us, when the Pakistanis suddenly informed him that Assad
had left his villa and was heading for the villa reserved for the Iranian
delegation. The dinner table was quickly cleared and the dessert postponed,
and Assad arrived about 20 minutes later. During a meeting that lasted more
than two hours, most of it devoted to mini-speeches by the Syrian despot, it
became clear that Assad wanted to assure the Iranians on two points.
The first was that all his talk of socialism and Arab nationalism was nothing
more than ideological pose. He was neither a pan-Arabist nor a leftist; he
The second point was that he was ready to work for anybody who paid. As a
starter he was asking for an aid package of over 150 million US dollars,
including cut-price oil and cash handouts. Having no instructions, all that
Khalatbari could say was that he would report the request to the Shah. Later,
the Shah approved Assad's application, and the Ba'athist regime in Damascus
was transferred from the list of enemies to that of ''friends.''
A couple of days later, Bhutto, in a private conversation, asked me what I
thought of his efforts ''to bring Assad into the fold,'' which meant weaning
him away from the Soviets. Assad, of course, was embarking on his favorite
sport of swimming with the tide. He had seen that Egypt's Anwar Sadat had
switched sides while Saddam Hussein in Iraq was deeply engaged in
negotiations with Iran. The Chinese were also moving closer to the so-called
Free World led by the US, strengthening a trend to isolate the USSR.
When I asked Bhutto what he thought of Assad, he described the Syrian leader
as ''The Levanter.'' Knowing that, like himself, I was a keen reader of
thrillers, the Pakistani Prime Minister knew that I would get the message.
However, it was only months later when, having read Eric Ambler's 1972 novel
The Levanter that I understood Bhutto's one-word pen portrayal of Hafez Al-Assad.
In The Levanter the hero, or anti-hero if you prefer, is a British
businessman who, having lived in Syria for years, has almost ''gone native''
and become a man of uncertain identity. He is a bit of this and a bit of
that, and a bit of everything else, in a region that is a mosaic of
minorities. He doesn't believe in anything and is loyal to no one. He could
be your friend in the morning but betray you in the evening. He has only two
goals in life: to survive and to make money.
President Bill Clinton described Hafez Al-Assad as ''a man we could work
with.'' A few years ago, when he was rather chummy with the Assad clan, the
then-Senator John Kerry believed that Bashar Al-Assad could be ''useful like
his father.'' Former Israeli Foreign Minister Itamar Rabinovich echoed that
Today, Bashar Al-Assad is playing the role of the son of the Levanter,
offering his services to any would-be buyer through interviews with whoever
passes through the corner of Damascus where he is hiding. At first glance,
the Levanter may appear attractive to those engaged in sordid games. In the
end, however, the Levanter must betray his existing paymaster in order to
begin serving a new one. Four years ago, Bashar switched to the Tehran-Moscow
axis and is now trying to switch back to the Tel-Aviv-Washington one that he
and his father served for decades.
However, if the story has one lesson to teach, it is that the Levanter is
always the source of the problem, rather than part of the solution. ISIS is
there because almost half a century of repression by the Assads produced the
conditions for its emergence. What is needed is a policy based on the truth
of the situation in which both Assad and ISIS are parts of the same problem.
Amir Taheri was born in Ahvaz, southwest Iran, and educated
in Tehran, London and Paris. He was Executive Editor-in-Chief of the daily
Kayhan in Iran (1972-79). In 1980-84, he was Middle East Editor for the
Sunday Times. In 1984-92, he served as member of the Executive Board of the
International Press Institute (IPI). Between 1980 and 2004, he was a
contributor to the International Herald Tribune. He has written for the Wall
Street Journal, the New York Post, the New York Times, the London Times, the
French magazine Politique Internationale, and the German weekly Focus.
Between 1989 and 2005, he was editorial writer for the German daily Die Welt.
Taheri has published 11 books, some of which have been translated into 20
languages. He has been a columnist for Asharq Alawsat since 1987. Taheri's
latest book "The Persian Night" is published by Encounter Books in London and