Bashar al-Assad was never cut out to be a dictator. A week after his Army completed its abrupt retreat from Lebanon, the introverted Syrian leader summoned about two dozen minority-party politicians to a gathering at the People's Palace, the private fortress erected by his father, Hafez al-Assad, on a mountaintop above Damascus. The meeting's purpose wasn't to defend the pullout or to intimidate anyone who dared to criticize it. Instead, the 39-year-old Assad focused on the agenda for next week's congress of the ruling Baath Party. As his guests sipped tea and lemonade, he listened to their thoughts on political and economic liberalization and pledged himself to the cause of reform. Only once did he sound like an old-fashioned president for life, launching into a grim warning about secret Islamist plots to take down his regime.
No one ever had to ask about the true nature and calling of Bashar's father. The old man removed any possible doubt back in 1982, when he crushed an uprising in the northern city of Hama, pounding it with artillery for three merciless weeks and slaughtering thousands of civilians. It's hard to imagine him letting "people power" chase 14,000 well-armed Syrian soldiers out of Lebanon. His dictatorship--like his son's--could never have lasted so long without the unwavering support of an iron-fisted security apparatus. But Bashar is an enigma: his representatives practically beg for Syria to be better understood, and for warmer ties to Washington. Yet U.S. officials have repeatedly accused his regime of giving safe passage, sanctuary and material aid to Iraq's insurgents.
Is Assad trying to play all sides? Is he fueling the Iraq war, allowing Syrians, foreign jihadists and Iraqi Baathists to slip across the border? Or is he trying to reform his own country gradually and stop the insurgency, as he says, fearing the rise of militant Islam in Syria? The only certainty is that Assad's policies have left him dangerously alone in a region where keeping your friends close by--and your enemies at bay--is a matter of survival.
Bashar was never a commanding figure. He was an awkward boy, quite different from his beefy, athletic older brother Basil. Assad biographer Patrick Seale tells how Bashar's great-grandfather Sulayman made his name as a young man in Syria's western mountains by wrestling any challenger to the ground. But Bashar was no fighter. When he reached the age to choose a profession, Bashar picked ophthalmology. He might have made a comfortable career diagnosing eye ailments if Basil hadn't died in a car crash in 1994. Bashar quit his medical residency to take Basil's place as heir apparent. When the elder Assad died in 2000, Syria quickly amended its Constitution to let the 34-year-old Bashar take power. He soon settled into the usual pattern of Mideast despots: periods of reformist promises, followed inevitably by brutal crackdowns.
After 9/11, Assad's regime joined the U.S.-led war on terror, sharing intelligence on Al Qaeda and allowing American teams to operate inside Syria. But the partnership fell apart. "It's not because we made a decision to stop," says Syria's ambassador to Washington, Imad Moustapha. "Syria is still willing to engage, but it takes two parties." State Department spokesman Richard Boucher insists Damascus is to blame. "There were moments when they were cooperating on Al Qaeda," he says. "There were a few things they did with regard to the border. But... I wouldn't say that they've cut off any particular regular and ongoing cooperation, because there just hasn't been regular and ongoing cooperation." It's Washington's fault, Moustapha says: "[Assad] believes there is no other alternative to working with the U.S. He is disappointed with their refusal to cooperate."
Suspicions are growing in the Mideast that regime change might be contagious. If it is, Syria could be particularly susceptible. These days, Syrians complain openly about their country's stifling political system and unofficial jobless rate of 20 percent. And they can hardly ignore the sight of their Lebanese neighbors dancing in the streets. Many Syrians can't help wondering whether a massive people-power uprising could topple Bashar's regime.
Who would take power then? There is no well-organized opposition inside Syria. Much of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood--the group that led the Hama uprising--fled the country long ago. Membership in the group is a capital crime. "The opposition is weak," says the group's exiled leader, Ali Sadreddin Al Bayanouni, now living in London. "For the past four decades there has been a systematic sabotage of public political life in Syria... [But] potentially the entire people of Syria are in the opposition. The regime does not enjoy any real popular support."
After the death of Hafez al-Assad, a group of dissidents, mostly human-rights activists, began gathering once a month at a garden salon called the Atassi Forum. Bashar allowed the sessions until recently: one night a couple of weeks ago, security men armed with AK-47s surrounded a small white home in the village of Qatama. They ushered the owner, a regular Atassi Forum patron named Ali Abdullah, to a black Mercedes. As they stood in the dark, the men calmly assured Abdullah's sons that their father would return momentarily. "They were very quiet," Abdullah's 21-year-old son Omar told NEWSWEEK. "They said, 'Don't worry. Nothing will happen. He'll be back in a quarter-hour'." Another son, Muhammad Abdullah, added: "From the beginning, they lied."
Last week Abdullah was still gone, and other forum members had disappeared. Their families could only wait and pray, contemplating the risks of organizing a protest march. The possibility of a full-blown people-power movement is hotly debated in Damascus. Bashar can be expected to use every tool at his disposal to prevent it. He'll probably dangle possible reforms. And he's just about certain to use some of the techniques that kept his father in power for nearly three decades.