It is evening, and in a large house in a leafy, upmarket district of Damascus, a trio of siblings have gathered in the home of their mother, Anisa Makhlouf al-Assad, the reclusive former first lady of Syria. Along with her son Bashar, the country’s current president, his younger brother Maher, commander of the brutal Fourth Division, and their formidable older sister, Bushra, she pores over the latest reports from officials across the country, as Bushra’s husband, Asef Shawkat, the president’s chief of staff and former military intelligence chief, looks on.
How many people came out on the protests? What did they chant? How many were killed? The family debate, perhaps, over what more can be done to put down the protests, and argue over what reforms to offer, or where next to direct the extensive security forces at their disposal. The subtext to the gathering is clear: under no circumstances will they release their grasp on the country they have ruled for more than four decades.
Only whispered reports have emerged of how the country’s ruling family are co-ordinating their response to the wave of popular uprisings in Syria that have reportedly left nearly 3,000 people dead. Most journalists, of course, have been banned from Syria since the protests began – but the many rumours of these family meetings chime with the image, long-established, of a tightknit and power-hungry cabal that rules in secret, presided over by the steely matriarch.
“It’s a mafia; the family rules as a family,” says someone who was formerly allowed glimpses into the Assad regime’s inner sanctum. “No one knows the exact workings, but they are closing ranks more and more.”
Despite the family’s obsessive secrecy, tantalising clues to their relationships and often dysfunctional workings can be gleaned from talking to former associates, embassy officials, biographers and diplomatic correspondence, including cables released by WikiLeaks. They paint a picture of a once-humble family that rose, ruthlessly, to rule Syria with a combination of megalomania and arrogance, corrupted by power and paranoia.
It was not always this way. Hafez al-Assad, the former president and father of the current incumbent Bashar, was born in 1930 to a poor family, and into the minority Alawite sect, in the remote coastal village of Qardaha in western Syria. No one in the family had been educated even to secondary school level, and the village, at that time, did not have a road connecting it to the city.
But the smart, ambitious young man joined the Ba’ath party at 16 and the Syrian air force at 22, where he rose, eventually, to the post of commander-in-chief. In 1970 he seized the presidency in a coup, a position that the family have shown no inclination to relinquish, even after Hafez’s death in 2000.
“Hafez was tough and shrewd, and attained power by working for it, while Bashar inherited it,” said one Damascus-based analyst who, like most observers commenting these days on the Assad regime, asked for anonymity. “We can tell a lot about the family from that – today they have forgotten where they came from.” The family and their entourage are now very much an urban elite, their spiritual home the wealthy Damascus suburbs of swish coffee shops and fast cars rather than the rural poverty from which they rose, and in which many Syrians now languish.
Hafez al-Assad’s intentions to turn his presidency into the family business became clear, but the family’s dynastic ambitions did not go according to plan. It was always Basel, the oldest, flamboyant son, who was being groomed, via a military career, to inherit the presidential mantle. A handsome, competitive jockey with a love of fast cars, he was killed in 1994, aged 31, after crashing his Mercedes on a Damascus motorway.
It is rumoured that for a time there was a debate over which brother should take Basel’s place in the succession, with some, including, it was rumoured, the first lady, Anisa, favouring Maher, a military hardman in the mould of his father.
Instead it was Bashar, Maher’s older brother by three years, who was recalled from London where he was training as an opthalmologist and pushed into the military. He was 34 when he became president.
The early years of Bashar’s rule were marked by a brief opening of civil society that many hoped might herald a more liberal presidency. Any sense of Bashar, now 46, as a reformer has long since disappeared, however.
“[Bashar] changed over time from a well-intentioned man into someone who believed the propaganda and praise of the sycophants surrounding him,” said David Lesch, an American academic and Assad’s official biographer. Associates portray him as pleasant and gregarious, taking pains to act modestly – the family live in a house in Damascus’s Malki neighbourhood, where Bashar has been known to surprise visitors by answering the door himself.
But critics are scathing of the president’s leadership qualities. A guest who attended several dinners with him described him thus: “He has no charisma. You don’t feel the urge to lean across the table to hear what he has to say.”
A 2009 cable from the US embassy in Damascus, released as part of the WikiLeaks hoard, is even less flattering, describing the president as vain and not as shrewd as his father, and yet to grow into his role after the loss of the head of the family.
In December 2000, five months after inheriting the presidency from his father, Bashar married Asma Akhras, a 25-year-old British-Syrian banker who had been born and educated in London, where her father, a consultant cardiologist, was a prominent member of the expat Syrian community.
Though the sophisticated and always beautifully dressed first lady attended a private London girls’ school and speaks with the accent of the expensively educated, the family home is a modest, pebbledashed terrace in an anonymous street in Acton, west London.
Asma is smart and cosmopolitan and, in Damascus, her views are avidly discussed and speculated upon. How can she, an outsider to the family from a liberal western home, tolerate their brutality? “Some say she is upset and is isolating herself, others that she knew she married a dictator and is as bad as the rest of them,” says the regime insider.
She is certainly an enigma, attending a Church of England school in west London (her family are secular Sunni Muslims) before sixth form at the private Queen’s College, where her Syrian identity was almost hidden, and she called herself Emma.
“I don’t remember her being referred to as Asma; she was definitely just Emma,” recalls one schoolfriend. “She didn’t stand out as a Muslim at all, not like some girls who wore more traditional dress. You wouldn’t have thought she was anything but English, I guess. And I’m not sure I would have singled her out for great things.”
She remembers her friend as funny, kind and “very friendly” – as one who did not take school that seriously, but did not cause a lot of trouble. There was, however, “a sharp side to her, and she didn’t like being told off by the teachers”, says the friend, recalling her walking out of more than one lesson, and on one occasion getting involved in a “huge catfight” with another girl – “proper scratching and knocking over lockers”.
Whatever her private views, to many Syrians, Asma will always be an outsider. “She is his wife and has power over him, but ultimately she’s seen as a foreigner and excluded from the core decisions,” says Ayman Abdel Nour, a schoolfriend of and former adviser to the president, who now lives in exile. The same is not true of the couple’s three children, a girl and two boys, who appear on posters and fridge magnets of the Assad family sold widely in Damascus markets. The oldest, called Hafez and aged just nine, is already being spoken of by some hardened regime loyalists as his father’s successor.
Having been passed over for the presidency, Maher has pursued his military career with vigour. As a commander of the elite Republican Guard and the Fourth Division, he has been central to the violence. Despised by the protesters, he is, accordingly, lionised by some sections of the military who see his brother the president as weak, and posters of him adorn some neighbourhoods in Homs. Abdel Nour calls him “a military guy, the tough sort”.
Maher reportedly shot and wounded his brother-in-law, Asef Shawkat, in 1999, though the two men were named together in a report into the death of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri as possibly having been responsible.
Shawkat’s relationship with the family is complex. Basel reportedly blocked his marriage to Bushra because he had been married before, was older and had children,. The wedding was delayed until Bashar, to whom he is close, took power. But in another 2005 WikiLeaks cable, Shawkat was portrayed as isolated, with the president willing to sacrifice him if necessary to protect his brother Maher.
Bushra, a pharmacist, is described as smart and steely, a reclusive figure who nonetheless wields great influence behind the scenes. Her children are named Bushra, Maher, Basel and Anisa after other members of the family. “It shows her power hunger,” the insider said. “People who know her say Bushra is a nightmare, stroppy and ruthless.”
Despite their strong, uncompromising characters, the family are seen as close, presided over by Anisa as “head of the family council”, according to Abdel Nour. “They all dine together on a Friday night – at least until the uprising,” says Lesch. “I got the impression that relations were good.”
Assailed in Syria, however, and increasingly isolated internationally, the family have become more insular, paranoid and out of touch with reality, say observers. “1982 is informing the regime,” says Lesch, referring to the year the former president brutally quashed an armed Islamist uprising, killing thousands of civilians. Assad’s speeches in which he said he has “felt the love” of his people suggests either delusion or vociferous self-denial, given the scale of dissent. It is this hubris, and this focus on its more secure past, that may be the family’s downfall.
“The protests will not go away and the regime is finished,” says one Damascus resident who has taken to the streets in protest. “But the family’s gradual detachment from the people and its arrogance means they will be the last to realise it.”
• Nour Ali is the pseudonym of a journalist based in Damascus
Nour Ali and Esther Addley, The Guardian