BEIRUT — President Bashar Assad of Syria sits in his mountaintop palace as the tide of war licks at the cliffs below.
Explosions bloom over the Damascus suburbs. His country is plunging deeper into chaos. The United Nations’ top envoy for the Syrian crisis, Lakhdar Brahimi, met with Assad in the palace Monday in an urgent effort to resolve the nearly 2-year-old conflict.
How Assad might respond to Brahimi’s entreaty depends on his psychology, shaped by a strong sense of mission inherited from his iron-fisted father and predecessor, Hafez Assad; his closest advisers, whom supporters describe as a hard-line politburo of his father’s gray-haired security men; and Assad’s assessment, known only to himself, about what awaits him if he stays — victory, or death at the hands of his people.
Looking for an exit
From his hilltop, Assad can gaze toward several possible futures.
East of the palace lies the airport and a possible dash to exile, a route that some say Assad’s mother and wife may have already taken. But the way is blocked, not just by bands of rebels, but by a belief that supporters say he shares with his advisers that if he flees, he will betray both his country and his father’s legacy.
He can stay in Damascus and cling to — even die for — his father’s aspirations, to impose a secular Syrian order and act as a pan-Arab leader on a regional and global stage.
Or he can head north to the coastal mountain heartland of his minority Alawite sect, ceding the rest of the country to the uprising led by the Sunni Muslim majority. That would mean a dramatic comedown: reverting to the smaller stature of his grandfather, a tribal leader of a marginalized minority concerned mainly with its own survival.
Brahimi was closed-mouthed about the details of his meeting, but has warned in recent weeks that without a political solution, Syria faces the collapse of the state and years of civil war that could dwarf the destruction already caused by a conflict that has taken more than 40,000 lives.
A Damascus-based diplomat said Monday that Assad, despite official denials, is “totally aware" that he must leave and was “looking for a way out," though the timetable is unclear.
“More importantly," said the diplomat, who is outside Syria but whose responsibilities include the country, “powerful people in the upper circle of the ruling elite in Damascus are feeling that an exit must be found."
Yet others close to Assad and his circle say any retreat would clash with his deep-seated sense of himself, and with the wishes of increasingly empowered security officials, whom one friend of the president’s has come to see as “hotheads."
Assad believes he is “defending his country, his people, and his regime and himself" against Islamic extremism and Western interference, said Joseph Abu Fadel, a Lebanese political analyst who supports Assad and met with government officials last week in Damascus.
Analysts in Russia, one of Syria’s staunchest allies, say that as rebels try to encircle Damascus and cut off escape routes through Hama province to the coast, the mood in the palace is one of panic, evinced by erratic use of weapons: Scud missiles better used against an army than an insurgency, naval mines dropped from the air instead of laid at sea.
But even if Assad wanted to flee, it is unclear if the top generals would let him out alive, Russian analysts say, since they believe that if they lay down arms they — and their disproportionately Alawite families — will die in vengeance killings, and need him to rally troops.
“If he can fly out of Damascus," Semyon Bagdasarov, a Middle East expert in Moscow, said — at this, he laughed — “there is also the understanding of responsibility before the people. A person who has betrayed several million of those closest to him."
An unlikely dictator
Such a crisis is the last thing that was expected for the young Bashar Assad. He was the stalky, shy second brother with the receding chin, dragged from a quiet life as a London ophthalmologist after the death in 1994 of his swaggering older brother, Basil Assad, who crashed his sports car while speeding toward the airport — along the very road that is now engulfed in fighting.
Assad’s father, Hafez, held power from 1970 to 2000, raising a second-tier clan from the oppressed Alawite minority to power and wealth. But critics say the Assads used four decades in power not to promote meaningful ethnic and religious integration, but to cement Alawite rule with a secular face.
After the uprising began as a peaceful protest movement in March 2011, Assad rejected calls for deep reform — from his people, from Turkish officials who spent years cultivating him, even from militant groups he had long sponsored, Hamas and Hezbollah, which, according to Hamas, offered to arrange talks with the rebels.
Instead, Assad took his father’s path. To put down an Islamist revolt in the 1980s, Hafez Assad bulldozed entire neighborhoods and killed at least 10,000 people. The son now presides over a crackdown-turned-civil war that has killed four times that many, and counting.
In a government that has become more secretive, it is impossible to know exactly how Assad makes his decisions. Some say he wanted reform but his father’s generals and intelligence officials, along with his mother, convinced him reforms would bring their downfall.
“There are two Bashar al-Assads," said Juergen Todenhoefer, a German journalist who interviewed him in July. One is a quiet man “who doesn’t like his job" and wants a way out, he said; the other wants to show his family and the world, “I’m not a softy."
Others say that Assad’s reformist impulses were always meant only to bring access to the luxuries and approval of the West.
The Assads were raised by their father and their uncles — aggressive men — to believe “they were demigods and Syria was their playground," said Rana Kabbani, the daughter of a prominent diplomat who knew them growing up.
Turkish officials say that in frequent talks during the revolt’s first months, Assad listened calmly to their criticisms, took personal responsibility for the government’s actions and promised to seek resolution.
“Either he is a professional liar or he can’t deliver on what he promises," said a senior Turkish official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Now, Assad, 47, faces a set of unpalatable choices. Fleeing to become an Alawite militia leader is likely hard to imagine for the president, who grew up in Damascus, reached out to and married into the Sunni elite, and was even mocked in his ancestral village for his Damascus accent, said Joshua Landis, an Oklahoma University professor who studies Syria and Alawites.
Assad was long believed to take advice from his mother; his brother Maher, who heads the army’s feared 4th Division; his brother-in-law Asef Shawkat; and his cousins, the Makhloufs.
But his mother is believed to have fled Syria in recent weeks. Shawkat, the deputy defense minister, was killed in a bombing in July. The Makhloufs are believed to be spiriting money out of the country. Maher has been reported to have lost a leg in the bombing, but still to be commanding troops.
Turkish, Russian, Syrian and Lebanese analysts agree: Assad’s main advisers are now his father’s hard-liners and the leaders of the shabiha militias that have carried out attacks on government opponents.
If there ever existed moderates in the government who might cajole Assad to hand power to a successor who could preserve the Syrian state, that option now appears increasingly remote.
“So much blood has been shed, and it’s impossible to do this," Bagdasarov said.
An Alawite businessman in the coastal region who said he knew Assad’s circle said the one person who might persuade him to leave is his wife, Asma, but she has taken little role in the crisis.
She and their children have either left, or been prevented from leaving by Maher, or have insisted on staying — depending on the latest rumor from an edgy Damascus.