He was an unpromising youth who gained power by accident. Today he's the Arab world's most notorious dictator. But who really is this man? The Financial Times' Roula Khalaf profiles Bashar al-Assad.
They burn his effigy in towns drenched in blood by his security forces. They dance to the tune of chants demanding his execution. And they lampoon him in a satirical web series where he is "Beesho" ["baby Bashar"], his elongated neck represented by a wooden stick, with a distorted head spewing disdain at the Syrian population. Across the country, Bashar al-Assad, once revered as the Lion ["Assad" in Arabic] of Damascus, has been ridiculed in Syria's revolution as a giraffe and is now dubbed a duck, the nickname his wife Asma lovingly bestows on him.
Assad's personality cult has been demolished in the 15-month uprising that has gripped Syria and left more than 10,000 people dead. The complex myth of a nice guy with an elegant wife trapped in a brutal, corrupt regime that instils fear into the hearts of Syria's 20 million people has collapsed, along with the wall of terror erected over decades.
The 46-year-old Bashar is stubbornly hanging on to power: he is the domino that refuses to fall, however fierce the winds of the Arab awakening blow through Syria. Entrenched in Damascus, where he lives in an apartment in the posh, leafy neighbourhood of Malki, he can still look out of the window and watch a fake normality, confirming to himself that not much has changed – and that whatever has can still be recuperated and restored. Yet, for however long Bashar al-Assad survives, for millions of Syrians there is no going back to the past. "History has gone beyond Bashar," someone who knew him as a young man told me, expressing a visible anger that I should even be profiling the Syrian leader. "The physical transition in Syria is a matter of time. It could take months, it could take years, but psychologically people are looking beyond Bashar. He is part of Syria's past."
Since he inherited the presidency in July 2000, after his father Hafez died, Bashar al-Assad has been a frustrating puzzle for both his people and the outside world. He has worn the mask of a modern leader, encouraging the world to engage with him and Syrians to wait endlessly for his reforms, while in practice behaving like a thug. "A con artist," is the conclusion of one prominent Syrian businessman.