By Douglas Hamilton
July 18 (Reuters) - His father was a hard, ex-military autocrat and didn't care who knew it. He has a soft gaze and came to power hinting at democracy and reform. But there the dissimilarity ends.
Syria's President Bashar al-Assad has proved himself as uncompromising as the late Hafez, who ran the Arab republic with an iron fist for 29 years and, on his death in 2000, left his son a formidable apparatus of power, based on single-party rule, repression of opponents and a network of spies and informers.
Bashar was only 16 when Assad senior ordered one of the bloodiest atrocities in modern Arab history: the 1982 massacre of at least 10,000 Syrians in Hama to crush a revolt by Sunni Muslims.
The tactic worked. The lesson may have been learned.
Assad's opponents accuse his forces of killing at least 13,000 people, including thousands of unarmed civilians, since March 2011, when Sunnis once again challenged the ruling Alawite minority led by the Assads. He describes his foes as foreign-backed terrorists who have killed thousands of people.
A world that had once seen the young Assad, just 34 when he came to power, as a hope for change watched with shock as this ophthalmologist with a wife who has a taste for London fashion proved to be one of the toughest rulers in the Middle East.
"Our age, like any other, is the age of the powerful only; and there is no place in it for the weak," he told Damascus university students last month.
A few weeks earlier, he had told the new parliament: "When a surgeon ... cuts a wound, the wound bleeds. Do we say to him: 'Your hands are covered in blood'? Or do we thank him for saving the patient?"
In a classified 2009 United States diplomatic cable, Bashar is described as a man who sees himself as a philosopher-king, but heads a group of leaders uncompromising in their determination to hold on to power.
"They persist in a lie even in the face of evidence to the contrary. They are not embarrassed to be caught in a lie," says the U.S. assessment, made public by Wikileaks.
Ten years earlier, as Hafez's failing health moved the U.S. embassy to consider the likely successor, another U.S. diplomatic cable shows how far Bashar was underestimated.
"Eldest son Bashar is far from a sure bet to follow in his father's footsteps, and in any case would never enjoy his father's absolute grip on power," it said.
Although he did not have to seize power like his fighter-pilot-hero father, Assad lacked the earlier era's advantages.
The Soviet Union's protective Cold War embrace is long gone, even though Moscow remains a firm ally. In the YouTube age, massacres like Hama cannot be concealed. News of the Arab Spring spreads rapidly through the internet, which Syria's secret service once tried to keep out.
On Wednesday a suicide bombing in Damascus delivered the heaviest blow yet to Assad's rule, killing his defence minister along with one of the members of Assad's innermost circle, his brother-in-law Assef Shawkat.
As the uprising has intensified, there are signs that the pressure is taking a personal toll.
Hacked emails to and from his wife Asma's iPad reveal interest in the anti-ballistic Bullet Blocker barn coat, a casual jacket that can stop a .357 Magnum slug.
"I was asked several times last week why I look pale, and whether it was because of the pressures. I said 'no'. In fact I was a little ill," Assad told the students.
Unlike the late Saddam Hussein, who wore a pistol on his hip and fired rifles with one hand, the willowy Assad shows no outward sign of the ruthlessness, menace or indeed charisma of the archetypal autocrat.
But his language is as defiant as any strongman's as he fights insurgents who he sees as the tools of the Western states and Sunni Arab monarchies that make clear they want him out.
Syria is under attack from the money, media and technology of foreign powers and their Arab agents "using lies, deception and black propaganda", he told Syria's young, educated elite.
"Resistance prevents chaos. Resistance has a price and chaos has a price, but the price of resistance is much less than the price of chaos."
GROOMED FOR POWER
Bashar was thrust into the spotlight when his elder brother Basil died in a car crash in 1994. Groomed by his father Hafez as next-in-line to succeed him, he was accelerated through the army to the rank of colonel, and became president six years later.
The "Damascus Spring" that followed his early promises of reform in 2000 rapidly fizzled out.
Now, 16 months into a rebellion that has become the bloodiest and most intractable of the uprisings that swept the region, Assad has proved more durable than the four Arab autocrats toppled by people power or armed revolt since 2010.
Neither spiralling violence nor a collapsing economy nor international isolation have shaken his power base, centred on a clan within the Alawite minority, on intelligence services, and on an army of over 300,000 men.
Assad's younger brother Maher commands the Republican Guard. His brother-in-law Assef Shawkat was, until Wednesday, the deputy defence minister.
Assad shows no sign of bending, driven not least by the fear of Alawites who believe they would be slaughtered like sheep if the largely Sunni rebels are victorious.
Lacing his political analysis with quasi-scientific language, Bashar describes a world in which powerful countries are driven to manipulate Arabs to serve their interests "exactly like cell metabolism, which needs the sugar that generates energy essential for the life of the cell".
But the terminology of the London-trained eye specialist ends with a harsh flourish.
"It will not be President Bashar who will bow his head nor the head of his country. We only bow to God almighty," he assured the students.
The leaked U.S. embassy cable says Assad "is neither as shrewd nor as long-winded as his father but he, too, prefers to engage diplomatically on a level of abstraction that seems designed to frustrate any direct challenge to ... his judgment".
"He would prefer to see himself as a sort of philosopher-king, the Pericles of Damascus," U.S. charge d'affaires Maura Connelly wrote. "The President responds with anger if he finds himself challenged by visitors, but not until after the meeting. He seems to avoid direct confrontation."
With news of Wednesday's suicide attack on the heart of his government at a national security building in Damascus, the day of such a confrontation may be getting closer. (Editing by Kevin Liffey)
09/09/2012 12:25 PM EDT
Syria Blasts Aleppo By Air
09/05/2012 7:50 AM EDT
Syrian City In Flames
08/25/2012 1:45 PM EDT
Lebanese Pilgrim Freed
Hussein Ali Omar, 60, one of 11 Lebanese Shiite pilgrims that Syrian rebels have been holding for three months in Syria, hugs his mother, right, upon arrival at his house in the southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, 2012. Syrian rebels freed Omar on Saturday in a move aimed at easing cross-border tensions after a wave of abductions of Syrian citizens in Lebanon. The Shiite pilgrims were abducted May 22 after crossing into Syria from Turkey on their way to Lebanon. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
08/24/2012 12:22 PM EDT
This image made from video and released by Shaam News Network and accessed Thursday, Aug. 23, 2012, purports to show the funeral of children in Daraya, near Damascus, Syria. Syrian troops backed by tanks and helicopters broke into a Damascus suburb on Thursday following two days of shelling and intense clashes as part of a widening offensive by President Bashar Assad's forces to seize control of parts of the capital and surrounding areas from rebel fighters, activists said. At least 15 people were killed in the offensive on Daraya, only a few miles (kilometers) southwest of Damascus. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network SNN via AP video)
08/24/2012 11:05 AM EDT
Lebanon Sees Heaviest Clashes In Months
Clashes between Assad supporters and opponents of the Syrian regime killed two people in Lebanon on Friday, the Associated Press reports. 17 people were injured.
The AP gives more context:
Syria was in virtual control of its smaller neighbor for many years, posting tens of thousands of troops in Lebanon, before withdrawing under pressure in 2005. Even without soldiers on the ground, Syria remains influential, and its civil war has stirred longstanding tensions that have lain under Lebanon's surface.
Read more on HuffPost World.
08/24/2012 11:02 AM EDT
A Sunni gunman fires a gun during clashes that erupted between pro and anti-Syrian regime gunmen in the northern port city of Tripoli, Lebanon, Friday, Aug. 24, 2012. The latest round of fighting first erupted on Monday in northern Lebanon and at least 15 have been killed in Tripoli this week and more than 100 have been wounded in fighting that is a spillover from Syria's civil war. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
08/24/2012 11:00 AM EDT
Refugee Numbers Soar
@ KenRoth :
UN reports 200,000 #Syria refugees, 30,000 in past week alone. Many more internally displaced not counted. http://t.co/BaM6u59j
08/23/2012 2:00 PM EDT
Syrian boy Musataf Alhafiz, 11, who fled his home with his family due to fighting between the Syrian army and the rebels, carries his brother Saif, 9 months, while he and others take refuge at the Bab Al-Salameh border crossing, in hopes of entering one of the refugee camps in Turkey, near the Syrian town of Azaz, Thursday, Aug. 23, 2012. Thousands of Syrians who have been displaced by the country's civil war are struggling to find safe shelter while shelling and airstrikes by government forces continue. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)
08/23/2012 12:09 PM EDT
Heaviest Bombardment This Month
Helicopter gunships shelled Damascus on Wednesday as Syrian security forces intensified their assault on the capital. Activists report that at least 47 people were killed.
"The whole of Damascus is shaking with the sound of shelling," a woman in the neighborhood of Kfar Souseh told Reuters.
Read more on HuffPost World.