From Reformer to Slaughterer: The Family Dynamics That Transformed Syria's Bashar al-Assad

09/03/2013 04:27 pm ET | Updated Nov 02, 2013

As the White House, the Syrian government, and the world await the upcoming congressional vote about the use of force against Syria many unanswered questions about this entire tragic saga are being examined. From the long-term national security consequences of requesting this vote to the potential fall-out of a military strike, it seems as though the media is running out of speculative angles to pursue.

However, one of the more baffling aspects of this disaster is the apparent transformation of the President of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, from what many thought was a reformer to the alleged mass-murderer he seems to have become. In an ironic twist of fate, the person who now is charged with selling a strike on Syria, Secretary of State John Kerry, is the same guy who just a few years ago went on an unauthorized trip to Syria to try and mend fences with President al-Assad.

How did this introverted and reserved ophthalmologist living in London go from being an educated physician to the apparent perpetrator of a chemical attack against his own people?

As I suggested in several previous posts, recent research on family processes has highlighted the vital role played by siblings in shaping a person's character, personality, and psyche. For example, this sibling influence was seen in the Boston marathon bombers with the impact older brother, Tamerlan, had on younger brother, Dzhokhar, with tragic consequences.

Examining the sibling dynamics of the al-Assad family may provide an interesting and revealing window into the mind of Bashar al-Assad.

First, Bashar is one of five siblings and is none other than the middle-child in this mix. His oldest sister, Bushra, a pharmacist, is known to be highly intelligent, ruthless, and a major influencer in the al-Assad family. She was also known to have a very close relationship with her father, the previous ruler of Syria, Hafez. The second sibling in the clan, and the oldest son, was Basil. Personable and charismatic, Basil was favored by his father and was being groomed to take over as ruler of Syria before being killed in a car accident in 1994.

The death of the heir-apparent left the family scrambling to decide which of the remaining sons could take over as president after the passing of President Hafez al-Assad. Being the next in-line, Bashar should have been the obvious choice, but considering his flaccid personality and the supposed distant relationship he had with his father, the family initially considered each of the next two children in-line as potential successor.

The fourth sibling was Majid, an electrical engineer, but considering his mental illness he was not a real contender for the post. Majid ended up dying from an unspecified illness in 2009. The last son, Maher had the intellect to take over but apparently had an uncontrollable temper and was considered too volatile to be head of state. Supposedly his temper was at prime display during a heated exchange with his future brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, during which he shot Asef in the stomach.

This left the family to begrudgingly ask Bashar to return from London upon Basil's death and begin military training in preparation for succession. So with the chosen sibling gone, another with a mental illness and the brutal younger one in the shadow, Bashar becomes President of Syria in 2000.

As a side note; a family with four brothers and sister, one brother a hot-head, the other with a mental illness, and a son, an outsider, begrudgingly taking over for his father -- I wonder where Mario Puzo got his idea from.

Middle children are known to have insecurities about their place in the family, throw into the mix Bashar's predicament and we have a leader with unresolved complications. Bashar needed to stand out and was looking for a way to carve out his own unique identity and finally come out of the shadows of being the unwanted middle child. Being a Western-trained physician, with a glamorous western born wife, he was in the position to truly transform his country and was proceeding very cautiously in this quest.

Enter younger brother Maher. Although he was not chosen as leader of Syria, he still managed to secure himself an extremely powerful and influential position in the government. As commander of the Republican Guard and the army's elite Fourth Armored Division, Bashar needed his brother to hold onto power. Maher's influence cast a shadow on Bashar's reforms and when the current uprising began, Maher's harsh and brutal response entrenched Bashar in this mess. After all, he is a middle child and was easily influenced by a younger brother with an authoritarian personality.

We have all heard of a younger sibling coaxing an older one to steel a cookie from the cookie jar. In Bashar's case, considering the family dynamics, the sibling influence went tragically far beyond the kitchen.