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From eye doctor to tyrant: 'House of Assad' in review Open in fullscreen

Paul Iddon

From eye doctor to tyrant: 'House of Assad' in review

Bashar's older brother and the intended successor, Bassel, was killed in a car crash [Getty]

Date of publication: 2 November, 2018

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Comment: This three-part series is a fascinating look at how a man who never intended to rule Syria, finished up overseeing the greatest tragedy of our generation, writes Paul Iddon.
The first part of the BBC's recent three-part series, A Dangerous Dynasty: House of Assad, posits the following question: How did a former "mild-mannered eye doctor" end up running a regime that has killed hundreds of thousands of his own people?

The series' use of archival footage over the course of several decades coupled with interviews from analysts and individuals who knew the Assad family makes it highly watchable and worthwhile.

The first half chronicles Assad's unlikely transit from training to become an eye doctor in Syria to being groomed as the country's next dictator. The second deals with his consolidation of power and the loss of Lebanon. The third covers the beginning of the ongoing Syrian Civil War roughly up and until the decisive Russian intervention of September 2015.

The first episode's use of archival footage is the most interesting. The filmmaker gives us a detailed background of the Assad family, often re-showing a truly iconic historic photograph of the dynasty. 

Bashar's father, Hafez sought to groom his older brother, Bassel as his successor. When Bassel was suddenly killed in a car crash in 1994, Bashar was immediately brought back to Damascus from London, where he was studying as an eye-doctor, to take his deceased older brother's place as the only other logical successor.

One perfect use of archival footage shows Bashar reading his statement at his brother's funeral. His delivery is anything but commanding, even somewhat clumsy. The pieces of paper containing his speech flap in the wind as his father looks on, clearly unimpressed.

One minor shortcoming of this part of the documentary is how much it highlights the significance of Bashar's time in London. While its premise is focused around examining how a man who earlier in his life wanted nothing more than to become a doctor, but became a mass-murderer instead, the overall impact of his time there feels overstated.

The first half chronicles Assad's unlikely transit from training to become an eye doctor in Syria to being groomed as the country's next dictator

Bashar said many years ago he likes the music of Phil Collins, whose famous song 'In the Air Tonight' is also briefly featured to set the scene. This snippet of information was often mentioned when he rose to power as an indicator of how 'westernised' this new Arab leader was.

However, as author David W. Lesch, who is featured in the documentary, noted in his 2012 book on the Assad dynasty, Bashar "spent all of eighteen months in London, and they were not during his formative years".

Rather, it's crucial to remember that Bashar was first and foremost his father's son. He grew up during the Cold War and was "a child of the Arab-Israel conflict", a conflict that also encompassed the devastating war in Lebanon in the 1980s during which his country clashed with Israel. This, Lesch reasonably argued, did a whole lot more to shape his worldview than his relatively brief "sojourn in England".

Archival interviews with Asma al-Assad reveal the care she put into shaping her image as Syria's first lady [Getty] 

"His hobbies might well include playing with Sony camcorders and listening to the Electric Light Orchestra; but maintaining Syria's traditional interests has always been his obligation," Lesch wrote. One, albeit minor, failing of the documentary is that this fact is not made clear.

When Hafez died in 2000, Bashar inherited the reins of power. Marrying his English-born wife Asma the newlyweds - portrayed at the time as young and cosmopolitan - pledge reforms for Syria.

The series dedicates significant time to segments from old interviews with Asma al-Assad, in which she talks about travelling - often incognito - across the country to get a sense of what the people of Syria wanted, before moving into the enormous presidential palace.

The footage of Blair's visibly sunken and disappointed facial expression at that moment is very telling

The promise of reforms, that brief period in 2000 known as the Damascus Spring, proved to be little more than cosmetic, at best. Similarly, Asma's initial desire to become some kind of Syrian first lady, or some Diana-esque "people's princess", is short-lived since she was vehemently disliked by both Bashar's mother and sister. She subsequently disappeared from the limelight in Syria for a few years.

Bashar's ruthless and calculating father Hafez dealt with six American presidents during the duration of his rule. One common method he became known for was promising these various administrations certain things and then reneging on them at the last minute, just as the Americans thought they had made some progress.

This, we learn, was called the "hamburger trick", a reference to an old story of a hamburger vendor who, with a classic sleight of hand, removes the actual meat from the burger just as he makes his sale, leaving his customer with only the bread. Bashar famously, or infamously, employed this trick very early on in his rule.

Shortly after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, British Prime Minister Tony Blair visited Damascus to try and garner Assad's support for the so-called 'War on Terror'. We're shown Bashar personally driving Blair around Damascus and giving him a very cordial and warm reception.

Then, at the ensuing joint press conference, Assad essentially states that no terrorism emanates from the Middle East, with the exception of Israel. The footage of Blair's visibly sunken and disappointed facial expression at that moment is very telling.

The documentary also deals with Assad's first major crisis, the international fallout from the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which was more likely than not carried out by his regime. While it doesn't shed much new light on the case, it does aptly illustrate how disappointed his mother was in him for buckling under international pressure by withdrawing Syrian troops from Lebanon, a country his father had fought so long and hard to keep under Syria's control.

That episode possibly strengthened Bashar's resolve years later to brutally suppress the initial uprising in 2011 and prove he could be just as ruthless as his father had been before him.

The 2007 election in Syria is, quite rightfully, depicted as a turning point for Assad. This Orwellian episode gave Syrians the option of voting whether or not he should continue his reign in a referendum, in full view of the regime's widely feared security forces. At this point, Assad seems to have concluded that he was truly the beloved and legitimate leader of the country.  

We're reminded of his grotesque comment comparing the millions of Syrians demonstrating against his rule to germs

The third and final part once again brings to life the horror of the initial Syrian uprising of 2011, and how Assad sought to instantly crush it through brute force, not unlike how his father had crushed a much more violent uprising in Hama back in 1982. We're reminded of his grotesque comment comparing the millions of Syrians demonstrating against his rule to germs. This, in turn, brought to mind the great riposte one protestor wrote on a banner: "These germs need a new doctor."

This final episode also features a very moving interview with Zaher Sahloul, a Syrian doctor who went to medical school with Bashar in his younger days. He laments the tragically ironic fact that "We're classmates, and one of us is bombing hospitals and one of us is treating the victims of the bombing."

Sahloul also expresses his disgust over the fact that a man who took the Hippocratic Oath could so readily resort to intentionally bombing hospitals.

We also learn of the scandalous murder of journalist Marie Colvin who, as it notes, was likely targeted intentionally by the regime, through the tracking of her phone's signal while she bravely reported the indiscriminate bombing the regime was leveling against populated urban areas.

Sahloul also expresses his disgust over the fact that a man who took the Hippocratic Oath could so readily resort to intentionally bombing hospitals

Near the documentary's end, we're shown footage of Russian President Vladimir Putin flying into Syria after he directly intervened in the conflict on Assad's side.

No mention, however, is made of the stupendous amount of financial aid Iran provided - billions of dollars worth - which arguably did as much, if not more, to keep the regime propped up throughout the course of this war.

At the end, we see Assad casually driving his car alongside the seemingly endless heaps of debris strewn across the country he inherited.

The narrator, in reference to the series' opening question, appropriately concludes by succinctly remarking: "And so the son, who had wanted to help the blind to see, oversaw the killing of hundreds-of-thousands of people."


Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff. 

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