THE BLOG

Like Father, (Not Quite) Like Son: Bashar Al-Assad's Terrible 15 Years

17/07/2015 08:00 BST | Updated 16/07/2016 10:59 BST

There is a great Arabic proverb: 'farkh al-bat awwam'. In English, 'the son of a duck, floats', or, 'like father, like son'. In Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's case, Mr al-Assad doesn't so much float as sink like a stone.

Fifteen years ago today, Bashar 'inherited' the rule of Syria from his father, who, to be clear, wasn't much of a floater himself. Fifteen years on, Bashar has practically destroyed the country.

On 17 July, 2000, Bashar delivered his inaugural speech to the nation. It gave many Syrians hope. Perhaps now they could be freed from the suffocation of Hafez' dictatorship.

To put it mildly, Bashar's ascension to power hadn't quite been within the rules. The Syrian constitution was conveniently amended to allow the 34-year-old Bashar - a relative youngster - to be head of state.

And yet Bashar's first speech hinted at better times to come. And thus ensued a short period of promises, for political, economic and legal reforms.

One year in, this fragile Damascus Spring skipped summer and headed straight to a cold autumn: pro-reform MPs and activists were detained, crushing hopes of a break with authoritarian past of Hafez al-Assad.

2001-2011: The wasted decade

Bashar had found his preferred style, copied directly from his father's playbook. The first ten years of his rule were marked by severe repression, human rights violations and censorship. Human Rights Watch blasted these ten years as 'a wasted decade'. People were arbitrarily detained, tortured and disappeared. Human rights lawyers were detained (in 2007, lawyer Anwar al-Bunni was sentenced to five years in prison for the crime of alleging that a man had died in a Syrian jail because of its inhuman conditions). Political and rights activists wanting to travel to shed light on the worst violations were banned from travelling.

2011-2015: Things got a whole lot worse

The tale of the Arab Spring's arrival to Syria is now familiar, and often recalled. Bashar alleged he'd done sufficient reforms that no Arab Spring would darken Syria's door. The wasted decade, however, had told a very different story. Sustained regime repression and corruption combined with a severe drought from 2006 until 2009 to ensure Syria would not be exempt from popular demands across the region for reform.

Protests started slowly. 6 March 2011 ushered in a sharp acceleration. The regime arrested a group of teenagers in Dera'a and reportedly tortured them, for the crime of painting graffiti on a wall that read, 'The people want the regime to fall'. At that point, the people of Dera'a had had enough. Protests quickly spread in the city, and then nationwide.

Bashar's regime responded the only way it knew how: with violent repression. Bashar and his men just didn't have it in them to govern wisely and with compassion. And so they lost all credibility in the minds of many, many Syrians and the international community.

The regime's crimes are too numerous to recount here. There are some bloody milestones, of course: the 2012 Houla massacre; 2013, when the regime stood accused - and still does - of using chemical weapons in the Damascus suburbs, killing hundreds of civilians, including many children as they slept; 2014, the damning evidence of 55,000 digital images, comprising about 11,000 victims, leaked by Syrian military defector Caesar showing systematic torture amounting to war crimes.

Today: Bashar is a failure, and worse

Today, Bashar and his regime stand guilty of total failure and, worse, of a litany of shocking war crimes. As an example, on a daily basis the regime rains barrel bombs indiscriminately down on the heads of Syrian civilians, flagrantly violating UN Security Council Resolution 2139. As so-called President, he has become totemic in the Syrian conflict. That he clings on to power so viciously makes him the ultimate recruiting sergeant for ISIL and other violent extremists.

And yet he tries to pervert the fact of extremists on Syrian soil into a lie about how he stands up for secularism and is the ultimate protector of minorities. He does none of that, but rather has pulled yet another page from the Hafez playbook, manipulating and exploiting minority groups within Syria to be dependent on him and his rule, using them to extend his power and refusing them the dignity of asserting their own identity and destiny.

The result is chaos. Syria is in a dire state. Well over 200,000 people have been killed. Over 12million Syrians - around half of the pre-war population - need humanitarian assistance. There are more than four million refugees. Three million Syrian children no longer attend school. Over half of Syria's public hospitals have been damaged, many of them targeted by the regime.

So what now?

There is only one way to end this conflict, and that is through a negotiated settlement which produces a political transition. For all the reasons set out above, Assad cannot be part of Syria's future.

Were the UN Security Council to be agreed on what to do, the international community might act with more pressure to end Syria's misery. For well known reasons, that agreement isn't in sight.

So the UK will do what it can. We have just announced another £100m of aid. In areas wrested from the regime's control, we work to support moderation and local governance, for access to justice and community security and to help rescue teams willing to dig victims from under the rubble caused by Assad's barrel bombs. In Jordan, our support includes training for police in Zaatari camp, who are providing safety for the refugees there. We support the political Opposition. We work to impose international sanctions on the regime. We have destroyed almost 200 tonnes of Assad's chemical weapons.

As I said, we do what we can to help. We try to keep ordinary Syrians' lives afloat. Which is precisely the opposite of what Bashar does. More the son of a gun, rather than son of a duck.

Gareth Bayley is the UK Special Representative to Syria