While the Syrian crisis continues captivates the world’s attention, I can’t help but wonder, “How did we get here?” At an early point in his presidency, Bashar al-Assad was seen as a reformer and a force of positive change in the Middle East. Now, evidence is mounting that Bashar is behind the chemical weapons attack, which killed 1,400 people just outside Damascus with the UN classifying the attack as ‘’a war crime’’. The Civil War has cost over 100,000 people their lives and has led to over 2 million refugees fleeing Syrian territory. How did this man develop into a brutal dictator? To fully understand, we must look into his past and uncover the Risk Factors that lead up to these atrocities.
I believe that much of Bashar’s predisposition for violence stems from his early childhood development and his family. Bashar al-Assad was the second son of Hafez and Anisa al-Assad. Hafez was the President of Syria for 3 decades and ruled severely and brutally. Throughout his life, Bashar’s father was emotionally absent from the family. In addition, Bashar’s brother Bassel treated his younger sibling with cruelty and bullying.
Another brother, Maher al-Assad, born 1968, is now commander of the Republican Guard and is known to be much more brutal than Bashar. He is described as moody, cruel and intellectually sharp (CNN, 2012). As the commander of the Republican Guard he has significant influence with his brother and is believed to be closely working with him in the ongoing battle to quell the rebellion.
Following his brother Bassel’s death in 1994, Bashar entered the military academy in preparation for becoming his father’s successor and achieved the rank of Colonel in the elite Republican Guard. In 1998, he took charge of the Syrian occupation of Lebanon and in 2000 he became President of Syria. Initially, Bashar al-Assad was seen internationally as a potential reformer. But Bashar soon returned to the more repressive policies of his father and is believed to be heavily influenced by his mother and older sister.
In some parts of the Arab Muslim culture, one is never permitted to separate from their mother and hence she holds sway over the son's thinking and emotional life. Thus the son never learns how to express his feelings in appropriate ways. Given the mother’s dominant temperament and the father’s emotional absence and sadistic nature, Bashar grew up in unhealthy environment. This combination was a lethal brew that stifled the individualization process that heralds the onset of adulthood. This does not justify any of Bashar’s violent behavior – it merely helps to explain it.
Perhaps what is not very surprising is that Bashar shares many of the Risk Factors of other mass murders. Bashar grew up within a family that gained power and wealth through ruthlessness and violence (family history of violence). Much like in the Mafia, it became the family business and all family members were expected to fall in line (family supports aggression as a means to an end). It was the model set before them by his absent father and supported by their mother and the culture (environment supports use of aggression to get one’s needs met).
Bashar was the quieter sibling who was bullied and treated cruelly by one or more of his siblings (youth was bullied as a child). As president, he has been irreversibly influenced by his ruthless family members need for power and wealth, which would disappear should Bashar be removed from office. The al-Assad families upward mobility, should they lose their position, will be lost in a classic “have and have not” society (culture supports aggression as a means to an end).
It is clear that Bashar al-Assad’s upbringing and environment in which he was raised has had a significant impact on his development into the ruthless dictator that he is today. If we examine the childhoods, or what is known of them, of other dictators and mass murderers we find similarities with al-Assad.
Saddame Hussein, for example, was raised absent a father who is believed to have died before his birth whereas al-Assad’s father was also absent but due to his commitments as President of Syria. Hitler was neglected and beaten as a young child by his father who died when he was young; he also lost his younger brother at an early age. Bashar al-Assad lost his brother, who died in 1994 and as a result Bashar was elevated to the position of his father’s successor.
Bashar suffered abuse and bullying from his older brother Bassel growing up. Joseph Stalin is another example of a brutal dictator who, as a child, lost siblings and whose father was absent having left the family to find work. All of these brutal dictators have several common Risk Factors during their childhood; the absence of a loving father, abuse from family members and the loss of those close to them.
There is scientific evidence that when a person’s Risk Factors outweigh their Protective Factors, they have a predisposition for a violent behavior (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention). I can’t help but wonder if the bullying had been stopped and more parental attention had been given, would we have the mass causalities and daily atrocities we have today in Syria? Two of the Risk Factors for future violence would have been eliminated. Would that have been enough to tip the scales?
As the Syrian situation continues to develop and a concerted international effort to deal with the stockpile of chemical weapons under al-Assad regime control continues we await to see what will happen next in an ever-evolving situation. We may never know if Bashar may have turned out differently had he been raised differently, but what is certain is that he has now entered the annals of historic cruelty. His next move may be unknown, but his past is something we can learn from.
“Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”~ Sir Winston Churchill
Co-authored by Dr. Kathy Seifert and Dr. Nancy Kobrin.
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–Dr. Kathryn Seifert