On March 30, 2011, around 3 p.m. in Damascus, Lawand Kiki took a seat in front of the TV in a friend’s living room and waited for Syria’s president to appear on the screen.
Bashar al-Assad had been silent for more than a week.
Dictatorships had just been toppled in Egypt and Tunisia, and NATO jets were pounding Libya. Now unrest had reared its head in Syria. Earlier that month, protests erupted the small city of Daraa, south of Damascus, after police arrested and tortured some kids who’d been caught spray-painting anti-Assad graffiti. Crackdowns on the protests there inspired more around the country. Security forces had reportedly killed dozens of protesters by the time Assad decided to speak.
Syrians across the country tuned in. Many of them saw Assad as their savior. Kiki thought the speech would be historic: Assad would show himself as the reformer he’d long claimed to be, apologizing for the bloodshed and calming the anxious nation’s nerves. This is a crisis, and he’s gonna fix it, he thought. Don’t worry. Everything’s gonna be fine.
Kiki was far from the hardened sectarian stereotype that defines Assad’s supporters today. He spent half his life in the United States, moving there at 14 when his father, a Kurdish dissident, won asylum. For the next 15 years he lived with his family in Fairview, N.J., developing a thick Jersey accent and a deep love for the U.S. But he overstayed his visa and was deported back to Syria in 2007.
The return was a shock for a guy who did a mean DeNiro impression and recited lines from Analyze This. He was arrested upon landing at the airport, by authorities suspicious of his time in the U.S. They whipped him with electric cables and beat him until his teeth cracked. Then they set him free, and he settled in Damascus, where he was jarred by the poverty and isolation — the overcrowded homes, the fact that most people couldn’t afford to own a car or even to buy meat. He quickly learned not to talk politics in a country blanketed by Soviet-style secret police. “The walls have ears,” said his family and friends.
Over time, he fell in love with the ancient city, finding peace in things like the jasmine flowers that grew from its old stone walls. He sometimes thought he felt the city breathing. In Assad — the young, Western-educated president who dined with John Kerry and mingled with people in the street — Kiki saw hope, believing the president would roll back the repressive regime handed down by his father, Hafez. Things like corruption and police abuse were the mistakes of individual people, not reflections on Assad. It has nothing to do with the president himself, Kiki would think.
Kiki also feared the demons that a push to oust Assad might unearth, as the bloody histories of Syria’s neighbors in Lebanon and Iraq cast a long shadow over its own sectarian balancing act. I don’t want this mess in my country, he thought as Assad prepared to take the stage.
In the U.S., Hillary Clinton, then secretary of state, had told reporters three days earlier that members of Congress from both sides of the aisle saw Assad as “a reformer.” His biographer, the author and historian David W. Lesch, said the jury was still out: “[I]t’s not yet clear what sort of leader Mr. Assad is going to be,” Lesch wrote in an op-ed titled “The Syrian President I Know” published in the New York Times the day before the speech. “Mr. Assad’s background suggests he could go either way.”
Frederic C. Hof, then a senior U.S. official tasked with negotiating peace between Syria and Israel, didn’t buy into Assad’s reformist image, but thought: “This is Bashar’s opportunity. He’s been talking about reform and a new Syria for nearly 11 years.”
CNN and the BBC broadcast the speech live.
As Assad approached the podium, the regime-sanctioned parliament broke into thundering applause.
“I speak to you at this exceptional moment when events and developments pose a great test to our unity,” he said. “It is a test which is repeated every now and then because of the continued conspiracy against this country.”
Assad said he was responsible for all Syrians but didn’t apologize for the violence. He spoke vaguely of reform but mentioned nothing specific. And he warned of conspiracy, again and again. “I am sure you all know that Syria is facing a great conspiracy whose tentacles extend to some nearby countries and faraway countries, with some inside the country,” he said.
He stopped often, smiling broadly, to accept standing ovations; one politician read him a poem. He chuckled at his jokes.
He’s not saying anything that means anything, Kiki thought, overcome suddenly with dread. Instead he came out laughing.
“Burying sedition is a national, moral, and religious duty; and all those who can contribute to burying it and do not are part of it,” Assad said. “The Holy Qur’an says, ‘sedition is worse than killing,’ so all those involved intentionally or unintentionally in it contribute to destroying their country. So there is no compromise or middle way in this.”
Abu Ibrahim, a sheikh watching the speech in the city of Homs, began to panic. Oh my god, what is he saying? he wondered. This man is here to destroy the country.
Maisa Saleh, a young nurse who ran the ICU at a Damascus hospital, was watching with friends, who were quiet as Assad left the stage. She pierced the silence with a string of profanity.
For many Syrians, Assad’s speech marked the start of their revolution. Noor, a 26-year-old computer whiz from the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, joined the swelling crowds in the streets. He had recently finished his military service, found a job, and made sure that his girlfriend’s father, a Shiite, didn’t mind his daughter marrying a Sunni. He wanted to get rid of Assad, though, before he started his new life, which he guessed would take a few months.
Around the country, as protests grew and spread, security forces were firing into crowds and making mass arrests. Assad began to stir sectarian fears, calling the protesters Sunni extremists. Noor drifted from his girlfriend, who told him not to protest. It was all a conspiracy, she said.
The country saw the regime’s fury on June 3, when security forces fired into a crowd of protesters in the conservative city of Hama, killing 73 people in what was then the bloodiest episode of the uprising.
Soon after, U.S. intelligence reports indicated that Assad was initially uncomfortable with the bloodshed, according to a former senior intelligence analyst with the U.S. government who was tracking the conflict at the time. When Assad was informed of the massacre, he hesitated and in effect asked his advisors: Does it really have to be this way?
They told him: Examples needed to be set. He took the advice.
“He could have said, ‘This has to stop. You can’t shoot unarmed people like that,’” the former intelligence analyst said. “But instead he shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘OK, if we must, we must.’”
From there Syria’s violent path became increasingly clear. “When I saw the regime applying the same formula [of cracking down on protests], one time after another, it was obvious that this was a one-way trip,” said Hof, the former negotiator, who soon became President Barack Obama’s special advisor on transition in Syria.
Some of those who thought they were close enough to Assad tried to walk him back from the violence. Turkish officials, mediators between Assad and the West, pushed him to stop the crackdowns and announce reforms. “In the beginning Assad and his associates said, ‘Look you are right, we should do this,’” a Turkish official involved in Syria policy said. “They did not deliver. They always kept us in suspense.”
Perhaps surprisingly, Iran and Hezbollah, two key Assad allies, also urged a more measured response to the protests, the former U.S. analyst said. “Their advice to him early on was, ‘Take it easy, there are smarter ways of dealing with this.’ They didn’t think it was wise for him to go bashing and killing people when it wasn’t really necessary.”
Jihad Makdissi, who was the chief spokesman of Syria’s Foreign Ministry before resigning and leaving the country in December 2012, recalled multiple conversations in which he tried to push Assad toward conciliation. “The president is a very polite listener, but he would disagree if he felt [you were suggesting] concessions. There was a solid conviction at the top level that whatever you do, you will not evade the storm,” Makdissi said in a recent interview by telephone from Dubai. “Everybody wanted him to reach out and engage positively [with the opposition], because that would weather the storm. The response to that was this: ‘Whatever you do, it’s coming, and nothing will stop it.’”
“He has strong convictions,” Makdissi said. “And I can assure you he’s in full charge.”
“I think he was genuinely torn at first, but in the end, he loved authority too much,” said Nabeel Khoury, a fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, who was involved in Syria policy as a senior State Department official at the time. “Call him a Shakespearean tragic hero, like Macbeth. Macbeth didn’t really want to kill anyone at first, but once he started there was no turning back.”
By July, rights groups said that security forces had killed more than 1,500 civilians. But the protests continued unabated, and it soon became clear that the regime was considering calling in the military to crush them.
Jeremy Shapiro, a fellow with the Brookings Institution who then was involved in Syria policy as U.S. government official, said the Syrian regime relied more heavily on repression than many outsiders had realized. Assad and the core of his regime and military are from the Alawite sect of Shiite Islam, which makes up just 10% of the largely Sunni population. “So it really couldn’t allow the type of protests that we were watching. In a sense, it wasn’t strong enough or comfortable enough as a minority regime,” Shapiro said.
The crisis reached a head again in Hama, where protesters were massing in unprecedented numbers — and where Assad’s father infamously leveled the city, killing at least 10,000 people, to suppress a Muslim Brotherhood-led uprising in 1982.
The U.S. ambassador paid an unusual visit to the city, seen as an attempt to ward off the attack. Then, on July 30, Turkish officials held a marathon meeting with Assad in Damascus, pushing him to avoid more bloodshed, the Turkish official said. Troops and tanks attacked Hama the next day.
The violence confirmed how many in the Obama administration had come to see Assad: as another doomed Arab Spring despot in the last violent throes of his rule. Steven Simon, who was Obama’s senior Middle East advisor at the time, recalled “a natural tendency to see Assad in the mold of the authoritarian leaders who were ejected without a fight, like Ben Ali in Tunisia or Mubarak in Egypt, or at worst, as a replica of Qaddafi who was trying to battle a rapidly escalating rebellion with a rapidly disintegrating army and was bound to lose.”
The Obama administration, added Simon, now U.S. director at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, believed that Assad “had forfeited whatever shopworn legitimacy he might have possessed before the revolt broke out.”
Obama officially turned his back on Assad in an Aug. 18 speech: “For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.”
“There was a strong feeling in the White House that Assad was a goner, and that he’d be gone soon,” recalled Hof, now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. “There were folks in the White House who believed this would be a proper presidential send-off to someone who was basically finished.”
The U.S. would do little to advance that outcome in the months and years that followed, which has since been a subject of intense debate. “There’s a difference between a law professor giving an opinion and analysis and the leader of a superpower,” Khoury said, referring to Obama’s time teaching at the University of Chicago. “To some extent, the statement that Assad must go seemed like just making an analytical statement. And the rest of the world was listening to the president and saying, ‘OK, if Assad must go, then what are you going to do about it?’ The attitude from the administration was, ‘Oh, hey, I was just saying.’”
The violence has churned through Syria since. Abu Ibrahim, a sheikh from Homs, saw it in 2011 as his city transformed into the frontline of a burgeoning civil war. In unpublished videos captured by Mani, an award-winning filmmaker, the stocky sheikh charges through the madness on his way to gather news of massacres or retrieve corpses guarded by sniper fire. But he refuses to run, even amid the crash of artillery shells — his small way of restoring order amid the chaos. If people looked to him for courage, he reasoned, they shouldn’t see his fear.
Kiki, the Syrian from New Jersey, felt the shock of the violence one summer night in 2012, when he stood on a rooftop and stared in awe at the chopper hovering just overhead. Then, blaaaaw — the loudest noise he’d ever heard — as the chopper spit a missile into a neighborhood nearby, shattering another piece of his city. He fled to Turkey, where he became a translator for international journalists, including this reporter, and an activist — but also just another Syrian refugee. Missing home, he bought an iPad, plugged in the factory headphones and opened up Skype, rarely detaching from it since.
The violence caught up to Saleh, the Damascus nurse, while she donned a blonde wig around the city to protect her identity as she showcased the forgotten work of nonviolent activists with reports on opposition TV. Police arrested her from a cafe this past April and threw her in jail, where blood and vomit from tortured prisoners streaked the halls, until she was released six months later in a prisoner exchange. And it finally shook Noor, who had become an aid worker, when the regime attacked Ghouta with chemical weapons this summer, killing hundreds. Rushing to a clinic to help, he found himself staring instead at the dead children laid out on the floor, and he suddenly felt lucky that he’d never started his new life — “because I have nothing to lose.”
This month, the U.N. announced that it had stopped counting casualties in Syria, stopping its official death toll at more than 100,000. It has also called the refugee crisis the worst in a generation, with more than 2.4 million having fled the country and another 6.5 million internally displaced.
Through the bloodshed, Assad has remained firmly entrenched — and in fact, as his regime enters the peace negotiations that begin in Switzerland this week, he has emerged as a leader who seems eager to play the role of statesman again. Syria is cooperating with the U.S. and Russia to dismantle its stockpile of chemical arms — a deal that won Assad a reprieve from U.S. airstrikes in retaliation for the Ghouta attack, as well as a boost, according to many observers, in his own legitimacy.
With the rebellion increasingly dominated by al-Qaeda, Assad has also painted his struggle as a war against terror. Last week, his foreign minister claimed that Western intelligence officials had visited Damascus recently to seek cooperation against extremists. Assad is again pushing that narrative as the peace talks in Switzerland approach, a process that seems unlikely to lead to his departure. In an interview with Agence France-Presse published on Monday, he said the talks should focus on terrorism — and also that he sees “no reason why I shouldn’t stand” in presidential elections scheduled for June.
“The regime, whether we like it or not, has had a consistency to their story,” said Makdissi, the former Syrian official, lamenting “three years of missed opportunities” in the failed diplomacy between Assad and the West. “They haven’t changed it since day one, and the Syrian people continue to pay the price.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified the school where President Barack Obama taught. It was University of Chicago, not Harvard.