In the absence of free speech, a free media and other political mod-cons in Syria, Hafez al-Assad and then his son Bashar cultivated the convenient habit of transacting business in the shadows, advancing and protecting — brutally, when necessary — the interests of the family and their fellow Alawites. But Damascus has always remained alive with intrigue and speculation. To process and disseminate that mix of conjecture and fact, a highly developed rumour mill sprang up. And for those interested in Middle East affairs — particularly Syrian affairs — London became the hub of the Syrian information exchange.
Take the unlikely succession of Bashar following the death of his father in June 2000. It wasn’t meant to be like that. Bashar, serious and studious, was heading for a career as a clinical ophthalmologist. The brawler whom Hafez had chosen to groom as his successor was Bashar’s older brother, Basel. While Bashar was at ease with his studies, Basel enjoyed the pursuits of a tyrant-in-waiting, strutting around Damascus in uniform (he was in charge of the presidential security guard) and indulging his passions for fast cars and women, horses and shooting.
Then, on 22 January 1994, it all went wrong. The 33-year-old Basel smashed his car into a roundabout and was killed. An official statement in Damascus described the event simply as a ‘tragic accident’. In fact, it was neither tragic (on the contrary, it was a blessing for the people of Syria), nor was it an accident. In a country where few events involving the Assad family are accidental, the car crash remained a mystery. How could Syria’s favourite son have been killed? More pertinently: who killed him?
The consequences of the ‘accident’ within the family were not simple.