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Bashar al-Assad's Report Card
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When it comes to grading Assad, why does he stand head and shoulders above the world’s dictators, strongmen, and despots? Hard to say.

State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland maintains Assad, “certainly should leave power,” and asserts he is “evil,” “beyond brutal,” “inhumane,” and unfit to rule.

And then there’s this profile: Dr. Kathy Seifert of Psychology Today observes, “How did this man develop into a brutal dictator? 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.”

Still, it is hard to pin down.

Maybe it’s corruption.

Over the past 40 years, the Assad family’s personal assets have amassed to more than $1 billion according to Iain Willis, a business intelligence consultant in London.

However, Angola’s Jose Eduardo dos Santos (now in his 34th year as “President”) and his henchmen stole some $6 billion earned from its petroleum exports in 2009 alone. The anti-corruption advocacy group Global Financial Integrity says almost a sixth of Angola’s entire annual budget is ripped off.

It’s probably not graft as a measure, at least when compared to Angola, because in 2009 U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared Angola a “strategic partner” of the United States, one of three that the Obama Administration has identified on the African continent. The other two are Nigeria and South Africa. Transparency International rates Nigeria as 75 percent corrupt: “F.” Syria has a 76 percent corruption rate, also an “F.” States behind Syria include Afghanistan and North Korea both with a 92 percent corruption score, and Iraq, which pulled down an 84 percent level of corruption.

If it isn’t strictly financial double-dealing, perhaps it is Syria’s thuggish security apparatus — after all, Assad is indeed a brutal dictator.

But he has competition in that arena. For example, Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko murders political opponents by having them shot in the back of the head; he’s imprisoned and tortured thousands; and after 18 years in power, he rigs “elections” crudely but effectively. Lukashenko is browbeaten by the West, viewed suspiciously by Russia, and loathed by opponents in exile or jail, however he is relishing his notoriety, calling himself “Europe’s last dictator.” According to the , Huffington Post, “An effective state security machine [in Belarus], still bearing the Soviet name of the KGB, ensures public protests against his rule are snuffed out fast. A statue to Soviet security police founder Felix Dzerzhinsky stands opposite the KGB headquarters.”

Lukashenko has been quoted as saying he regrets the country gave up its nuclear weapons.

Despite all these facts, the United States is one of the largest investors in the Belarusian economy: companies such as Honeywell, Cisco Systems, Navistar, and Microsoft are doing business there, and have created a Belarus-U.S. Business Cooperation Council.

Then there’s Comrade (as he likes to be addressed) Robert Mugabe, president of Zimbabwe, chairman of the ruling legislative party, head of state, head of government, and commander in chief of the military. His 23 years of iron-fisted rule cannot be summed-up in a sentence or two. Men’s Journal did a good overview in its September, 2003 story, “If You Think Robert Mugabe Hates Only White People, You’re Wrong.” Incredibly, Zimbabwe’s situation has declined even more since that piece was published.

So far there are mixed results, but now comes the tiebreaker: chemical weapons. Often called “the poor man’s atom bomb,” chemical and biological weapons were used in the Yemeni Civil War during the mid-to-late 60s and by Iraq in Iran during their border war in the 1980s (with Washington’s tacit approval and logistical help). Iraq also used mustard gas and nerve agents against Kurdish residents of Halabja in 1988. According to a report in the International Business Times, Israel, Iraq, Egypt, and Sudan have all have developed the means to produce chemical and biological weapons. Syria’s stockpile was not anything new in that neighborhood.

Nonetheless, apparently gas bombs were used in Syria.

On August 21, 2013, the White House released a summary of the U.S. intelligence community’s “assessment of the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons.” It said in part, “The United States Government assesses with high confidence that the Syrian government carried out a chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry asserted that if a “thug and murderer” is allowed to use chemical weapons against his own people, then other brutal dictators will do the same.” Vice President Biden declared, “We know that the Syrian regime are the only ones who have the weapons, have used chemical weapons multiple times in the past, have the means of delivering those weapons, have been determined to wipe out exactly the places that were attacked by chemical weapons.”

As early as August, however, some media and intelligence sources were having doubts about the Assad regime’s role in the attack. On August 30, 2013, Russian TV reported.

Sources within the intelligence community are disputing the certainty that Assad ordered the use of chemical gas last week on innocent civilians outside of Damascus, Syria. Four US officials — including one senior member of the intelligence community — told the Associated Press this week that there’s confusion over where the reported chemical warheads are currently being held and who exactly possesses them. Citing a lapse in both signals and human intelligence reports, the officials all told the AP on condition of anonymity that US and allied spies “have lost track of who controls some of the country’s chemical weapons supplies,” according to reporters Kimberly Dozier and Matt Apuzzo.

On September 9, 2013 McClatchy News Service reported, “the head of the German Foreign Intelligence agency, Gerhard Schindler, told a select group of German lawmakers that intercepted communications had convinced German intelligence officials that Assad did not order or approve what is believed to be a sarin gas attack on August 21 that killed hundreds of people in Damascus’ eastern suburbs.”

Then, on December 19, came this startling story: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh said President Obama wasn’t honest with the American people when he blamed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for a sarin gas attack in that killed hundreds of civilians. In a piece published in the London Review of Books, Hersh — best known for his exposés on the cover-ups of the My Lai Massacre and of Abu Ghraib — said the administration “cherry-picked intelligence,” citing conversations with intelligence and military officials.

Hersh alleges President Obama: [f]ailed to acknowledge something known to the US intelligence community: that the Syrian army is not the only party in the country’s civil war with access to sarin, the nerve agent that a UN study concluded — without assessing responsibility — had been used in the rocket attack. In the months before the attack, the American intelligence agencies produced a series of highly classified reports, culminating in a formal Operations Order — a planning document that precedes a ground invasion — citing evidence that the al-Nusra Front, a jihadi group affiliated with al-Qaida, had mastered the mechanics of creating sarin and was capable of manufacturing it in quantity. When the attack occurred al-Nusra should have been a suspect, but the administration cherry-picked intelligence to justify a strike against Assad.

In a situation eerily like the weapons of mass destruction allegation, used as an excuse to invade and occupy Iraq, Hersh writes, “in recent interviews with intelligence and military officers and consultants past and present, I found intense concern, and on occasion anger, over what was repeatedly seen as the deliberate manipulation of intelligence. One high-level intelligence officer, in an email to a colleague, called the administration’s assurances of Assad’s responsibility a ‘ruse.’ The attack ‘was not the result of the current regime.’”

In sum, Syrian production and stockpiling of chemical weapons earns him an A plus, but use of the devices? That has to be an incomplete grade.

So on the charges of corruption, autocratic rule by torture, the manufacturing and the alleged use of chemical weapons, it looks like Syrian President Bashar al-Assad earns a solid B plus among the world’s dictators. A serious grade, but certainly not enough to send him to the front of the class.


Peter B. Gemma has been published in a variety of venues including USA Today (where more than 100 of his commentaries have appeared), Military History, the, The Washington Examiner, and the

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Bashar al-Assad, Syria 
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  1. NB says: • Website

    Here is evidence suggesting that Assad’s regime was indeed behind the sarin gas attack:
    (includes a link to a Human Rights Watch report fingering the Syrian govt)

    and a rebuttal of the Hersh piece:

  2. dmaak112 says:

    Well argued. Mr. Gemma does a credible job in presenting a very complex subject. In the face of political pressure for the United States to embark on yet another Mideast war to overthrow another government we don’t like, Peter Gemma’s column should give all Americans reason to pause before sending in troops or even arming rebels that have in common with al-Qaeda than supporters of democracy. Mr. Gemma may have included the real reasons that the Obama Administration seeks to destroy Bashar al-Asad. Many of the individuals that advise us to invade Iraq are the same ones pushing for war with Syria. The Iran-Saudi Arabia contest for dominance in the Gulf region has us aligned with the oil sheiks. Israel’s paranoia about a potential Iranian nuclear weapon has its U.S. supporters in a heated excitement for Washington to bomb Tehran. Bashar al-Asad is less important as a dictator than as but one element in a larger contest for hegemony by outside powers.

  3. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Great column.

    Interesting how DC gets all wound up about abuses from pushover regimes, but ignores much worse behavior from despots who could punch back if invaded. So Saddam’s house of cards just had to be knocked down, while real abuses in China somehow evaded DC’s finely tuned moral radar.

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