The quiet tragedy of a teenage boy in Damascus
Amid the death and destruction visited on Syria over the last eight years, one of the biggest tragedies is surely the fate of one teenage boy in Damascus. He is extremely tall for his age and has blue eyes, like his father. He speaks fluent English, says he wants to study engineering at university and is apparently quite good at maths.
Through no fault of his own, 17-year-old Hafez Assad, the eldest son of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, is setting out to live a life no one in their right mind would choose for their child.
His will be, in all likelihood, a life that results in even more suffering and bloodshed in Syria and that will probably see him one day become a deeply hated and feared leader.
The first time I encountered the Syrian first lady and her children, Hafez, Zein and Karim, the kids were all small and attending a language school in the Baramkeh district of central Damascus. It was about a decade ago and their security detail was inconspicuous as Asma Assad, tall and wafer thin, strolled through the residential streets seemingly without a care in the world.
At the language school, the children melted into the classroom; despite their differing ages they were all placed in the same class. They were playing, running about and excelling at their English lessons. Sure, they got unrivalled attention from the teaching staff and management but, being so young, they had no idea that they were any different.
Back then, they were simply children, doing childish things. So, to see their young lives, particularly that of eldest son and possible future president Hafez changed forever since then — ruined, essentially — by his father’s violent suppression of the 2011 revolution and consequent war, is very unfortunate indeed.
Little did Hafez know then that his life and legacy were already in motion, carefully laid out before him.
Hafez says he wants to study engineering but the whole world knows what fate awaits him. While it may take decades for him to eventually take control, even from now Hafez is being groomed for a life of deal-making, suppression and brutality to ensure that the family name rules in Syria for another generation.
The lanky teenager may find himself facing a terrible future should the third leader of the Assad dynasty turn out to be as brutal as the two that went before him.
It’s become clear that the propaganda machine that has oiled the Assad regime’s wheels for decades is already being planted in Hafez’s own mind.
When, as a 15-year-old attending a maths competition in Brazil in 2017, Hafez told O Globo newspaper how Syria was being attacked by “invaders.” He reflected how “many are blind” in their view of his father.
“It’s not a civil war, it’s people taking our home. It is a war against the people. The population and the government are united against the invaders that are taking over the country,” Hafez averred. “Eventually, violence can be resolved. Over time, it can be controlled.”
In the interview the world saw the first signs of a brainwashed dictator in the making, not a child nor a possible future leader who might seek to bring about real change for his country.
Since then, Hafez has posed for selfies with jostling men in the Old City of Damascus, appearing ready to inspire a new generation of regime loyalists. The people of Syria who have stood by his father, Bashar, will undoubtedly favour Hafez when his time comes.
In the years ahead, Hafez will be taught how to deal with the demands of Russia and Iran as a junior partner in those relationships, to manage the influential tribes and families of Qardaha and how to govern a post-war country where hope and opportunity are in scant supply. Interestingly, Hafez apparently never personally coached Bashar in the ways of governing, even after the latter returned from London in 1994.
All this said, there’s a line of thought going around that Hafez may never see the throne, that the same fate that befell Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir — overthrown this year in a military coup — could happen to Bashar. It’s a long shot, for sure, but should the sitting Syrian president be removed from power it would save his children a life they never chose to endure. Or it could inspire something worse altogether.
There are perhaps millions of Syrians already hateful of Hafez, gunning for his demise. They are people who have lost their own sons to government air strikes or hunger or pro-government militias.
The real tragedy of dictatorship is that it turns innocent children into monsters through absolutely no fault of their own. Hafez has grown up eating the same cereal and pizza as our own children, asking the same kind of questions about dinosaurs and ghosts. As an adult, however, he may be asked to commit acts of unthinkable cruelty just so that the house of Assad may endure.
With him, a new generation of young Syrians may be lost to violent ways.