Chicago, IL – A story is told of a medical student, who attended the University of Damascus, Syria’s top academic institution, in the 1980s. During one physical training exercise, he caught the ire of the instructor, who proceeded to call him “a son of a donkey”.
The red-faced instructor soon realised who he was talking to and quickly apologised. The student was Bashar, second son and ultimate successor of then-President Hafez al-Assad. But the younger Assad took the insult “very lightly”.
As Dr Zaher Sahloul recounted the incident involving his classmate of six years, the Chicago pulmonary specialist wondered how “a very average and humble person” turned out to become the architect of the ongoing bloodshed in Syria, which has already killed more than 17,000 people, according to the United Nations.
“You never imagine that the person who used to be your classmate in medical school, will be able to do this type of war crimes against humanity,” said Sahloul, a native of Homs and president of the Syrian American Medical Society.
A new low
For Sahloul and his fellow Syrian Americans who are observing Ramadan, this year’s holy month marks a new low in the close-knit community, many of whom have friends and family members caught in the 17-month old armed uprising. Their prayers, which range from asking for the protection of elderly parents who chose to remain in the bombed-out city of Homs to the swift ouster of the Assad regime from Damascus, reflect the anguish of a wounded nation, whose own president is attacking his own people.
“It’s very difficult to celebrate the festivities of the month of Ramadan, while you have people in your family who are at any time at the threat of death,” said Sahloul. “What’s going on right now is a grave humanitarian situation.”
Only two weeks ago, Sahloul returned from his fourth medical mission to a Syrian refugee camp in Kilis, Turkey. There, Sahloul worked alongside 45 Syrian American doctors who volunteered on rotation at several refugee camps, even as members of his own family have been swept up in the whirlwind of violence engulfing Syria.
The Chicago area is home to at least eight former medical classmates of the middle Assad brother. Aside from Sahloul, Dr Hassan Alzein, a paediatrician, is also a member of that class of 800 students. Like Sahloul, Alzein found Assad unremarkable.
“We tried to avoid him,” Alzein said. “His father was a barbaric dictator and we always said that if we get close to him, someday we will be targeted by the regime.”
One Chicago resident who did get close to Assad was Maher Basatneh, who is originally from Damascus. The Chicago businessman said he first befriended the future president in 1980 when they were teenagers at a skydiving camp.
“He was friendly,” Basatneh said of Assad. “He ate with us and we just talked as friends. He did not know anything about politics.” The two became friends and would hang out at the Assad residence. There, Basatneh said, he would often witness Maher al-Assad taunt his elder brother, Bashar, calling him a “dummy”.
Later, Basatneh enrolled in medical school with Assad, who backed him up as student council leader. But Basatneh, who later dropped out of school, does not believe Assad has the ability to lead Syria, and described him as an awkward teenager who had an odd twitching mannerism.
“I have known this guy for years and the position of president is not for him,” said Basatneh, adding that he would not also entrust his life to Assad as his doctor. Basatneh claimed Assad was not a serious medical student, and only graduated because he was the son of the president.
The untimely death of Assad’s eldest brother Bassel, who was groomed to be president, and later of Hafez, thrust Bashar to the leadership position for which he was not prepared, Basatneh explained, adding that the crisis in Syria is a direct result of Assad’s failed leadership.
Days are numbered
Sahloul said he too did not see his old classmate becoming president, and that the days of Assad’s rule seemed numbered.
Although they were not close, he saw Assad regularly at the University of Damascus from 1982 to 1988.
“He wasn’t arrogant,” Sahloul said. “But from what I’ve seen he wasn’t that smart or distinguished.”
“I think he proved to be a very mediocre president dealing with crisis, whether it’s the crisis in Iraq, or in Lebanon after the murder of [former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq] al-Hariri,” Sahloul said. “His decisions were very poor so they led to disastrous consequences.”
Sahloul recalled that two years into the presidency of his old college classmate, he and his fellow Syrian American doctors had a chance to meet Assad at a conference in Damascus. While exchanging pleasantries, Sahloul recalled Assad as saying he wished he was a practicing doctor instead of being a president.
At the same meeting, Sahloul said he asked Assad if he thought Syria was ready for democracy. Assad reportedly said no, citing Syria’s tribal culture and sectarian nature.
Now it appears that Assad’s refusal to acknowledge his people’s call for a more democratic governance might be coming back to haunt him.
Still, Sahloul warned the Assad regime would be willing to take the whole nation down with it.
“The regime is still powerful,” Sahloul said. “The army is still allied with the regime and it can cause a lot of destruction and mayhem before it departs the scene.”
“Definitely the regime has ended,” Sahloul said. “No one in Syria will let this regime lead anymore. People have broken the barrier of fear, so it’s impossible for him to continue ruling Syria.”
“It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when,” Sahloul said.