If there was a moment like that for Bashar al Assad, the current president of Syria, it came sometime after 7 a.m. on January 21, 1994, when the phone rang in his rented apartment in London. A tall, scholarly ophthalmologist, Bashar, then 28, was doing a residency at Western Eye Hospital, part of St. Mary's Hospital system in Britain. Answering the phone, he learned that his older brother, Basil, while racing to the Damascus airport in heavy fog that morning, had driven his Mercedes at high speed through a roundabout. Basil, a dashing and charismatic figure who'd been groomed to succeed their father as president, died instantly in the crash. And now he, Bashar, was being called home.
Fast-forward to June 2000 and the death of the father, Hafez al Assad, of heart failure at age 69. Shortly after the funeral, Bashar entered his father's office for only the second time in his life. He has a vivid memory of his first visit, at age seven, running excitedly to tell his father about his first French lesson. Bashar remembers seeing a big bottle of cologne on a cabinet next to his father's desk. He was amazed to find it still there 27 years later, practically untouched. That detail, the stale cologne, said a lot about Syria's closed and stagnant government, an old-fashioned dictatorship that Bashar, trained in healing the human eye, felt ill-equipped to lead.
"My father never talked to me about politics," Bashar told me. "He was a very warm and caring father, but even after I came home in 1994, everything I learned about his decision-making came from reading the notes he made during meetings, or by talking to his colleagues." One of those lessons was that, unlike performing eye surgery, running a country like Syria requires a certain comfort with ambiguity. Bashar, an avid photographer, compares it with a black-and-white photograph. "There's never pure black or pure white, all bad or all good," he said. "There are only shades of gray."
Syria is an ancient place, shaped by thousands of years of trade and human migration. But if every nation is a photograph, a thousand shades of gray, then Syria, for all its antiquity, is actually a picture developing slowly before our eyes. It's the kind of place where you can sit in a crowded Damascus café listening to a 75-year-old storyteller in a fez conjure up the Crusades and the Ottoman Empire as if they were childhood memories, waving his sword around so wildly that the audience dives for cover—then stroll next door to the magnificent Omayyad Mosque, circa A.D. 715, and join street kids playing soccer on its doorstep, oblivious to the crowds of Iranian pilgrims pouring in for evening prayers or the families wandering by with ice cream. It's also a place where you can dine out with friends at a trendy café, and then, while waiting for a night bus, hear blood-chilling screams coming from a second-floor window of the Bab Touma police station. In the street, Syrians cast each other knowing glances, but no one says a word. Someone might be listening.