What Bashar al Assad Learned About Staying in Power from the Corleone Family and How He Is Preparing His Last Redoubt

The news from Libya has energized the Syrian people in their efforts to topple Bashar Assad. But Assad still will not go easily. Many more Syrians will have to die before that will happen. Assad will apply the rules he learned from his father, Hafez al Assad, who appears to have studied the rules by which The Godfather and his son, Michael Corleone, lived and died.

It is doubtful that Assad intends to die and certainly not in Damascus. Instead, if the rebels triumph, he is likely to flee with his Alawite troops to the traditional Alawite homeland along Syria’s Mediterranean coast.

These are some of the lessons father and son learned from the Corleones.

1. The Family. The principal goal of every leader is to preserve the interests of the family. Michael Corleone sometimes defined the family to include only his blood relatives. At other times, he included his lieutenants as well. He devoted himself, not always successfully, to preserving their interests. Bashar Assad has done the same. Always struggling to preserve the power and financial interests of his brothers and cousins. Sometimes, as well, the power and financial interests of his fellow Alawites.

2. Succession. After the death of The Godfather, Vito Corleone, and of Sonny, his oldest son, Michael Corleone became head of the family. Bashar came to the fore with the death of his older brother Basil in 1994. The Syrian godfather, Hafez Assad, had chosen Basil as his successor. Syrians lived in terror of Basil’s propensity to exploit the Syrian elite both for their money and for the sexual favors of their wives. Basil ran his car into a bridge on a Syrian super-highway and killed himself. It was Mustapha Tlass, Hafez al Assad’s long time defense minister, who secured the succession of Bashar, Basil’s younger brother, then studying in London to be an ophthalmologist.

3. Wives. Michael Corleone’s wife, Kate, left him when she could no longer tolerate his murders. Bashar’s wife, al Asma, has left him for her safety and that of their children, at least for now. She is reportedly living in London.

4. Family Protectors. In the end, you fall back on your family for protection. Michael Corleone found that he could not even trust his brother Fredo and had him murdered. But when the threats to his own life became intense, in Sicily, Michael turned to his nephew, Vincent, the son of Tom Hagen who was raised in the same house as Michael. Bashar has turned for protection to his youngest brother, Maher al Assad, born in 1967, the commander of the presidential guard known as the elite 4th brigade.

5. Friends. Other than your family, you trust your oldest friends. The Godfather did that with his crime buddies from his younger days on the lower East side of Manhattan. Peter Clemenza and Sal Tessio eventually became senior lieutenants and then served Michael as well. In the end, Tessio was turned by Michael’s gangster rival, Emilio Barzini. Michael, who had been coached by his father on just such an eventuality, grasped the plot and had Tessio murdered. So Hafez Assad trusted Mustapha Tlass, who served as his minister of defense for over 30 years. Tlass and been Assad’s classmate in the Syrian Air Force Academy from which they both graduated. Tlass was the highest ranking Sunni in the regime and provided cover for Assad. In 1983, when Assad’s own brother attempted a coup, Tlass stuck by Assad. Even though he engineered Bashar’s succession, Bashar came to distrust him. He saw Tlass as the center of the ‘old guard’ and forced his retirement. (Tlass, at least, is still alive.)

6. Murder. Michael murdered the heads of the 5 families, his rivals for control of the lucrative businesses in which they were engaged. Bashar, apparently, was complicit in the murder of Rafik Hariri, Prime Minister of Lebanon. Hariri was an obstacle to Shiite control of Lebanon and, indirectly, of Syria’s control of its many lucrative businesses, in particular, the smuggling of goods into Syria.

7. Companies. GENCO was the company that The Godfather, Vito Corleone, established as the front for his criminal activities. The Assad clan has also established many businesses, criminal and not criminal, reserving the most lucrative for themselves. Bashar’s maternal cousin, Rami Makhlouf, owns Syriatel and, according to the Financial Times, controls as much as 60% of the Syrian economy.

8. Never Forget. Michael lived by several rules. One was,” Never Forget.” His father, Vito Andolini, later to be The Godfather, was born in Corleone. Vito’s father, mother, and brother were all killed by the local boss, Don Ciccio. Only Vito escaped and made his way to America. Years later, as a grown man, he returned to Corleone and murdered Don Ciccio. That was one lesson that Michael learned from his father.

9. Dealing With Others. Another was “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” For years, Michael maintained a friendship with Hyman Roth, once his father’s principal partners but now Michael’s major enemy.

10. Dealing With Enemies. Yet another rule that governed Michael’s life was” I don’t feel that I have to wipe everybody out. . . Just my enemies, that’s all.” Michael had his brother Fredo murdered. Before Roth could testify to the Feds about Michael, he had Roth murdered.

All 3 of these rules seem to have governed Bashar at different times. On occasion, he has seemed to offer the promise of making peace with Israel. At other times, he was the most ardent supporter of Israel’s main enemies–Iran and Hamas.

11. In the end, before they kill you, have an escape plan. When Michael determined that Hyman Roth had arranged for Michael to be killed on midnight at the new year, Michael arranged an escape. It now appears that Bashar may be planning his own escape in the event the Syrian uprising succeeds. Bashar has made his plans for the Alawite homeland along Syria’s only Mediterranean coast line.

As the map makes clear, the Alawite homeland is separated from the rest of Syria by formidable mountains and has access to the sea. The principal city in the area is a Latakia. Not by chance is it that Assad recently sent in his tanks and had his naval ships bombard the city as well. The targets were the large Sunni population as well as a Palestinian refugee camp. In the end, Assad may be planning to retreat there with his loyal troops. With military supplies coming from Iran by sea, the regime could hold out indefinitely.

But for now, any retreat by Bashar seems highly unlikely. Qaddafi lost when Western powers flew 1500 air sorties over his country, bombing his military and his command-and-control infrastructure. Then they sent trainers and military supplies to the Libyan rebels. Finally they actually sent special forces troops to lead the assault on Tripoli.

No outside powers are likely to aid the Syrian rebels in any such way. Like The Godfather, Bashar still feels confident of maintaining his criminal enterprise.