Monday, 15 August 2011

Kept under the thumb by another second son?

Bashar al-Assad. How long can he last?

Events in the Middle East have carried on at a breakneck pace. It’s difficult to keep abreast of every single country that finds itself undergoing the upheaval of change from autocratic rule to hopefully something akin to democracy.  I’m not writing this to offer an analysis of events. There are enough knowledgeable people on the net able to provide that  for those of us who agree with their viewpoint and trust their judgment. I knew I wanted to write a post about what’s going on in Syria, and I discovered amongst other things, the country’s official web page here, and also consulted Bashar al-Assad’s profile on Wikipedia here. I’d just like to share some thoughts about what I like to call the ‘second son syndrome’, which I believe al-Assad is the product of, and note a few other second sons in history who have, for better or worse,  overcompensated for what they feel is a lack of approval from their father. This is particularly relevant  when second sons consider themselves inferior to either siblings who have died, or were born before they were, or simply received more attention  than they felt they did themselves.

I discovered upon reading the Wiki article that President Bashar al-Assad, President of Syria, and son of Hafez al-Assad, the previous President who ruled the country for 29 years, had in early life nursed no political aspirations. He  had an older brother named Basil, whom the family was grooming to take over from the father. The family’s hopes for Basil’s ascendancy to his father’s position were shattered when Basil was killed in a car accident in 1994.1 Bashar al-Assad was therefore forced by circumstance to take his brother’s place as their father’s heir apparent.  Recalled from London where he was studying ophthalmology, al-Assad joined the military academy at Homs and emerged as a colonel in 1999. He was thus baptised as next in line to the Presidency.  Assad the elder died in 2000 and his second son was voted unopposed as the next Syrian President.2 In 2007 his leadership was approved for another seven year term by a referendum in which there was no other candidate.3

 After reading this, I was immediately  reminded of the psychological profile of President George W Bush. This may not  seem so obvious and I realise that the reader deserves an  explanation. However the following is on the public record and is no secret. As a young man, George W  Bush struggled to prove himself to his father by appearing to be  a serious political player,  despite  what he viewed as discouragement from his parents, and unfavourable comparisons with his  brother Jeb. In researching this article I was surprised to discover that George is actually Jeb’s older brother. George suffered from the ‘second son’ syndrome to the extent that he acted as if he was younger than Jeb or in any case, inferior to him. I’m going to propose in this article that second sons, or boys who perceive themselves to be in the shadow of another sibling, appear  to be insecure.  Their authoritarianism and their quest to be thought of as great achievers, at least in the political sphere, can be a dangerous reflection of that insecurity. In nations without a tradition of democratic decision-making, this is pertinent  for those who are meant to live under their rule, take their orders or merely acknowledge them as their leader. 

I then got to thinking of the famous second sons I was aware of in history, and could come up with  a number of them. But because I am not aware of the lineage of every politician in the history of western civilisation, I’m sure there are many more that fit the description. Being an Australian of the old school, I was taught about Engish royalty and am most familiar with second sons because of the care lavished upon the lineage of the British Royal family. These came immediately to mind. Firstly, the current Queen Elizabeth’s II’s father George VI, was a second son. (Incidentally, his father George V was also a second son but for reasons of space he is beyond the scope of my discussion at the moment).

Duke of York in his WWI regalia. The future King George VI.
 It goes like this:  Edward VIII,  George VI’s older brother was the eldest son and originally  groomed to take the position of King as the official heir of his father (King George V). Unfortunately he fell in love with Wallis Simpson, and abdicated because she was an American as well as a divorcee and the public in Britain it was said,  would never accept her as  queen. The abdication of Edward VIII in December 1936 was in fact one of the most pivotal events of the twentieth century.5 

George VI, the second son,  previously the Duke of York, or Bertie as he was known,  was totally unprepared for the responsibility of being handed the position of King because of  his brother’s abdication. He had a stutter, a weak voice, and felt overwhelmed by a role he was never trained for and was  reluctant to perform. Although liked and admired by the public, older  brother Edward had a number of personal problems including his deteriorating relationship with father  George V who had not wished to see him ascend to the throne.6  When Edward  took over from his father who died in January 1936, it was clear he refused to be a mere figure-head and his independence spelled trouble.7 With powerful enemies arrayed against him after only eleven months on the throne, Edward formally abdicated on 10th December 1936. The throne was passed to the Duke of York, who was thought to be weak-willed and easily influenced.8 Whilst rumours of previous king Edward VIII’s Nazi sympathies abounded, the new King and his queen (the current Queen’s parents) were also desperate to avoid war with Germany in order that the monarchy survive events that were out of its control in Europe, even if it meant existing under Nazi occupation.9 The new king ie second son George VI, was receiving  a baptism of fire in the world of realpolitic, where it was necessary to maintain the authority of the monarchy at  a time of uncertainty at home as well as abroad. The approach of the Second Word War transformed Bertie Duke of York from a weak and ill-advised also-ran who paled in comparison to his dashing brother, into at least, a passable leader.10  But after the War it was clear that the British Empire was crumbling. The first Labour government was voted into office, and the creation of the welfare state did not bode well for the survival of British royalty.11 

George VI, despite his weak personality, was still a member of a powerful family that had no intention of getting sidelined by history. They have in fact continued to this day, propelled by a careful mixture of public relations and careful strategies to ensure their money, wealth and influence  remain intact.. I don’t know of a volume ever published which could tell  us the real story of these particular pair of siblings who had such an influence on the history of the 20th century because of the obvious rivalry and perhaps bitterness that may have existed between them. I do think however, that King George VI, despite his unsuitability for the position, suffered in the shadow of his older brother and was thus prepared for a life of defending British royalty, as well as the possibility of England being invaded by the Nazis.

Of course this is all just supposition on my part. But the patterns exist and should be discerned if they throw light on the motivations of individuals who exercise power over the rest of us, by virtue of us giving  our power away to them. The tenous political situation in Syria cannot be easily explained away I know and I’m not attempting to do that. I’m only attempting to understand what drives a leader to such lengths that he will turn on his own people  in such an inexcusable way. Perhaps it is fear that the implementation of democracy  would strip him of his authority as well as the identity he has forged for himself as President, in the shadow of a powerful and mourned figure in the shape of his late brother.

1. Wikipedia article; 2. ibid; 3. ibid; 4. The last sentence is my own. 5. 'War of the Windsors: A Century of Unconstitutional Monarchy; by Lyn Picknett, Clive Prince, Stephen Prior and Robert Brydon, South Yarra, Hardie Grant, 2002. 6. ibid. p. 106; 7. ibid. p. 132; 8. ibid. p. 174; 9. ibid. pp. 192-93; 10. ibid. pp. 195-198; 11. ibid. p. 250.

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