The Syrians have finally realised that their "young, charismatic, UK-educated and open minded" president is following in the footsteps of his late father, Hafez el Assad.

Young Bashar el Assad drew gasps of admiration in years gone by from Western Arabists who believed he was going open a new page in Syria's history by introducing democratic values.

Just as Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's son, Seif ul Islam, was once praised as the new, liberal and democratic hope of Libya, so Bashar was projected eleven years ago as representing a new generation of Arab leaders willing to break away from a dark and dictatorial past.

But the events of the last few days in Syria, which have seen unarmed demonstrators gunned down by government forces, prove conclusively that when push comes to shove, Bashar is actually not all that different from his late father. As some of his critic comment, "The apple does not fall far from the tree."

His handling of pro-democracy protests that have erupted in several Syrian cities since March 15 is a reminder that Bashar is a dictator who, like Colonel Gaddafi and Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh, will not surrender power gracefully.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal several weeks ago, Bashar boasted that the Tunisian and Egyptian models did not apply to his country and that there was no fear for the survival of his regime. He was right in the first part of his analysis: both neither the Egyptian nor Tunisian presidents chose to fight their people to the last drop of their blood.

But the second part of his analysis is faulty: Syria is far from immune from the political tsunami of popular uprisings currently sweeping through the Arab world.

Syrian human rights organizations have expressed deep concern over the Syrian authorities' ruthless and brutal crackdown. They note how in many instances children under the ages of 15 were arrested by the notorious "mukhabarat" secret service for allegedly painting anti-government graffiti on city walls.

In another incident that took place in the southern Syrian city of Daraa, Bashar unleashed his commandos against peaceful worshippers who were staging a sit-in strike in a mosque; he killed dozens and wounded many others.

Syrians are asking: Will the son go as far as his father in stamping down on all protests? The public has not forgotten the terrible events of 20 years ago in the city of Hama, when government forces using artillery and air power killed an estimated 20,000 civilians.

Syrians are also asking who will replace their dictator. Some fear that in the absence of an alternative, Iran and Hizbollah could end up controlling Syria.

But the collapse now of Bashar el Assad's regime would be a severe blow to Iran, Hamas, Hizbollah and other radical powers in the region.

Reports indicate that Hizbollah militiamen have been brought to Syria to help suppress the wave of anti-government protests. Other reports have claimed that members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard were flown into Syria to help Bashar's regime.

As international criticism mounts, Bashar has suddenly started talking about the need for financial and political reforms. His critics shout that he is a liar who had 11 years to implement necessary changes, but chose instead to run his country as the leader of a mafia.

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