Tyrant, war criminal, mob boss or, to his loyalists, their shrewd saviour: views about Bashar al-Assad rarely fall in between. As the Syrian leader faces a presidential poll on Wednesday – the result a foregone conclusion – a truer test of the authority he wields across a broken country has taken shape away from the political banners and faux campaigning.
In battered towns and villages, ravaged by a decade of savagery, the now veteran president has been clawing back losses, consolidating himself as the only figure who could plot a course from the ruins of the region’s most devastating modern conflict. Slowly, over the past year, Assad and his extended family have been shoring up their influence. Seldom seen during much of the crisis, he has become a fixture in what remains of Syria’s industrial heartland, visiting factories, pressing employees on their hardships, and hosting delegations with an ease few observed at the height of the fighting.