I’ve heard that too. IIRC, Assad is actually a member of some minority Islamic group that is not popular with “orthodox” Muslims, and thus his state was relatively tolerant of non-Muslims and Muslim minority sects. It was basically secularist and nationalist rather than Islamist.
Any government in the ME is going to be or become a dictatorship, because Islam simply makes anything else impossible. The reason everybody from Saddam and Assad to Ghadaffi and Murbarak ran their secret prisons and harsh states is that otherwise they would have been overthrown by the Islamists a long time ago. I’m not saying a police state is a good thing, but the simple reality of the fact is that Islam cannot coexist with anything, either a secular state or other religions, no matter how permissive of Islam they may be. Permissiveness, in fact, emboldens the Muslims and makes them dream of making their control absolute.
Assad is an Alawite