Bashar al-Assad’s Israeli Palace

May 05, 2014 at 8:01 AM ET

Dozens of tanks slowly approach the soaring walls of President Bashar al-Assad’s grandiose palace, their barrels leveled at the Syrian dictator’s stronghold. Everything is on a knife-edge. The tense scene is straight from the front lines of Syria’s revolution—except it’s playing out in Israel, more than 100 miles from the real Damascus palace. It’s not a battle scene proper, but rather an entirely safe film set inside Israeli territory—all of it staged and controlled, under the watchful eyes of an international crew of creatives. Welcome to the set of Tyrant, due to hit U.S. TV screens in late 2014. And welcome to Assad’s fake Israeli palace.

When Hafez al-Assad first commissioned the construction of the real 5.5 million-square-foot Syrian presidential palace (now worth $1 billion) in 1979, it was inspired by the design of Emerald City from The Wizard of Oz. At that point, building a replica model in an Israeli suburban town was not on the agenda. Yet today, large parts of the palace are being reconstructed in Kfar Saba, on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, for a new Fox 21/FX Productions TV drama.

Created by the makers of Homeland, and directed by Harry Potter’s David Yates, Tyrant has the likes of Jennifer Finnigan (The Bold and the Beautiful) and Noah Silver (The Borgias) strolling through the marbled hallways of the fortress-like structure, a replica of the real-life playground-cum-bunker where Assad and his family are taking refuge as the civil war in Syria continues to spiral out of control.

Over 10 days, 150 workers from a Dutch construction company rebuilt the most famous parts of the palace. Later, with the cast in situ, cameras, lights and tanks rolled in for filming. Attention to detail has meant that the budget for this show is, in local terms, astronomical. It will be the most expensive TV production in Israel’s history.

“We are very proud that a first-of-its kind television production is about to be shot in Kfar Saba,” the mayor of Kfar Saba, Yehuda Ben-Hamo, told Israeli news outlet YNet. “Israel has yet to see anything like this,” a production company source added. The mayor’s role in luring filming to his town has already created an internal rift, with Herzliya Studios claiming Ben-Hamo abused his power in nabbing the deal just as the studio was about to sign with FX.

As well as recreating his home, the story of the Tyrant 10-episode drama also echoes Bashar’s life history. In the series, an unassuming son of a Middle Eastern dictator (Bassam al-Fayeed) is leading a quiet life with his American wife and teenage children in Los Angeles—and going by the name of Barry—when the family is suddenly plunged into the heart of a political conflict in a Middle Eastern nation. Back in the real world, Assad and his wife, Asma, also once enjoyed a cushy life in the West. Based in London, Assad worked as an ophthalmologist, while his wife was a high-powered investment banker. The accidental death of Bashar’s older brother pulled Bashar back home, where he was groomed to take power in Syria, controlled by the Assads since 1971.

Israel has dealt with the controversies that come with the interaction between shooting fictional series and the intricacies of Middle Eastern politics. In 2012, the hit series Homeland screened scenes supposedly set in a Beirut neighborhood overrun with Kalashnikov-armed fighters. It turned out that the scene was filmed in Israel, which prompted a Lebanese government minister to threaten the creators of Homeland with a lawsuit. “This kind of film damages the image of Lebanon. It is not fair to us and it is not true,” Lebanese Tourism Minister Faddy Abboude told Beirut’s Executive magazine.

If Tyrant takes off in the same way that Homeland did (Homeland‘s plotlines were adapted from an Israeli series based on Israel’s foreign interventions), Israel will once again play host to scenes of conflict from neighboring Arab states, and the Assads—or fictionalized versions of them, at least—will take up a much longer-term residence near Israel’s modern capital of culture. Now if life mimics art…