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Bashar Hafez al-Assad (Arabic: بشار حافظ الأسد Baššār Ḥāfiẓ al-ʾAsad, Levantine pronunciation: [baʃˈʃaːr ˈħaːfezˤ elˈʔasad]; born 11 September 1965) is the current President of Syria and Regional Secretary of the Syrian-led branch of the Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party. His father Hafez al-Assad ruled Syria for 29 years until his death in 2000.
Al-Assad graduated from the medical school of the University of Damascus in 1988, and started to work as a physician in the army. Four years later, he attended postgraduate studies at the Western Eye Hospital, in London, specializing in ophthalmology. In 1994, after his elder brother Bassel, the heir apparent to their father, was killed in a car crash, Bashar was hastily recalled to Syria to take over Bassel's role. He entered the military academy and in 1998, Al-Assad took charge of the Syrian occupation of Lebanon. In December 2000, Assad married Asma Assad, née Akhras. Al-Assad was elected as President of Syria in 2000 and 2007, unopposed each time.
Initially seen by the domestic and international community as a potential reformer and gaining the nickname "The Hope", this expectation gave way to the events of the Syrian civil war. The domestic Syrian opposition and large parts of the wider international community have subsequently called for al-Assad's resignation from power.
Bashar Hafez al-Assad was born in Damascus on 11 September 1965, the son of Aniseh (née Makhluf) and Hafez al-Assad. His father, Hafez al-Assad, born to a poor family of Alawite background, rose through the Party ranks to take control of the Syrian-led branch of the Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party in the 1970 Corrective Revolution, thus installing himself as president. Hafez al-Assad purged the Party, and introduced effective Alawite rule of Syria. His last name in Arabic means "the lion".
Unlike his brothers, Bassel and Maher, and sister, Bushra, Bashar was quiet and reserved and says that he lacked interest in politics or the military. He later said that he only entered his father's office once while he was in power and he never spoke about politics with him. He received his primary and secondary education in the Arab-French al-Hurriya School in Damascus. In 1982, he graduated from high school and went on to study medicine at Damascus University.
In 1988, Bashar Assad graduated from medical school and began working as an army doctor in the biggest military hospital, "Tishrin", on the outskirts of Damascus. Four years later, he went to the United Kingdom to begin postgraduate training in ophthalmology at the Western Eye Hospital, part of the St Mary's group of teaching hospitals in London. Bashar at the time had few political aspirations. His father had been grooming Bashar's older brother, Bassel al-Assad, as the future president, but he never declared this intent. Bashar, however, was recalled in 1994 to the Syrian Army, after Bassel's unexpected death in an automobile accident.
Rise to power
The Al-Assad family around 1994. At the front are Hafez al-Assad and his wife, Anisa. At the back row, from left to right: Maher (commander of the Republican Guard), Bashar, Bassel, Majid, and Bushra
Soon after the death of Bassel, Hafez Assad made the decision to make Bashar the new heir-apparent. Over the next six and half years, until his death in 2000, Hafez went about systematically preparing Bashar for taking over power. Preparations for a smooth transition were made on three levels. First, support was built up for Bashar in the military and security apparatus. Second, Bashar's image was established with the public. And lastly, Bashar was familiarized with the mechanisms of running the country.
To establish his credentials in the military, Bashar entered in 1994 the military academy at Homs, north of Damascus, and was propelled through the ranks to become a colonel in January 1999. To establish a power base for Bashar in the military, old divisional commanders were pushed into retirement, and new, young, Alawite officers with loyalties to him took their place.
Parallel to his military career, Bashar was engaged in public affairs. He was granted wide powers and became a political adviser to President Hafez al-Assad, head of the bureau to receive complaints and appeals of citizens, and led a campaign against corruption. As a result of his campaign against corruption, Bashar was able to remove his potential rivals for president.
In 1998, Bashar took charge of Syria's Lebanon file, which had since the 1970s been handled by former Vice President Abdul Khaddam, one of the few Sunni officials in the Assad government, who had until then been a potential contender for president. By taking charge of Syrian affairs in Lebanon, Bashar was able to push Khaddam aside and establish his own power base in Lebanon. In that same year after minor consultation with Lebanese politicians, Bashar installed Emile Lahoud, a loyal ally of his, as the President of Lebanon and pushed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri aside, by not placing his political weight behind his nomination as prime minister.
To further weaken the old Syrian order in Lebanon, Bashar replaced the long serving de facto Syrian High Commissioner of Lebanon, Ghazi Kanaan, with loyal ally Rustum Ghazali. Under Bashar, Syrian corruption in Lebanon, which was already estimated at $2 billion per year in the 1990s, became more rampant and was publicly exposed with the collapse in 2003 of the Lebanese Al-Madina bank. Al-Madina was used to launder kickback money in the illegal gaming of the UN's Iraqi oil-for-food programme. Sources put the amount transferred and laundered through al-Madina at more than $1 billion, with a 25 percent commission going to Syrian officials and their Lebanese allies, among the recipients of this money were Bashar Assad's brother Maher, Emile Lahoud's son-in-law Elias Murr, and Ghazali.
When the elder Assad died in 2000, Bashar was appointed leader of the Ba'ath Party and the Army, and was elected president unopposed in what the government claimed to be a massive popular support (97.2% of the votes), after the Majlis Al Sha'ab (Parliament) swiftly voted to lower the minimum age for candidates from 40 to 34 (Assad's age when he was elected). On 27 May 2007, Bashar was approved as president for another seven-year term, with the official result of 97.6% of the votes in a referendum without another candidate.
In his domestic policy, he has been criticised for a disregard for human rights, economic lapses, and corruption. In his foreign policy, Al-Assad is an outspoken critic of the United States and Israel. The Ba'ath Party remains in control of the parliament, and is constitutionally the "leading party" of the state. Until he became president, Bashar al-Assad was not greatly involved in politics; his only public role was head of the Syrian Computer Society, which introduced the Internet to Syria in 2001. Al-Assad was confirmed as president by an unopposed referendum in 2000. He was expected to take a more liberal approach than his father. In an interview he stated that he saw democracy in Syria as 'a tool to a better life' but then argued that it would take time for democracy to come about and that it could not be rushed.
Politically and economically, Syrian life has changed only slightly since 2000. Immediately after he took office a reform movement made cautious advances during the Damascus Spring, which led al-Assad to shut down Mezzeh prison and release hundreds of political prisoners. However, security crackdowns commenced again within the year. By July 2012, according to analysts, Assad had amassed for himself, his family and associates a fortune of perhaps $1.5bn, which is held in Russia, Hong Kong and offshore tax havens to spread the risk of seizure.
Economic liberalization in Syria has been limited, with industry still heavily state-controlled. However some changes have occurred including the introduction of private banking and the encouragement of foreign involvement, most notably in the oil sector. The need for a diversification of the economy has been pressed for by some as it has been predicted that Syria will change from exporting to having to import oil by 2015. The reliance upon oil is reflected by manufacturing exports representing only 3.1 percent of Syria’s GDP. These issues are especially relevant as Syria’s population is predicted to more than double to over 34 million by 2050. There have been mild economic sanctions (the Syria Accountability Act) applied by the United States which further complicate the situation. Of major importance are the negotiations for a free trade association agreement with the European Union.
A 2007 law required internet cafes to record all the comments users post on chat forums. Websites such as Wikipedia Arabic, YouTube and Facebook were blocked intermittently between 2008 and February 2011.
Human Rights groups, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have detailed how Bashar's government and secret police routinely tortured, imprisoned, and killed political opponents, and those who speak out against the government.
Since 2006 it expanded the use of travel bans against dissidents, a practice that is illegal under international law. In that regard, Syria is the worst offender among Arab states.
In an interview with ABC News in 2007 he stated: "We don't have such [things as] political prisoners," yet the New York Times reported the arrest of 30 political prisoners in Syria in December 2007.
Foreign Policy magazine editorialized on his position in the wake of the 2011 protests:
During its decades of rule... the Assad family developed a strong political safety net by firmly integrating the military into the government. In 1970, Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, seized power after rising through the ranks of the Syrian armed forces, during which time he established a network of loyal Alawites by installing them in key posts. In fact, the military, ruling elite, and ruthless secret police are so intertwined that it is now impossible to separate the Assad government from the security establishment.... So... the government and its loyal forces have been able to deter all but the most resolute and fearless oppositional activists. In this respect, the situation in Syria is to a certain degree comparable to Saddam Hussein’s strong Sunni minority rule in Iraq.
Assad's first official foreign trip was to meet Jacques Chirac in France, who had warm relations with him. The Middle East Quarterly noted that "As in the case of Iraq, there are lingering questions of Syrian payments to French politicians. Many French politicians join associations and charitable boards both for financial and political gain."
The United States, European Union, the March 14 Alliance, Israel, and France accuse Assad of providing practical support to militant groups active against Israel and against opposition political groups. The latter category would include most political parties other than Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad. According to the Middle East Media Research Institute, Assad claimed the United States could benefit from the Syrian experience in fighting organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood at the Hama Massacre.
Assad opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq despite a long-standing animosity between the Syrian and Iraqi governments. Assad used Syria's seat in one of rotating positions on the United Nations Security Council to try to prevent the invasion of Iraq. Following the Iraq invasion by US and allied forces, Assad was accused of supporting the Shia insurgency in Iraq. A US general accused him of providing funding, logistics, and training to Iraqi and foreign Shia Fundamentalists to launch attacks against U.S. and allied forces occupying Iraq.
The February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and the accusation of Syrian involvement and support for anti-Israeli groups, helped precipitate a crisis in relations with the United States. Assad was criticised for Syria's presence in Lebanon which ended in 2005, and the U.S. placed sanctions upon Syria partly because of this. At Pope John Paul II's funeral in 2005, Assad shook hands with the Israeli president Moshe Katsav.
In the Arab world, Assad mended relations with the Palestine Liberation Organization but relations with many Arab states, in particular Saudi Arabia, have been deteriorating. This is in part due to Assad's continued intervention in Lebanon and his alliance with Iran. Around the time of the 2008 South Ossetia war, Assad made an official visit to Russia. In an interview with the Russian TV channel Vesti, he asserted that one cannot separate the events in the Caucasus from the US presence in Iraq, which he condemned as a direct threat to [Syria's] security."
After the 2005 assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, many media outlets accused Syria of being involved. as Hariri was anti-Syrian. However, Assad argued that Syria's gradual withdrawal of troops from Lebanon, beginning in 2000, was precipitated as a result of the event and ended in May 2005.
In 2011, Assad told the Wall Street Journal that he considered himself "anti-Israel" and "anti-West", and that because of these policies he was not in danger of being overthrown.
Involvement in Lebanon
Despite gaining re-election in 2007, al-Assad’s position was considered by some to have been weakened by the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon following the Cedar Revolution in 2005. There has also been pressure from the U.S. concerning claims that Syria is linked to terrorist networks, exacerbated by Syrian condemnation of the assassination of Imad Mughniyeh, Hezbollah military leader, in Damascus in 2008. Interior Minister Bassam Abdul-Majeed stated that, "Syria, which condemns this cowardly terrorist act, expresses condolences to the martyr family and to the Lebanese people.”
In a speech about the 2006 Israel-Lebanon conflict in August 2006, Bashar al-Assad said that Hezbollah had "hoisted the banner of victory," hailing its actions as a "successful resistance." He claimed that Arab resistance was growing stronger, and warned Israel that "your warplanes, rockets, and your atomic bomb will not protect you in the future." He called Israel an enemy with whom no peace could be achieved as long as they and their allies (especially the U.S.) support the practice of preemptive war. In the same speech, he also called Arab leaders that have criticized Hezbollah "half-men."
In April 2008, Assad told a Qatari newspaper that Syria and Israel had been discussing a peace treaty for a year, with Turkey as a go-between. This was confirmed in May 2008, by a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. As well as a peace treaty, the future of the Golan Heights is being discussed. Assad was quoted in The Guardian as telling the Qatari paper:
- . . . there would be no direct negotiations with Israel until a new US president takes office. The US was the only party qualified to sponsor any direct talks, [Assad] told the paper, but added that the Bush administration "does not have the vision or will for the peace process. It does not have anything."
According to leaked American cables, Bashar al Assad called Hamas an "uninvited guest" and said "If you want me to be effective and active, I have to have a relationship with all parties. Hamas is Muslim Brotherhood, but we have to deal with the reality of their presence.", comparing Hamas to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood which was crushed by his father Hafez al Assad. He then claimed Hamas would disappear if peace was brought to the Middle East.
Assad has indicated that the peace treaty that he envisions would not be the same kind of peace treaty Israel has with Egypt where there is a legal border crossing and open trade. In a 2006 interview with Charlie Rose, Assad said “There is a big difference between talking about a peace treaty and peace. A peace treaty is like a permanent ceasefire. There’s no war, maybe you have an embassy, but you actually won’t have trade, you won’t have normal relations because people will not be sympathetic to this relation as long as they are sympathetic with the Palestinians: half a million who live in Syria and half a million in Lebanon and another few millions in other Arab countries.”
During the visit of Pope John Paul II to Syria in 2001, Bashar al-Assad requested an apology to Muslims for the medieval Crusades and criticised Israeli treatment of Palestinians. Comparing their suffering to that believed to have been endured by Jesus Christ in Palestine, Assad claimed that followers of Judaism "tried to kill the principles of all religions with the same mentality in which they betrayed Jesus Christ and the same way they tried to betray and kill the Prophet Muhammad." Responding to claims that his comment was antisemitic, Assad said that whereas Judaism is a racially heterogeneous religion, the Syrian people are the core of the Semitic race and therefore are opposed to the term antisemitism. When offered to retract his comment implying that the Jews were responsible for Jesus' suffering, Assad replied, "As always, these are historical facts that we cannot deny," and stressed that his remarks were not anti-Jewish. In February 2011, Bashar backed an initiative to restore 10 synagogues in Syria, which had a Jewish community numbering 30,000 in 1947 but has only 200 Jews today.
International public relations
In order to promote their image and media-portrayal overseas, Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma al-Assad hired American-based PR firms and consultants. Notably, these liased with, and secured, photoshoots for Asma al-Assad with fashion and celebrity magazines. Firms such as the Bell Pottinger Group were also hired and helped to advise them on how to shape their image.
Syrian civil war
Following anti-government demonstrations in some other Middle Eastern countries, protests in Syria started on 26 January 2011. Protesters called for political reforms and the re-instatement of civil rights, as well as an end to the state of emergency which had been in place since 1963. One attempt at a "day of rage" was set for 4–5 February, though it ended uneventfully. Protests on 18–19 March were the largest to take place in Syria for decades and the Syrian authority responded with violence against its protesting citizens.
On 18 May, U.S. President Barack Obama signed an Executive order putting into effect sanctions against Bashar al-Assad in an effort to pressure his government "to end its use of violence against its people and begin transitioning to a democratic system that protects the rights of the Syrian people." The sanctions effectively freeze any of the Syrian President's assets either in the United States proper or within U.S. jurisdiction. On 23 May, EU Foreign ministers agreed at a meeting in Brussels to add President Assad and nine other officials to a list affected by travel bans and asset freezes. On 24 May, Canada imposed sanctions on Syrian leaders, including President Assad.
On 20 June, in a speech lasting nearly an hour, in response to the demands of protesters and foreign pressure, al-Assad promised a national dialogue involving movement toward reform, new parliamentary elections, and greater freedoms. He also urged refugees to return home from Turkey, while assuring them amnesty and blaming all unrest on a small number of saboteurs.
In August, Syrian security forces attacked the country's best-known political cartoonist, Ali Farzat, a noted critic of Syria's government and its five-month crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators and dissent. Relatives of the severely beaten humorist told Western media that the attackers threatened to break Farzat's bones as a warning for him to stop drawing cartoons of government officials, particularly the President, Bashar al-Assad. Ferzat, who recently celebrated his 60th birthday, was hospitalized with fractures in both hands and blunt force trauma to the head.
By the end of January 2012, it was reported that over 5,000 civilians and protesters (including armed militants) had been killed by the Syrian army, militia (Shabeeha) and security agents, while 1,100 people had been killed by the anti-government forces.
On 10 January 2012, Assad gave a speech in which he accused the uprising of being plotted by foreign countries and claimed that "victory [was] near". He also said that the Arab League, by suspending Syria, revealed that it was no longer Arab. However, al-Assad also said the country would not "close doors" to an Arab-brokered solution if "national sovereignty" was respected. He also said a referendum on a new constitution could be held in March.
On 27 February, Syria claimed that a referendum on an update to the nation's constitution, hailed as 'a showpiece of reform' received 90% support. The referendum imposes a fourteen year cumulative term limit for the president of Syria. The referendum has been claimed as meaningless by foreign nations including the US and Turkey, and the European Union announced fresh sanctions against key government figures. On 16 July 2012, Russia voicing concern at the blackmail on Syria by the western nations, laid to rest any speculations that it was distancing itself from Bashir Al-Assad. Moscow also vowed not to allow a UN resolution pass that aims at sanctions against Syria.
On 15 July, the International Committee of the Red Cross had officially declared Syria to be in a state of civil war, as the nationwide death toll for all sides was reported to have neared 20,000.
Assad speaks fluent English and basic conversational French, having studied at the Franco-Arab al-Hurriyah school in Damascus. In December 2000, Assad married Asma Assad, née Akhras, a British citizen of Syrian origin, from Acton, London. On 3 December 2001, they became the parents of their first-born child, named Hafez after the child's grandfather Hafez al-Assad. Zein was born on 5 November 2003, and Karim on 16 December 2004.
Bashar al-Assad was awarded with various Syrian decorations. Some of them are:
- Order of Civil Merit (awarded for service to the state or to the Arab cause)
- Order of Bravery 1st Class (awarded for courage in action or more general services)
- Order of Devotion (awarded for acts of courage, for service on behalf of the nation or for at least five years of faithful service)
- Long and Exemplary Service Medal (awarded for 15 years service)
- Medal of Training (awarded to the commanders of units that have excelled in training)
- Revolution Medal of 8 March 1963
- Army Silver Jubilee Medal
- Order of Friendship and Cooperation
- Syrian Armed Forces Medal
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