CBC News Online | July 28, 2004
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a former ophthalmologist and political neophyte, was once trumpeted by the West as a man of reform and someone who could modernize his country after years of military rule.
After the 34-year-old took over the reigns from his late father, Hafez al-Assad, in June 2000, British Prime Minister Tony Blair welcomed him to London, saying Assad was a modernizer. "He's determined to bring about real change in Syria and there are encouraging signs," Blair said at the time.
Assad had promised to weed out corruption within the government and vowed to improve the economy. He charged ahead with his vision of bringing Syria up to the Internet age and headed up the Syrian computer society. He was welcomed by Prince Charles and Queen Elizabeth and married a British woman born to Syrian parents. Rumours had it that he even enjoyed British pop music.
Many believed that Assad embraced Western values of democracy.
Not even three years into his presidency, he has come under fire from the United States, which accuses the country of harbouring Iraqi fugitives and developing chemical weapons.
Washington is threatening to slap the country with economic sanctions and has not ruled out the use of military force.
Tensions have been escalating between the two countries. Although Syria, as a non-permanent member on the UN Security Council, endorsed the council's first resolution requiring Iraq to rid itself of weapons of mass destruction or face serious consequences, it broke rank with the U.S. and Britain over the second proposed resolution, which would have authorized what the Bush administration referred to as a "preemptive" attack on Iraq.
In the weeks leading to the war, Syria called on Arab countries to refrain from offering assistance to any military operation that would threaten the security, safety and territorial integrity of Iraq. During the U.S.-led attack on Iraq, the U.S. accused Syria of sending military equipment as well as suicide bombers to Iraq.
It's been said that the young Assad lacks the political astuteness of his late father. Critics call him weak, immature, inexperienced, and without vision or charisma.
"Despite two years in power, Bashar al-Assad has remained the same young, raw, inexperienced, and insecure ruler, who has yet to prove he is capable of leading the country," Syria expert Eyal Zisser wrote in the Middle East Quarterly.
Former regime still influential
He initiated forums between leading intellectuals on how to better democratize the country. But months later, he gave in to pressure from the old Ba'ath regime and denounced the talks, saying they helped agents of the West, "whose only aim is the undermining of Syrian domestic stability in the service of the enemies of the state." He subsequently dismantled the groups, imprisoning some the leading thinkers.
The same thing happened when he tried bolstering the country's economy by passing a series of parliamentary reforms that would have allowed private banks to set up shop. Later, he caved to the same pressures and renounced the moves, calling them a threat to the national economy.
He has fostered ties with militant groups such as Islamic Jihad, Hamas and Hezbollah.
Insecurity and inexperience aside, the young Assad has made breaks from the past. He started building his own group of regional allies, reversing years of mistrust with Turkey and Jordan. He released hundreds of political prisoners and allowed independent papers to go to press.
Assad was born in Damascus on Sept. 11, 1965. He attended school at the Franco-Arab al-Hurriyet School in Damascus where he became fluent in French and English. From 1988 to 1992 he studied ophthalmology at Tishrin military hospital in Damascus. Later, he moved to London to continue his education.
Assad was never designated as his father's successor. His older brother Basil was the heir apparent until he died in a car accident in 1994.
Assad senior, wanting to keep the power in the family, recalled his son to Syria and started to quietly prepare him for the presidency. He enlisted in the army, and as his father's health faltered, the young Assad rose through the army ranks. By January 1999 he was a colonel. He visited France, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Bahrain and Kuwait.
He replaced his father's strongmen with his own and fended off verbal threats by his father's half-brother and former vice-president Rifaat al-Assad. Rifaat was kicked out of office in 1998 after a bitter dispute; he believed he should have assumed the presidency after Hafez al-Assad's death.
Syrians support their president. After his father's death, the Syrian parliament unanimously approved his nomination and 97.3 per cent of the population approved.
Population: 17,155,814 (Jul 2002 est.)|
Area: 185,180 sq km
Borders: Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey
Languages: Arabic is the official language, while Kurdish, Armenian, Aramaic and Circassian are widely used. French and English are used to a lesser extent.
Religion: 74 per cent Sunni Muslim, 16 per cent Alawite, Druze and other Muslim sects. 10 per cent Christian.
Government: Republic under military regime.
Source: CIA World Factbook 2002 Syria