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Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Bashar al-Assad, a well-educated autocrat

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Bashar al-Assad, the second son of former Syrian ruler Hafez al-Assad (1930-2000) and his wife Anisa Makhlouf (1930-2016), who took over the presidency of Syria on July 17th, 2000, was born on September 11th, 1965 in the capital Damascus.

Quiet and reserved, he originally had no intention of entering political life, but his more dynamic and outgoing older brother Bassel (1962-1994), widely expected to succeed their father in power, died in a car accident.

Al-Assad graduated from the Arab-French al-Hurriya High School in his home town in 1982. He then studied medicine there and in 1988 became a physician ready to specialize in ophthalmology. Following his first residency at the local Tishreen Military Hospital, he continued his training at the Western Eye Hospital in London from 1992 to 1994.

He was suddenly asked to return home after Bassel’s sudden death, as their father decided to have him groomed as his successor instead. Al-Assad entered the military academy at Homs and became a colonel in five years.

At the same time, he led a campaign against widespread corruption and as an advisor heard complaints and appeals from citizens. Immediately after his father’s passing, the Syrian parliament amended the constitution, reducing the mandatory minimum age of the president from 40 to 34 years so al-Assad would be legally eligible.

At a referendum which offered no other choices and according to official statistics, Al-Assad garnered 97.29% of the vote. He was also elected leader of the ruling Ba’ath Party and commander in chief of the Armed Forces. On May 27th, 2007, Al-Assad was reaffirmed for a second seven-year term with almost the same number of votes.

In December 2000 Assad married investment banker Asma Akhras (born in 1975), a British citizen of Syrian origin and daughter of cardiologist Fawas Akhras and retired diplomat Sahar Akhras. The couple has three children: two sons, named Hafez and Karim, as well as daughter Zein.

Young and well-educated, he seemed capable of slowly transforming an iron-rule regime into a modern state and refloating Syria’s state-controlled, highly bureaucratized economy following the loss of Soviet support in 1991 and a serious recession in the mid-1990s.

Although first stating that democracy was “a tool to a better life” that nevertheless couldn’t be rushed in Syria, he soon rejected a Western-style model as inappropriate.

After his first year in charge, not many of Al-Assad’s promised economic reforms had materialized, because they would have required systemic changes to move Syria’s then 17 million people into the 21st century. However, signs of a modern society like cell phones, satellite television, trendy restaurants and Internet cafes were visible everywhere.

In international affairs, Al-Assad inherited a volatile relationship with the Zionists due to Israel’s occupation of the western part of the Golan Heights since the 1967 Six-Day War, the stationing of 30,000 troops in Lebanon, first as an interventionist and then as a peace-keeping force, tensions with Turkey over the use of water from the Euphrates and the Tigris, and the feeling of having only marginal influence in the Middle East.

Syria officially denied any involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri on February 14th, 2005 in Beirut. But the Cedar Revolution triggered by this crime soon led to an end of the obvious Syrian influence in Lebanon. On April 26th, the last Syrian soldier left the neighboring territory.

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon, officially opened on March 1st, 2009 in the Netherlands as the first to deal with terrorism as a distinct crime, on August 18th, 2020 concluded that there was no evidence that Syria was actually involved in Hariri’s murder.

Despite promises of more respect for human rights, Syria in 2006 expanded its use of travel bans against dissidents, preventing many from entering or leaving. Accusations have been made that political opponents are routinely tortured, imprisoned and killed.

Since 2007, a law required all comments on chat forums to be posted publicly. In 2008, and again in 2011, social media sites such as YouTube and Facebook were blocked.

At the time, just like in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, Syrian protesters began to demand political reforms. A reinstatement of civil rights and an end to the state of emergency in place since 1963 were also on their agenda.

In May 2011, in the town of Homs and the suburbs of Damascus, the Syrian military responded violently to the demonstrations that had slowly begun nationwide in March.

In June, al-Assad announced a national dialogue and new parliamentary elections. As no change came, the protests continued. The creation of the rebel Free Syrian Army the next month marked the transition into armed insurgency.

By the fall of 2011, many leaders were calling for al-Assad’s resignation. The Arab League suspended Syria, leading the Syrian government to agree to allow its observers into the country.

In January 2012, reportedly more than 5,000 civilians had been killed by the Shabeeha militia and 1,000 people by anti-regime warriors. In June 2012, the United Nations called the uprisings a full-scale civil war.

Daily reports of scores of civilians casualties caused by the government were answered by counter-claims of the killings being staged or the result of outside agitators.

In August 2013, al-Assad came under fire around the world for allegedly using chemical weapons against civilians. However, he was able to stave off foreign intervention with assistance from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who agreed to help remove the remaining weapons stock.

Reelected to his post in June 2014 with a clearly diminished support of 88.7%, al-Assad continued his defense campaign while dismissing outside calls to step down. His position was strengthened in September, when Russia agreed to provide military assistance.

By February 2016, the conflict had led to an estimated 470,000 deaths in Syria, and sparked international debate over how to handle the millions of refugees seeking to escape the brutality.

In April 2017, following unverified news about the “official” use of chemical weapons, new U.S. President Donald trump ordered airstrikes on a Syrian airbase, drawing sharp condemnation from al-Assad and his allies Russia and Iran.

Independent verification of gassing deaths in April 2018 proved difficult to obtain, and both Syria and Russia rejected any responsibility for the attacks, calling it a “hoax” perpetrated by the other side.

Trump publicly called al-Assad an “animal” and criticized Putin for protecting the Syrian leader. A joint American, British and French operation hit two chemical weapons facilities and a scientific research center.

As an Alawite,al-Assad belongs to a heterodox, historically secretive sect of Shia Islam, supposedly founded during the 9th century and named after Ali ibn Abi Talib, a cousin of the Prophet Muhammad.

Out of self-interest and common sense, he has played the role of protector of all religious minorities, including some of the world’s oldest Christian communities, something that the West has bitterly failed to do as it seems far more interested in Rohingya Muslims in Burma.

Despite his increasingly harsh reactions and undeniable misdeeds, Bashar al-Assad is the lesser evil in a region where democracy will never work. He as well as Putin know that and the West should also finally realize it. This remains one of the sad lessons from the chaotic situation in Iraq and the disastrous Arab Spring.

P.D.: In March 2012, the European Union froze his wife’s assets and placed a travel ban on her and other family members. Since July 2020, his oldest son Hafez isn’t allowed to travel to or maintain assets in the United States.

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