Bashar al-Assad’s regime has received military and diplomatic support from Iran and Russia [Reuters]
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad inherited power in July 2000, a month after his father, military strongman Hafez al-Assad died.
But since March 2011, his rule over Syria has been under threat, with the country beset by violence that has killed an estimated 465,000 people and embroiled regional and world powers in the never-ending horror.
Despite Western and Arab countries backing the opposition, Assad has survived seven years of war and refuses to step aside.
But who is he? This is what we know:
Ruling family: Born on September 11, 1965, Bashar al-Assad is the second son of former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, and his wife Anisa.
His father, Hafez, rose to power through the Syrian military and the minority Alawite political party before taking control of Syria in 1970.
Studies: Bashar al-Assad was educated at the Arab-French al-Hurriya School in Damascus where he learned to speak English and French fluently.
He graduated from school in 1982 and continued studying medicine at the University of Damascus, graduating in 1988.
UK: He went to London in 1992 to the Western Eye Hospital to further his studies, at this time, the ruler was leading the life of a medical student and had no ambitions to start a political career.
Road to the presidency
Brother’s death: At the age of 29, Assad was forced to return to Damascus from London after his older brother Basil – who was initially groomed for the presidency – died in a car crash in 1994, at the age of 33.
He entered the military academy at Homs, located in North Damascus, and was quickly pushed through the ranks and became a lieutenant-colonel in five years. He was then promoted to colonel in January 1999.
During this time, he also served as an adviser to his father hearing appeals from citizens and led a campaign against corruption.
Father’s death: When Hafez al-Assad died on June 10, 2000, the Syrian parliament quickly voted to lower the minimum age for presidential candidates from 40 to 34, so that Assad could be eligible for the office.
Assad took office on July 11, 2000. He was also selected leader of the Ba’ath Party and commander in chief of the military.
He was elected president, officially with more than 97 percent of the vote, and in his inaugural speech, affirmed his commitment to economic liberalisation and vowed to carry out some political reform.
Bashar rejected Western-style democracy as an appropriate model for Syrian politics.
The economy was in a poor shape, and the government bureaucracy made it difficult for a private sector to emerge, however, some signs of improvement were seen particularly in the area of telecommunications.
“The economic situation is a priority for us all to improve its performance and improve the life of our citizens. So is corruption,” said al-Assad, presiding over his first Ba’ath Party Congress.
In international affairs, Assad was confronted with a volatile relationship with Israel, military occupation in Lebanon, and tensions with Turkey over water rights.
- He began a gradual withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, which was quickly hastened when Syria was accused of involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
The accusation led to a public uprising in Lebanon, as well as international pressure to remove all troops. Syria denied any involvement.
“We are more confident … that Syria has nothing to do with this crime,” Assad said days before the release of a UN report on an investigation into al-Hariri’s assassination.
“If the UN investigation concludes Syrians were involved, those people would be regarded as traitors who would be charged with treason and face an international court or the Syrian judicial process,” CNN quoted al-Assad as saying.
Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators gathered in Beirut demanding an end to Syrian influence in Lebanon, and on April 26, 2000, one last Syrian soldier left Lebanese territory.
Crackdown on opposition
- Despite promises of human rights reforms, not much changed after Assad took office.
- In 2006, Syria expanded its use of travel bans against dissidents, preventing many from leaving the country.
In 2007, a referendum was held to confirm the presidential candidate with no opposition parties competing.
- Voters were asked whether they “approve the candidacy of Dr Bashar al-Assad for the post of president of the republic”.
Once again, he won with 97 percent of the vote.
In 2007, and again in 2011, social media sites such as Facebook were blocked. Human rights groups have reported that political opponents of Bashar al-Assad were routinely tortured, imprisoned, disappeared, and killed.
- According to Human Rights Watch, in 2009, Syria’s human rights situation was one of the worst in the world, and it had “deteriorated further”.
Following the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, protests began in Syria on March 15, 2011, demanding political reforms, a reinstatement of civil rights and an end to the state of emergency, which had been in place since 1963.
- Assad insisted that Syria was immune to the uprisings that spread throughout the Arab world.
But anti-government protests calling for a “revolution”, the “downfall of corruption” and the release of political prisoners, spread throughout the country, with rights groups reporting that over 2,000 had been killed by the sixth month of the protests.
Critics said his inexperience in politics hade made it difficult for him to establish Syria’s place in the new world order. “Syria has become a dictatorship without a dictator,” a European diplomat in Damascus said in 2005.
He previously rejected comments by some observers that he did not hold full power in Syria, saying: “You cannot be a dictator and not in control. If you are a dictator you are in full control … I have my authority by the Syrian constitution,” he said in an interview to CNN.
You cannot be a dictator and not in control.
- In the first eight months of the protests, as the number of deaths in Syria mounted and a growing number of refugees escaped to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, Assad kept a low profile, speaking fewer than a handful of times in public.
His speeches generally made reference to the need for a national dialogue while touching on the protests being the work of foreign agents of disruption.
His government, he said, was being hit by a political conspiracy. “Conspiracies, like germs, reproduce everywhere, every moment and they cannot be eradicated,” he said in 2011.
- In December 2011, Assad denied culpability for his government’s crackdown on protests, saying he had never given an order for security forces of whom he was commander-in-chief “to kill or be brutal”.
“They’re not my forces,” Assad told the US’s ABC television network when asked about the crackdown.
“They are military forces [who] belong to the government. I don’t own them. I’m president. I don’t own the country. No government in the world kills its people, unless it is led by a crazy person,” he said in December 2011.
No government in the world kills its people.
Bashar al-Assad just justified killing hundreds of thousands of people in Syria because “every war is bad.” pic.twitter.com/zsLyZ5ceYx
— AJ+ (@ajplus) January 10, 2017
Refuses to resign
- By the fall of 2011, many countries were calling for President Bashar al-Assad’s resignation and the Arab League suspended Syria, leading the Syrian government to agree to allow Arab observers into the country.
In January 2012, it was reported that more than 5,000 civilians had been killed by the Syrian militia, and that 1,000 people had been killed by anti-regime forces.
That March, United Nations endorsed a peace plan that was drafted by former UN Secretary Kofi Annan, but this didn’t stop the violence.
In June 2012, a UN official stated that the uprisings had transitioned into a full-scale civil war, the International Committee of the Red Cross also declared the conflict a civil war.
But the conflict continued. There were daily reports of civilians being killed by government forces, and counter-claims by the Assad regime of the deaths being staged or the result of outside agitators.
In August 2013, Assad came under fire from leaders around the world, for 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 Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons.
- By 2013, the UN estimated that more than 70,000 people had been killed since the start of the conflict in March of 2011
|WATCH UN report: Sarin used in Syria attack (2:10)|
- Bashar al-Assad continued his campaign against rebel forces while dismissing outside calls to step down and held sham elections in June 2014.
Voting was held only in government-controlled areas, excluding vast chunks of northern and eastern Syria that were in rebel hands.
- Assad’s campaign slogan in 2014 was “sawa”, the Arabic word for “together”. He didn’t make any public appearances following the announcement of his candidacy to discuss his programme. Assad secured 88 percent of the vote.
His position strengthened the following September, when Russia agreed to provide military support to his forces.
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 news of another round of chemical weapons unleashed on civilians, US President Donald Trump ordered air raids on a Syrian airbase, drawing sharp condemnation from Assad and Syria’s allies Russia and Iran.
One year later, in April 2018, footage of dead Syrians surfaced amid reports that Assad had again used chemical weapons.
President Trump called Assad an “animal” and even delivered public criticism of Putin for protecting the Syrian leader.
On April 13, 2018, the United States ordered air attacks in Syria in collaboration with the UK and France.