Bashar al- Assad

Bashar al- Assad

Assad, Bashar al-, 1965-, Syrian political leader, son of Hafez al-Assad. A medical doctor, he left Syria (1992) for an ophthamology residency in London when his elder brother, Basil, his father's designated heir, was killed (1994) in an automobile accident. Assad returned to Syria and was groomed as his father's successor, attending the Homs military academy and attaining (1999) the rank of colonel. Upon the his father's death (2000), he was named head of the ruling Ba'ath party and was nominated as president; he was confirmed in the office by referendum (2000, 2005). Assad has attempted to modernize Syria and its army, making some moves toward lessening corruption and improving the economy, but he also maintained a tight hold on power and sought to maintain Syria's domination over Lebanon.
Dr. Bashar al-Assad (بشار الأسد, ) (born 11 September, 1965) is the President of the Syrian Arab Republic, Regional Secretary of the Baath Party, and the son of former President Hafez al-Assad.

Overview of Presidency

The Baath 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 Syrian politics; his only political role was as head of the Syrian Computer Society, which was mainly in charge of introducing the Internet to Syria in 2001.

Al-Assad was confirmed as President by an unopposed referendum in 2001. He was expected to bring a more liberal approach to the leadership 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 . At best, politically and economically, Syria life has changed only slightly since 2000. Immediately after he took office a reform movement made cautious advances during the so-called Damascus Spring, and al-Assad seemed to accept this, shutting down the Mezze prison and releasing hundreds of political prisoners. The Damascus Spring, however, ground to an abrupt halt as security crackdowns commenced again within the year.

Although al-Assad rules with a softer touch than his father, political freedoms are still extremely curtailed. He resembles his father in many ways but is more subtle in reducing opposition. In an interview conducted with the ABC News 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 as recently as December 2007 .

Economic liberalization in Syria has been limited with industry still heavily state-controlled. Changes to the Syrian economy have included 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 per cent 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.

Al-Assad has failed to drastically modernize or liberalize the Syrian public sector. According to Acram al-Bouni, a Syrian journalist, he has used the reliance of a vast amount of the population, al-Bouni estimates 50%, upon employment by the state as a means to maintain power. With a large number of people on the state payroll it is less likely resistance movements will form as income from their employment is, “the only thing they have…They fear change” .

Despite gaining re-election in 2007, al-Assad’s position has been 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 US concerning claims that Syria is linked to ‘terrorist’ networks - an argument fact that can only be exacerbated by official Syrian condemnation of the assassination of Imad Mughniyeh, Hezbollah military leader in Damascus on February 12th 2008. The Syrian 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” .

Assad still holds a vast amount of power within Syria and no significant political changes seem forthcoming in the immediate future. Jouejati argues that economic reforms have the potential to lead to political reforms. How the President deals with the expected financial crisis as oil revenues decrease could be key to maintaining his position of power.

Foreign relations

The United States, European Union, the March 14 Alliance, Israel, and France accuse Assad of logistically supporting militant groups aimed at Israel and any opposing member to his government. These include most political parties other than Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad.

Assad opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq, despite a long-standing animosity between the Syrian and Iraqi governments, a decision that reflected the will of the majority of his people in his country. Assad used Syria's seat in one of rotating positions on the United Nations Security Council to try and prevent the invasion of Iraq The 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 criticized for Syria's presence in Lebanon (which ended in 2005), and the US put Syria under sanctions partly because of this. He threatened many members of the Lebanese parliament in order to enforce the illegal accession of the pro-Syrian General Émile Lahoud to the Lebanese presidency in 1998.

In the Arab world, Assad has 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 in part due to his alliance with Iran.

However, during the Pope John Paul II's funeral in 2005 Assad shook hand of Israeli president Moshe Katsav.

Around the time of the 2008 South Ossetia war, Assad made an official visit to Russia. In an interview with the Russian TV channel Вести, he asserted that one cannot separate the events in the Caucasus from the US presence in Iraq, which he condemned as a " threat to [Syria's] security...".

2005 Lebanon crisis

The 2005 Lebanon crises began with the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005, which has been blamed on Syria in the media. Assad has questioned the basis of such criticism. The main basis of the accusation is that the assassination removed an anti-Syrian political figure in an attempt to maintain influence. However, Assad argued that Syria's previously gradual withdrawal troops from Lebanon beginning in 2000, was precipitated as a result of the event. Syria remains influential in Lebanon, however, and economic activity is strongly interdependent.

Assad has repeatedly condemned the Hariri assassination. He strongly denies any Syrian involvement and has promised to extradite or punish anyone found guilty of participating in the conspiracy to kill Hariri. Assad has refused to be questioned himself or for other high-ranking Syrian officials to be questioned by the special UN prosecutor in connection to Hariri's murder. In summation, the Hariri affair has proved the most pressing crisis for the Syrian government in decades, possibly since Hafez al-Assad seized power.

2006 Israel-Lebanon conflict

In a speech about the 2006 Israel-Lebanon conflict, on August 15, 2006, Bashar al-Assad said that Israel had suffered a defeat in that war and that Hezbollah had "hoisted the banner of victory" and hailed its actions as a "successful resistance" - a view incidentally that was largely accepted by media and regional analysts. 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 - a doctrine that is tantamount to an act of aggression and illegal under international law. In the same speech, he also called Arab leaders that have criticized Hezbollah "half-men."

2007-present Israeli Peace Talks

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 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."

The Assad Family

The Assad family are members of the minority Alawite sect, and members of that group have been prominent in the governmental hierarchy and army since 1963 when the Baath Party first came to power. Their origins are to be found in the Latakia region of north-west Syria. Bashar's family is originally from Qardaha, just east of Latakia. "Al Assad (or Asad)" means "the lion" in Arabic.

Officially a Republic, Syria is under Emergency Law since 1963 and governed by the Baath Party; the head of state since 1970 has been a member of the Assad family.

Family connections are presently an important part of Syrian politics. Several close family members of Hafez al-Assad have held positions within the government since his rise to power. Most of the al-Assad and Makhlouf families have also grown tremendously wealthy, and parts of that fortune have reached their Alawite tribe in Qardaha and its surroundings.

The following is a list of some of Bashar's most prominent relatives:

  • Asma al-Assad, wife, First-Lady of Syria, takes a prominent public role.
  • Hafez al-Assad, father. Former president. Died in 2000.
  • Rifaat al-Assad, uncle. Formerly a powerful security chief; now in exile in France after attempting a coup d'êtat in 1984
  • Jamil al-Assad, uncle. Parliamentarian, commander of a minor militia. Died in 2004.
  • Anisah Makhlouf, mother.
  • Basil al-Assad, brother. Original candidate for succession. Died in an car accident in 1994.
  • Majd al-Assad, brother. Electrical engineer; widely reported to have mental problems.
  • Lt. Col. Maher al-Assad, brother. Head of Presidential Guard.
  • Dr. Bushra al-Assad, sister. Pharmacist. Said to be a strong influence on both Hafez and Bashar, sometimes called the "brain" of Syrian politics. Married to Gen. Assef Shawqat.
  • General Adnan Makhlouf, cousin of Anisah. Commands the Republican Guard.
  • Adnan al-Assad, cousin of Hafez. Leader of "Struggle companies" militia in Damascus.
  • Muhammad al-Assad, cousin of Hafez. Another leader of the "Struggle companies".
  • General Assef Shawqat, brother-in-law. Husband of Bushra. Present head of military intelligence, close associate of Bashar. Married to Bushra al-Assad, sister of Bashar al-Assad.

Personal life

Standing about 189 cm (6 ft 2 in) with blue eyes, Assad has a distinct physical build. He speaks English from an intermediate to an advanced level and also speaks casual conversational French, having studied at the Franco-Arab al-Hurriyah school in Damascus, before going on to medical school at the University of Damascus Faculty of Medicine. He completed his ophthalmology residency training in the Military Hospital of Latakia and subsequently went on to get subspecialty training in ophthalmology at the Western Eye Hospital in London. He could not finish his formal training due to the unexpected death of his brother.

Assad is married to Asma (Emma) Assad, nee Akhras, a Syrian Sunni Muslim from Acton (west London) whom he met in the United Kingdom, where she was born and raised. They married in December 2000. On December 3, 2001, they became the parents of their first-born child, named Hafez after his late grandfather. Zein was born on November 5, 2003, and Karim on December 16, 2004.

See also

Further reading

  • Bashar Al-Assad (Major World Leaders) by Susan Muaddi Darraj, (June 2005, Chelsea House Publications) ISBN 0-7910-8262-8 for young adults
  • Syria Under Bashar Al-Asad: Modernisation and the Limits of Change by Volker Perthes, (2004, Oxford University Press) ISBN 0-19-856750-2 (Adelphi Papers #366)
  • Bashar's First Year: From Ophthalmology to a National Vision (Research Memorandum) by Yossi Baidatz, (2001, Washington Institute for Near East Policy) ISBN B0006RVLNM
  • Syria: Revolution From Above by Raymond Hinnebusch (Routledge; 1st edition, August 2002) ISBN 0-415-28568-2


External links

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