Bashar Al–Assad studied medicine at the University of Damascus, late 1980s; medical residency in London, 1992; started preparations to assume leadership of Syria, 1994; became a colonel in Syrian army, 1999; elected President of Syria, 2000.
Bashar Al–Assad, who spent years training to be a doctor, suddenly found himself, at the age of 34, occupying the most powerful position in Syria as its new head of state. He had inherited the presidency after the death of his father, Hafez Al–Assad, in 2000. Since then, Syrians and the rest of the world have been watching him very closely to see if Assad will follow in the footsteps of his father, a shrewd and uncompromising man who ruled Syria for nearly 30 years with an iron fist.
Bashar Al–Assad was born in Damascus, on September 11, 1965, the second son of Syria’s late president Hafez Al–Assad. Assad studied medicine at the University of Damascus. In 1988, he continued his studies at a military hospital in the city, where he specialized in ophthalmology. He moved to London in 1992 to fulfill his medical residency at St. Mary’s Hospital.
In January of 1994, Assad’s medical career came to an abrupt halt when his older brother, Basil, died in a car crash. Assad flew back to Damascus to attend the funeral, not realizing at the time that this tragedy would change his life drastically, and that he would have to set aside his dream of practicing medicine. As the eldest son, Basil had been groomed from birth to be his father’s successor. Upon his death, a plan was quickly put into action to prepare Bashar Al–Assad to take his place. Assad was enrolled in a military academy for an accelerated course in leadership and Middle East diplomacy, recounted Nicholas Blanford in the Christian Science Monitor. Assad quickly rose through the ranks, making colonel by 1999. This was an important step, according to a British Broadcasting Corporation profile, because the army plays a key role in Syrian politics and the late president had been commander of both the army and the air force.
On June 10, 2000, Hafez Al–Assad died. Ten days later, Assad was elected president through a public referendum, and his training and strength of character were put to the test. He had inherited one of the toughest jobs in the Middle East. Assad faced the challenge of holding on to the power he had inherited from his father. According to the Christian Science Monitor ‘s Blanford, a western observer noted, “There are sharks around and he has to tread carefully.” Syrian expert Eyal Zisser, a professor at Tel Aviv University, said in a Federation of American Scientists interview, “You need to show that you are strong, that you are a leader, and you need to crush in the first moment any signs of opposition, resentment, or independence.”
Syria’s economy was in a dreadful state, according to Charles Foster in the Contemporary Review. In a serious recession since the mid–1990s, Syria had squandered its oil revenues. Foster noted, “A huge proportion of its income goes to finance an increasingly lame army, crippled by the cessation of Soviet support. There is a grotesquely over–staffed, corrupt bureaucracy, which makes it difficult for the private sector to make a start.” On the foreign affairs front, Assad faced many critical problems, from trying to maintain Syria’s military presence in Lebanon, to settling water quarrels with Turkey, to the volatile issue of Middle East peace.
Influenced by his Western education and a cosmopolitan upbringing, the young president was eager to begin implementing “his own cultural revolution,” wrote Sami Moubayed in the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. Assad was determined to push Syria into the 21st century and the world of computer technology, the Internet, and cellular telephones. At his inaugural speech on July 17, 2000, Assad promised many sweeping reforms. He attacked inefficient administration as an impediment to Syria’s growth, and declared, “We have to fight waste and corruption.” Assad wasted no time spear-heading a campaign to weed out corrupt, high–level officials, a move which also served to eliminate potential rivals and opponents within the old guard.
On the second anniversary of his presidency, Assad was still struggling to introduce reforms. Wrote Donna Abu–Nasr for Yahoo! News, “On the surface, Syria today appears younger, livelier, and more efficient than it was a few years ago under Assad’s father, the late Hafez Assad. There are cell phones, satellite television, trendy restaurants, and Internet cafes with operators who know how to find detours to websites blocked by the government. The country’s first mall opened last year. However, below the surface, the system remains corrupt and decrepit, unable to make the changes that could propel Syria and its 17 million people into the 21st century.”
Freedom of speech was only marginally restored. When Assad first took office, he encouraged “constructive criticism.” The president received four open letters of appeal, published in the Lebanese press, from Syrian citizens asking for political, economic, and social reform, wrote the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs ‘ Moubayed. To everyone’s surprise, the letters were tolerated by the regime, signaling an end to the era of regulation of thought and speech. Feeling emboldened, others began to speak out. “In September [of 2000], 99 Syrian intellectuals issued a public manifesto in Beirut calling for freedom of speech, the lifting of martial law imposed on the country since 1963, political pluralism, a general amnesty and freeing of political prisoners,” according to Moubayed. No measures were taken against them. Two years later, however, mounting calls for political liberalization led to a backlash, wrote the Christian Science Monitor ‘s Blanford. This resulted in the arrest of several dissidents, and an end to the public debate on reform.
On the issue of Middle East peace, Yahoo! News’ Abu–Nasr noted that Assad has not deviated from his father’s refusal to negotiate until Israel agrees to return the Golan Heights. Last year, in a speech welcoming Pope John Paul II, Assad shocked the West when he used unmistakably anti–Semitic language to attack “those who betrayed Jesus Christ and tried to betray and kill the Prophet Muhammad.” Most blame the aging and still powerful old guard for this stance. According to Blanford in the Christian Science Monitor, Damascus University law professor Mohammed Shukri said, “I am very optimistic about [Assad]. He’s open–minded, educated.… He will win because the people are backing him. Sooner or later he will rearrange his house.” Assad, speaking to the New York Times in late 2003, acknowledged that some people will always compare him to his father. “The son is not a copy of his father,” Assad philosophized. “He takes some things from his parents, but he will get many things from society. As a president, the first thing is to make your decisions and your vision based on the society, the country, and the people.”
The world’s attention was drawn to Syria in March of 2003 when Assad took an outspoken stance against the impending United States–led invasion of Iraq. Though Syria and Iraq did not have a friendly relationship, Assad publicly stated that he hoped the mission would fail. In April of 2003, as Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s regime crumbled and Hussein himself went into hiding, it seemed like Assad’s prediction of failure was incorrect. Attention was again drawn to Syria, as John Kampfner, writing in the New Statesman, observed, “George W. Bush is opening a third front. The war on terror, which took American might to Afghanistan and then Iraq, is now begin redirected against a new enemy, one conjured almost overnight—Syria.”
Assad denied the allegation that Syria was cooperating with Iraq’s ousted regime, stepped up patrols of the Syria/Iraq border, and remained committed to maintaining an amicable relationship with the United States in light of increasing chaos and instability in Iraq as 2003 drew to a close. “There can be no peace in the region without Syria. And Syria is important for the future stability [of] Iraq due to its credibility and its being a neighbor to Iraq,” Assad stated to New York Times reporter Neil MacFarquhar. “The problem is whether the U.S. is going to become a power for achieving turbulence in the region instead of being an element of stability.”