Bashar al Assad has been President of Syria since 17 July 2000 after inheriting power from his father Hafez al Assad. Bashar was born in Damascus in 1955 to a family originally from Latakia, the stronghold of the Shia Alawite minority to which the al Assad belong.
Bashar’s family has humble origins: they do not belong to a tribe or group with a high profile in the country and belonging to the Alawite minority does not help. Assad’s father, however, had a meteoric career in the airforce and headed the military wing of the Baath Party, the group which has ruled Syria since a military coup in 1963.
Hafez became increasingly important in the Baath Party and on 13 November 1970 he mounted the so-called “corrective coup“ and took power. Hafez al Assad’s government staked everything on nationalism and grew increasingly close to the Soviet Union. Assad also carried out important reforms that made Syria one of the most secular states in the entire Middle East.
Everything revolved around the Assad family: Rifaat, the younger brother of Hafez, was appointed head of security (driven out later however after an attempted coup); in the 1990s, the elder son, Basil, was named successor to the President. More generally, parents and people around the Al Assads assumed increasingly important positions in the Syrian state.
Being the second son, Bashar al Assad lived on the margins of politics. He obtained his school leaving diploma in 1982 and, straight afterwards, enrolled in the Faculty of Medicine in Damascus. He dreamed of becoming an ophthalmologist. Assad therefore left Syria in the 1990s and moved to London where he studied opthalmology.
It was in London that the future President met Asma Akhras, daughter of a cardiologist from Homs and an official in the Syrian embassy in London. The two began a romantic relationship that led to marriage in December 2000.
On 21 January 1994 Syria and Bashar suffered a terrible bereavement: Basil al Assad, the first son of Hafez and the designated hereditary successor died in a car accident.
Officially, Basil drove into a roundabout near the centre of the capital and died in the crash. Being the first son of the Syrian President the accident gave rise however to a trail of suspicion that even today has not been allayed.
With the death of Basil, Bashar became the designated heir: called back by his father to Syria, the future Syrian President left his studies as well as his future wife and set up home in the presidential palace in Damascus in order to “study” how to be a leader. Bashar al Assad therefore became the head of state designate and his father Hafez’s dauphin.
The death of Bashar’s brother was sudden and led to the sudden recall of Bashar from London and the death of his father was also a devastating blow to the future Syrian President as well as the country. Hafez al Assad died of a heart attack on 10 June 2000 before he had even reached seventy years of age. Death struck suddenly whilst he was on the phone with his Lebanese opposite number.
Hafez’s heart problems were well-known but nobody in that summer of 2000 expected such a sudden death. Bashar al Assad was perhaps not ready – either politically or age-wise – to hold such a difficult position: on top of that, according to the Syrian constitution the minimum age for becoming President was 35 and Bashar, in June 2000, was 34.
The succession in any case went fairly smoothly and both domestically and internationally the accession to power of Bashar al Assad was considered a positive development, giving rise to hopes of substantial reforms.
His youth, his time spent in London and the image of a wife nicknamed the “Lady Diana of the Middle East” helped Bashar al Assad to present himself as a social as well as an economic reformer. On the other hand, however, his political inexperience and the fact that, having inherited power suddenly, Bashar initially had to surround himself with his father’s old guard diminished this image and caused misgivings about his actions.
The first few years of Bashar al Assad’s government were marked, at international level, by numerous important episodes: from 11 September to the war in Afghanistan and from the ascent of Bush Jr. to the White House to the war in Iraq.
Bashar al Assad’s Syria was placed on the list of the so-called “rogue states“: the Bush doctrine, aimed at fighting international terrorism, imposed a list of countries considered close to the so-called “axis of evil”. From Iran to North Korea and from Gaddafi’s Libya to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, via Yemen, Sudan and Syria.
The first real international test for Bashar al Assad was an assassination on 14 February 2005 in Beirut: on that occasion the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri was killed by a car bomb. A Sunni who had differences with Damascus, Hariri had in the months prior to his death called for the withdrawal of Syrian troops from the Lebanon.
The international pressure on Damascus and Bashar al Assad was very intense: allegations rained down on the Syrian government from many different sides. According to the reconstruction by Arab and western media, the assassination of Hariri was organised by the Syrian secret service in order to eliminate an important Lebanese politician who had differences with Damascus.
The attack in Lebanon brought thousands of citizens and students on to the streets: in Beirut, in particular, various demonstrations were organised that made loud calls called for an investigation to find out who ordered the murder. On top of that, many Lebanese demonstrators displayed aversion to the Syrian troops present in the country.
Bashar al Assad, for his part, rejected the allegations and also said that he wanted to cooperate with international investigators. This position aligned the Syrian government with the resolution of the UN Security Council which set up an international tribunal to investigate the events of 14 February 2005.
A first turning point came in April 2005. In a speech given to the Syrian parliament, Assad declared he was prepared to withdraw troops from Lebanon. A step forward, according to the international community. On April 27, 2005, after years in the country, the Syrian troops deployed in Lebanon returned home.
Bashar al Assad’s foreign policy is a continuation of his father’s. This continuity can be seen in Damascus’ position in the early 2000s which was close to both Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah.
In 2003, the Syrian President took sides against the US invasion of Iraq despite the fact that his father, 12 years earlier, had joined the anti-Saddam coalition during the war in Kuwait. Bashar al Assad’s position, in this case, was dictated by the fear of a dangerous historical precedent: the fear, in particular, of being the next US target after the regime change in Iraq.
During the first decade of his presidency, Bashar al Assad had substantial room for manoeuvre in the dialogue with Europe. Damascus and Rome, for example, became important trading partners and in 2010 President Giorgio Napolitano also awarded Assad an important honour. The first historic visit by a Pope to Damascus took place in 2000: on 5 May Pope John Paul II entered a mosque and met Assad and Syrian religious leaders.
But there is another ally that is growing ever closer to Syria: Russia. Assad and Putin, however, strengthened their alliance only after the outbreak of the conflict in the Middle Eastern country.
The most important trial for Bashar al Assad began in 2011. The protests that at the beginning of that year swept across the Arab world, from Egypt to Tunisia via Algeria and Libya, also arrived in Syria.
Assad tried to mediate in some way and promised reforms, authorising a multi-party political system and lifting the state of emergency that had been in force for several years. The Syrian President, however, repeatedly used the iron fist against protestors. The emergence of the Free Syrian Army and the first attacks on police and government posts heralded the outbreak of the conflict.
With the outbreak of the war the West’s image of Assad also changed and he was now depicted as an unscrupulous dictator. The allegations about the use of chemical weapons did the rest.
Despite the conflict that is destroying the entire country, Assad, with a skilful use of images, is hardly ever seen in uniform. He – this is the message behind it – does not want to be the classic Middle Eastern dictator like Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi. He appears almost always in a suit and tie and in some cases in just a simple shirt or, in any case, in civilian clothes.
Even when he visits soldiers on the front line, Assad appears in civilian clothes. Emblematic in this sense is the video filmed in April 2018: the Syrian President is immortalised in his car, donning sunglasses and a shirt as he drives around the streets of the recently recaptured cities of eastern Ghouta.
The same goes for his visits to the Damascus trade fair apparently without bodyguards in tow (even though they are around) or inside the homes of families affected by the war. On some occasions Assad also walks around the crowded streets of Damascus with his wife and family.
Whereas during the war with the US Iraqi TV continuously broadcast patriotic songs and videos about Saddam Hussein, Syrian television focuses more on news from the fronts. All this, according to many analysts, contributes to giving the Syrian President an image that is strong but also “normal”, conveying to the population and soldiers the idea of fighting not for the man in command but for the defence of the nation.
Rather than classic propaganda, the media outlets close to Assad seem to want to relaunch the idea of normality, in other words what the Syrian population has been seeking since 2011. Perhaps this is the reason for the victory that is allowing Assad and the state conceived by his father to stay alive with strong popular support.
Translation by Dale Owens