Bashar al-Assad

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بشار الأسد
Bashar al-Assad


Assumed office 
July 17 2000
Preceded by Hafez al-Assad
Succeeded by Incumbent

Born September 11 1965
Damascus, Syria
Political party Baath Party
Spouse Asma Assad

Image:Coat of arms of Syria.png

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Bashar al-Assad (Arabic: بشار الأسد‎, Bašār al-Asad) (born September 11, 1965) is the President of the Syrian Arab Republic, Regional Secretary of the Baath Party, and the son of former President Hafez al-Assad. He is currently personally under UN investigation for his alleged indirect role in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.


[edit] Personal

Standing about 6' 3", Assad has a distinct physical build. He speaks English from an intermediate to an advanced level [1] and is fluent in French, having studied at the Franco-Arab al-Hurriyet elite school in Damascus, before going on to medical school at the University of Damascus Faculty of Medicine. He then went on to get subspecialty training in ophthalmology in London's academic hospitals. He is married to Asma' al-Akhras, a Syrian Sunni Muslim whom he met in Great Britain, where she was born and raised.

The al-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.

Initially Bashar had few political aspirations. Hafez al-Assad had been grooming Bashar's older brother, Basil al-Assad to be the future president. However, Basil's death in an automobile accident in 1994 suddenly made Bashar his father's new heir apparent. When the elder Assad died in 2000, Bashar was elected President unopposed with apparent massive popular support, after Syria's Majlis Al Shaa'b (Parliament) swiftly voted to lower the minimum age for candidates from 40 to 34.

[edit] Presidency

Upon becoming President, Bashar al-Assad promised economic and political reforms to Syria, but he has so far delivered little change from the status quo. The Baath Party remains in control of the parliament, and is constitutionally the "leading party" of the state. Bashar al-Assad, however, was not strongly involved previously in the running of the party. Until he became President, Bashar's only formal political role was as the head of the Syrian Computer Society, which was mainly in charge of introducing the Internet to Syria.

Immediately after he took power, a reform movement made cautious advances during the so-called Damascus Spring, and Assad seemed to accept this, as he shut down the Mezze prison and released hundreds of political prisoners. The Damascus Spring however ground to an abrupt halt as security crackdowns commenced again within a year, and although Bashar rules with a softer touch than his father, political freedoms are still extremely curtailed. The security apparatus has eased its grip on society, but remains solidly in control, and while a small dissident movement has now firmly established itself, it is both powerless and pressured by the regime. Sporadic protests are occurring among the Kurds in north-eastern Syria.

Economic liberalization has also been very limited, with industry still heavily state-controlled, and corruption rife throughout the state apparatus. Mild economic sanctions (the Syria Accountability Act) applied by the USA further complicate the situation. Of major importance are the negotiations for a free trade Association Agreement with the European Union, but progress is slow.

The military plays an omnipresent role in Syrian politics — Hafez al-Assad headed both the military and the air forces, and it was a military coup which brought him to power in 1970. Bashar entered the military academy at Homs, north of Damascus, following the death of Basil, and was propelled through the ranks to become a colonel in January 1999......

[edit] Foreign relations

Billboard with portrait of Assad and the text God protects Syria on the old city wall of Damascus 2006

The United States and Israel accuse Assad of logistically supporting militant anti-Israeli groups, classified as terrorist groups by the US State Department, including Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad. Largely due to lack of trust and goodwill, talks to return the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel since 1967, broke down in 2000. Assad has called for a resumption of these talks.

In May 2001, Assad caused an uproar with a Damascus speech welcoming the visit of Pope John Paul II, in which he criticized Israel and Zionists, saying: "They tried to kill the principles of all religions with the same mentality in which they betrayed Jesus Christ and the same way they tried to betray and kill the Prophet Muhammad.

Assad opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq, despite a long-standing animosity between the Syrian and Iraqi regimes, using Syria's position holding one of the rotating seats on the United Nations Security Council. This precipitated, along with the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, and support for anti-Israeli groups, a crisis in relations with the United States.

Assad was criticised for Syria's de facto occupation of Lebanon (which ended in 2005), and the US put Syria under sanctions partly because of this. He is reported to have played a key role in the accession of the pro-Syrian General Emile Lahoud to the Lebanese presidency in 1998, a position Lahoud retains in spite of low popularity. The UN investigation into the assassination of Rafik Hariri found Hariri's opposition to Lahoud's presidency the motivating factor behind the assassination, which they found was orchestrated by officials in Assad's administration.

In the Arab world, Bashar has mended relations with the Palestinian Liberation Organization, and attempted to build good relations with more conservative Arab states, while generally standing by Syria's Arab nationalist agenda.

On June 28, 2006 after the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier by Hamas militants believed to be linked with the exiled Hamas leader in Damascus Khaled Mashal, the Israeli military sent four warplanes over Assad's residence in Latakia. This tactic had been used previously in order to send a message to Syria's leader.<ref>Template:Cite web</ref> Syrian state television stated that "Syrian air-defense systems had fired on the planes and forced them to flee."<ref>Template:Cite web</ref>

[edit] Internal power struggle

According to some sources,[citation needed] at least part of the slow progress on reform stems from the opposition of an "old guard" within the Syrian regime, which drags its feet in protest of political liberalizations and in order to maintain its privileged position within the government. There has even been speculation on whether Bashar al-Assad is in real control of Syria, with some commentators suggesting the country is run by a coterie of old Hafez loyalists, mainly around the military and security services, with Bashar acting mainly as a figurehead. Others have claimed that he has indeed always been in power, but that he has acted cautiously so as not to provoke powerful elements within the old elite, as he was initially lacking a support base within the government. This seems to be a widely held opinion among Syrians, some of whom credit the president with good intentions but little effective power to carry out his reform program.

While Bashar certainly seems to have been careful in pushing for reforms of the government, he has systematically expanded his influence within the Syrian ruling apparatus. The retirement of the powerful defence minister Mustafa Tlass in 2004 and the absconding of vice president Abdulhalim Khaddam in 2005, both long-standing Hafez loyalists, is considered a sign that Bashar's "soft purge" of the party is now more or less over. This, however, also means Assad can to a greater extent be held personally responsible for the slow pace of reform.[citation needed]

[edit] 2005 Lebanon crisis

Image:Bashar al-Assad on Charlie Rose.jpg
Bashar al-Assad on Charlie Rose discussing the Lebanon crisis, among other issues. March 27, 2006.

A major crisis began with the death of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005, which has been blamed on Syriain the media. According to Assad, Syria had been withdrawing troops from Lebanon beginning in 2000, but due to this event, was forced to pull out the rest of the forces and security services from Lebanon <ref name=Rose>Rose, Charlie. (2006-03-27) Charlie Rose [TV-Series]. United States: WNET. </ref>. Syria remains influential in Lebanon, however, and economic activity is strongly interdependent.

Further embarrassing the regime was the implication of senior Syrian officials in the United Nations Mehlis report, released in October 2005, which entered the headlines after interior minister Ghazi Kanaan allegedly committed suicide while being investigated by the UN mission. There are also indications that the Mehlis investigation is specifically interested in relatives of Bashar al-Assad himself.

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. However, his former Vice President, Abdul Halim Khaddam, has accused him of being behind the operation. 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.

[edit] Statement regarding the 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." He called Israel an "enemy," with whom no peace could be achieved. As a consequence of these remarks, German Foreign Secretary Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who had been seeking to help as a broker in the Middle East peace process, called off a planned visit to Damascus.<ref>Template:Cite web</ref> <ref>Template:Cite web</ref>

[edit] Warming of relations with the West 2006

A new UN investigator, Serge Brammertz, took over in early 2006. In stark contrast to the hostile nature of Mehlis, Brammertz has repeatedly praised Syria's "full co-operation" with UN investigators, and has even interviewed Assad personally as part of the investigation.

Relations with the US could be improving too - Condoleezza Rice praised Syria for its help in thwarting an attack on the US Embassy in Damascus in September 2006. President Bush has lowered the anti-Syria rhetoric in recent months, with former Secretary of State James Baker even coming to Damascus for talks with Assad. It is not clear whether that was officially sanctioned by Bush personally.

And with Israel too, a warming could be on the cards. Claims have been made that, during Israel's war against Hezbollah in the Summer of 2006, top Israeli and Syrian officials had met during the war to agree on war aims. They had apparently agreed the limits of their fight, in an effort to stop the war spreading to an all out Israeli-Syrian conflict.

After the losses for Israel in that war, many members of the Israeli Government (the Interior Minister and Defence Minister) insisted Israel must start talking to Syria. Talks last broke down in 2000. But Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has so far refused. Syria responded by offering unconditional peace talks in a German newspaper Der Spiegel, and again on the BBC weeks later. Shimon Peres responded by inviting Assad to Jerusalem.

It is important to note that although Israel has typically resisted the idea of talks with Assad since he came to power (perhaps disturbed by his very public anti-Zionist rhetoric), his most recent offers of dialogue have provoked serious debate within Israeli politics about whether or not engagement with Damascus is now a viable option.

[edit] 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 notably of course Bashar himself. 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:

  • 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.
  • Anisah Makhlouf, mother.
  • Basil al-Assad, brother. Original candidate for succession. Died in an automobile 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.

[edit] See also

[edit] 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 (Adelphi Papers) by Volker Perthes, (2004, Oxford University Press) ISBN 0-19-856750-2
  • 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

[edit] References


[edit] External links

Preceded by:
Abdulhalim Khaddam
President of Syria
2000 – present
ar:بشار الأسد

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Bashar al-Assad

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