Asad, Bashar al- (1965–)
Asad, Bashar al-
Bashar al-Asad (Bashshar al-Assad) is the president of Syria. A trained ophthalmologist, Asad entered politics only in 1994, succeeding to the presidency upon the death of his father, hafiz al-asad, in 2000. Widespread anticipation that the youthful president would bring rapid and substantial economic and political change to Syria was soon dampened when his administration took steps to reassert the authority of the old regime.
Born in Damascus on 11 September 1965, Asad was the third surviving child and second son of Hafiz and Anisa al-Asad. He grew up with an older sister, Bushra, and an older brother, Basil, together with two younger brothers, Mahir and Majid. At the insistence of their father, all of the Asad children completed their early education in Syria. The ethos of the Asad household was somewhat puritanical. The children saw little of their workaholic father but were intensely loyal to him.
Asad completed primary and most of secondary school at the Laique School, now known as the Basil al-Asad School, completing the final two years of secondary school at La Frère School. At the University of Damascus, he studied medicine, specializing in ophthalmology and graduating in 1988. Following obligatory service in the military as an army doctor, he moved to the United Kingdom in 1992 to begin postgraduate training in ophthalmology at the Western Eye Hospital in London. During his two-year stay in the United Kingdom, Asad focused on his medical studies but also gained a far greater exposure to the West than most members of the Syrian elite.
Name: Bashar al-Asad (Bashshar al-Assad)
Birth: 11 September 1965, Damascus, Syria
Family: Wife, Asma Akhras; two sons, Hafiz and Karim; one daughter, Zayn
Education: Laique School, Damascus; Le Frère School, Damascus; University of Damascus, 1988, medicine; Western Eye Hospital, London, 1992–1994, postgraduate training in ophthalmology
- 1988: Graduates from University of Damascus Medical School
- 1992: Begins postgraduate training in ophthalmology, London
- 1994: Returns to Syria upon death of elder brother Basil; named chairman, Syrian Computer Society
- 1996: Graduates with honors, command and general staff course, Higher Military Academy
- 1997: Promoted to lieutenant colonel
- 1998: Assumes responsibility for Syrian relations with Lebanon
- 1999: Promoted to colonel
- 2000: Promoted to lieutenant general; named supreme commander, armed forces; elected secretary general, Ba'th Party; assumes presidency on death of Hafiz al-Asad
The death of his older brother, Basil, in an automobile accident in January 1994 proved to be a life-changing event. Following Bashar's return to Damascus for the funeral, his father replaced Basil with Bashar as the presumed successor to the Syrian presidency. In what turned out to be a six-and-a-half-year period of preparation, the elder Asad worked to build his son's status within the military and security apparatus, at the same time enhancing his standing with the Syrian public and acquainting him with the substantive dimensions of his future role. Following completion of an army course for tank battalion commanders, Asad enrolled in the Higher Military Academy's command and general staff course, which he completed in mid-1997. Promoted to lieuten-ant colonel, he was put in charge of the same elite Republican Guard brigade Basil had commanded earlier and promoted again in early 1999 to the rank of full colonel.
At the same time, Asad became the public face of a highly selective anticorruption initiative that enjoyed widespread public support even though it carefully avoided senior members of the regime. As chairman of the Syrian Computer Society, a nonprofit organization devoted to promoting the diffusion of information technology throughout the country, he also burnished his role as an informed and progressive leader interested in modernization. Asad later played a prominent role in a bureaucratic struggle in the late 1990s that led to a government decision to allow the Internet into Syria.
Assumption of the Presidency
Following the death of his father from heart failure on 10 June 2000, Asad's succession to the presidency proceeded smoothly. On the day after his father died, he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant general and named supreme commander of the armed forces. Shortly thereafter, he succeeded his father as secretary general of the omnipresent Arab Socialist Resurrection (Ba'th) Party. Elected to a seven-year term on 10 July 2000 with 97.29 percent of the official vote tally, he became the sixteenth president of the Syrian Arab Republic on 17 July 2000.
In his inaugural address, Asad set the tone for the early years of his administration, stressing the dual themes of continuity and change that have characterized his presidency. Calling for serious economic reform, including a greater role for the private sector, he also supported administrative reform and the modernization of laws. At the same time, he rejected Western democracy as a suitable model for Syrian political development and pledged himself to a peaceful recovery of the occupied Golan Heights.
Asad soon displayed notable political skill, gracefully eliminating potential political rivals and promoting younger officials dedicated to economic and technological modernization. He also made clear his distaste for the cult of personality, a prominent feature of his father's regime. One sign of a liberal inclination was his promise to reactivate the Progressive National Front, a coalition of political groups established in 1972 and dominated by the Ba'th. Asad also granted amnesty to hundreds of political prisoners and decreed a 25 percent salary raise for public sector workers.
Known as the Damascus Spring, these early liberalization measures, which lasted seven months, were tarnished by steps taken to reassert the authority of the old regime, including a crackdown in 2001 on political discussion groups and the imprisonment of pro-democracy militants. Asad appeared to reverse course in mid-2003, but the reform measures introduced in this period were dismissed by many as cosmetic. The regime published the final draft of a five-year economic reform program, Ba'th officials were told to stay out of the day-to-day management of the country, three private banks were licensed, and two new private universities and four new radio stations were approved.
Economic reform appears to have held primacy in Asad's policy thinking from the outset; nevertheless, broader economic reforms were delayed, in part out of fear of possible political destabilization. Asad recognizes that economic, social, and political reforms are not sequential, that they must progress simultaneously, but he also has a sound strategic appreciation of the political risks involved in proceeding too quickly with any type of reform. Syrian society is characterized by ethnic and sectarian cleavages, together with widespread economic disparity and under-development. It also shows signs of Islamist tendencies, especially within the Sunni Arab majority. A member of the Alawite minority, an obscure offshoot of Twelver Shi'ite Islam, Asad sees economic reform as the foundation for wider social reform, primarily through the emergence of a more robust civil society, probably an antecedent for political reform.
Over time, regional and international developments, including the second Palestinian Intifada in that began in September 2000, the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States and the U.S. response in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, diverted Asad's attention from domestic issues. The elder Asad had bequeathed his son a well-defined set of parameters for a just peace with Israel, including a comprehensive settlement and Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. And the son has not departed appreciatively from the peace process developed by the father, balancing forces for resistance and peace. With peace with Israel the top national priority, Syrian foreign policy revolves around three axis: Egypt-Saudi Arabia-Syria, Iran-Syria, and Lebanon-Syria. Departures in Asad's foreign policy include an opening to Iraq, improved relations with Turkey, and support for the Palestinian Intifada. While nothing in Asad's actions suggests he is willing to settle for less than full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, Israel has steadfastly refused to negotiate on a territorial basis, demanding peace talks be preceded by a termination of Syrian support for both Palestinian militants and Hizbullah, the Shi'ite political grouping and militia in Lebanon.
The unresolved peace process with Israel, combined with the American occupation of Iraq and the War on Terror, continue to cloud the development of diplomatic relations between Syria and the United States. In the wake of the 11 September 2001 attacks, Damascus engaged for a time in intelligence-sharing against al-Qa'ida, despite concern within the Bush administration that Syrian assistance could create a sense of indebtedness, affecting conduct appropriate to a state considered by the U.S. since 1979 to be a state sponsor of terrorism. Once it was in occupation of Iraq, the United States made Syrian support for Palestinian rejectionist movements and Hizbullah a policy priority. It also charged repeatedly that Syria was providing financial and military aid to Iraqi resistance forces, even though it provided little or no concrete evidence to support such charges.
Bush signed the Syrian Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act on 12 December 2003, providing for selective sanctions against Syria. Two days earlier, the European Union (EU) and Syria had concluded a Euro-Mediterranean Association Agreement. Implementation of the accord was delayed until the parties could reach agreement on revised wording of its controversial weapons of mass destruction clause. Following the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister rafiq hariri in February 2005, Syria withdrew in mid-2005 armed forces it had deployed in Lebanon since 1976. Asad had reportedly threatened Hariri in the course of a late 2004 meeting; therefore, members of the international community remained concerned that Syria had been involved in his assassination and that Syrian influence in Lebanon had not ended.
In October 2005, a report submitted to the United Nations (UN) Security Council by an investigation team headed by the German judge and prosecutor, Detlev Mehlis, implicated Lebanese and Syrian officials in the assassination of Hariri, but did not reach a conclusive finding of guilt. An earlier unpublished version of the report was said to have listed the names of five senior Syrian officers, including the president's brother Mahir al-Asad. As the Mehlis report was being finalized, Ghazi Kanqan, a former Syrian intelligence chief in Lebanon who had been reassigned to Syria in 2002, apparently committed suicide. Given his intimate knowledge of Syrian activities in Lebanon, some observers suggested he was murdered or forced to commit suicide by Syrian authorities who feared he could implicate them in Hariri's assassination. In December 2005, the Mehlis commission submitted a follow-up report, which stressed that its earlier conclusions remained valid but again failed to produce conclusive evidence of guilt. Mehlis resigned in January 2006 and was replaced by Serge Brammertz, a Belgian prosecutor serving with the International Court of Justice, who continued the investigation. During the July 2006 Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon, Syria joined Iran in supporting Hizbullah militia forces; when the fighting was finished, Israel claimed that Syria had supplied missiles to Hizbullah.
In the end, the Syrian policies of most concern to both the European Union and the United States, namely support for terrorism and weapons of mass destruction programs, are most likely to be resolved within the context of a broader Israeli-Syrian peace settlement. As former U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger once observed, the Arabs cannot make war without Egypt and they cannot make peace without Syria. Given the sensitive issues at stake, the timing for a resumption of peace talks is unclear. However, the key elements of a successful negotiation would appear to include a U.S. strategy of conditional engagement with Syria, together with the recognition by all involved parties of both Syrian and Israeli requirements for peace, including the return of the Golan Heights. In the interim, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the U.S. occupation of Iraq, and concerns of the War on Terror serve to reinforce the intransigence of the old guard in Syrian politics and remain a pretext for obstructing change in both external and internal policies.
INFLUENCES AND CONTRIBUTIONS
The elder Asad was the primary influence on the personality and policies of Bashar al-Asad. The late president devoted considerable time and effort to grooming his son to succeed him. On the surface, his efforts were largely successful, but the regime he created has proved difficult for his son to master. The dominant political bodies are the military, the security apparatus, the Ba'th Party, and the civilian government, leaving institutions like the Council of Ministers, the legislative assembly, and even the presidency itself limited in power and influence. Asad has repeatedly complained since taking office that the executive office lacks the capacity to develop serious reform initiatives.
The personalized system of succession developed by the elder Asad has also made it difficult for his successor to chart a political course differing significantly from that of the old regime. A related influence has been the economic and political power of the Asad family. If Bashar fails to champion family interests or the broader stability of the regime, Asad family members in strategic positions can and will challenge the legitimacy of his claim to power. There is also a question of authority; it has proved difficult for Asad to duplicate the personal authority of his father, an authority based on longevity in office and the occasional use of decisive force. Finally, the established policymaking process, largely centered on a bureaucracy dominated by status quo-minded bureaucrats and Ba'th Party loyalists, has proved an impediment to the implementation of reform initiatives.
During his relatively short stay in London, Asad gained some exposure to the West, certainly more than most members of the Syrian elite. Whether or not he gained that deeper understanding of contemporary economic and political issues that might result in him implementing a full-fledged reform agenda in Syria remains unclear.
THE WORLD'S PERSPECTIVE
Perceptions of Asad have varied enormously since his inauguration in 2000. Little consensus exists as to his leadership skills, core domestic and foreign policy values, or the extent to which he actually controls and directs the internal and external politics of Syria. At the outset of his presidency, Asad generated considerable optimism in many circles, despite widespread recognition of the manifold challenges he faced, that he would differ from his father. Many observers felt that his brief exposure to the West would promote more progressive policies, while others saw a generational change in the Syrian elite transforming the regime. Consequently, there has been much disappointment that anticipated economic and political reforms have not been enacted as quickly as expected.
In this regard, the Tenth Regional Congress of the Syrian Ba'th Party, held in early June 2005, appeared to mark a watershed in the Asad presidency. When faced with a make-or-break opportunity to promote desperately needed socioeconomic and political reforms, Asad chose to focus on the consolidation of his power within the sclerotic Ba'th Party. He replaced much of the old-guard party leadership with new, younger faces, packing the newly elected Ba'th Party ruling council with his supporters. The ruling party did open the door a crack to increased political participation in the form of opposition political parties; however, it ruled out parties based on sectarian, ethnic, or religious grounds, closing the door to Kurdish separatist and Islamic fundamentalist movements.
A variety of explanations have been developed to explain why change in Syria has been much slower and less extensive than originally anticipated. One sees Asad as a closet reformer who wants to reform the economic and political system inherited from his father and improve diplomatic relations with the West, especially the United States. His progress in this regard is constrained, according to this viewpoint, by his dependence for political support on an old guard of senior officials opposed to reforms that undermine their authority or reduce opportunities for personal or family gain. A second sees Asad as the loyal son whose main concern is to protect the constituencies and core policies of his father's regime. This point of view concludes that he is part of the problem, not part of the solution. A third sees Asad as a political neophyte, simply not up to the job of being chief executive. As to which explanation is the most accurate, the available evidence provides some support for each, and all three probably contain elements of truth.
It is too early to assess Asad's legacy, as it remains to be seen what kind of leader he will become in the long run. Something of a reluctant president, he assumed the role with gusto once in office. His longer-term success will depend on his ability to continue to balance internal forces for continuity and reform with external forces for resistance and peace.
WE ARE THE ONES CONCERNED WITH WAR AND PEACE
In other words, resistance and peace constitute one pillar rather than two pillars, and he who supports part of it has to support the other part. Whereas those who claim to have the experience and vision for peace … come and show us your achievements in the field of resistance. Apart from that, any experience is incomplete to learn from. And as we are living an exceptional and historic period, there is no room for courtesies, bargains or settlements. Rather, we have to speak frankly: we, in Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, still have occupied lands; this means we are the ones concerned with war and peace. In the first place, we want from our Arab brothers to stand with us, and we welcome anyone who wants to do so but only through our vision and evaluation of our interests. We were the ones who suffered in war and in peace negotiations in the last decades.
BASHAR AL-ASAD, SPEECH BEFORE THE FOURTH GENERAL CONFERENCE OF THE UNION OF JOURNALISTS, DAMASCUS, 15 AUGUST 2006.
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Ronald Bruce St John