Asad, Bashshar Al- (1965–)

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ASAD, BASHSHAR AL- (1965–)

President of Syria since July 2000. The younger son of Hafiz al-Asad, Bashshar al-Asad was born 11 September 1965 in Damascus. After graduating from the College of Medicine of Damascus University in 1988, he practiced at the Military Hospital of Tekrin until 1992, when he left for Britain to pursue advanced studies in ophthalmology. On 21 January 1994, his older brother Basil, presumed successor of President Hafiz al-Asad, was killed in an automobile accident. At the request of his father, Bashshar returned to Syria. He joined the army as a medical officer with the rank of captain, but soon renounced his career in medicine to undergo military staff and command training in preparation to succeed his father. He became a major in 1995, a lieutenant colonel on graduating the general staff school in 1997, and a full colonel in 1999 when he became a brigade commander in the elite Republican Guard. He became chairman of the Syrian Information Technology Company, from which position he introduced personal computers, the Internet, and cell phones into Syria.

During the last two years of Hafiz al-Asad's life, when his health was failing, "Dr. Bashshar," as he was known, was increasingly involved in political decision making. He was given responsibility for the Lebanese and Golan Heights issues, the latter the principal obstacle to Syrian-Israeli peace, and he moved, with his father's help, to neutralize political support for his uncle, Hafiz al-Asad's brother Rifʿat, a major political figure who commanded the loyalty of many within the regime. (On 8 February 1998, Hafiz al-Asad abolished the office of vice president, which Rifʿat had held.) At the same time Bashshar launched a campaign against corruption aimed at certain powerful figures. In late 1999 Bashshar al-Asad undertook a visit to a number of Gulf states and to France, in an effort to become better known on the international scene. On 10 June 2000, the day Hafiz al-Asad died, Parliament reduced from 40 to 34 years the minimum age for the highest office, thereby making possible Bashshar al-Asad's presi-dency. The next day he was promoted to lieutenant general and named commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and on 20 June he became secretary general of the Baʿth Party. On 27 June, seventeen days after the death of his father, Bashshar al-Asad was designated unanimously by the People's Assem-bly as candidate for the presidency of the Republic. On 11 July, with more than 97 percent of the votes, he became president.

Desiring to undertake a liberalization of Syrian society without, in so doing, renouncing the attain-ments of the past, he surrounded himself with advi-sors of his generation, some of whom had ties to his own family, while others were close collaborators of his father. In the first year of his rule he began an ambitious program of economic and administrative reform and a limited program of political and social liberalization: He suspended emergency laws, released some political prisoners, lightened censorship, allowed the creation of independent political parties and newspapers, and generally ruled Syria with a lighter hand than his father. He has since felt it necessary to be more cautious about alienating the "old guard" in the party and the military. He has made efforts to reinforce Syria's ties with its Arab neighbors, notably Iraq (before the U.S.-Iraq war of 2003), Iran, and the Gulf states, and has made a number of foreign visits, including one to France in June 2001. Bashshar al-Asad has been less inclined to interfere in Lebanon, although Syrian troops remain, and he continues to support the Lebanese Hizbullah, a major Lebanese religious movement/militia/political party regarded by Washington as a terrorist organization. Since the September 2001 attacks on the United States, his regime has supplied useful intelligence information to Washington but opposed the war in Iraq. Syrian relations with Israel have been frozen since the failure of the Wye negotiations and the radicalization of Israeli and American policies toward the Palestinians.

SEE ALSO Asad, Hafiz al-; Baʿth; Syria.

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