Bashar al-Assad Is Popular With The Arab World Again

After 10 years of war, Syria’s ruler, Bashar al-Assad, is friends with old enemies. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, has made overtures to lure Assad away from his strategic partnership with Iran. Arab countries have also found common cause with Assad in taking on the political Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood, a pan-Arab organization that organized much of the opposition against the regime and presents the most lethal threat to the continuation of many monarchies in the Gulf.

Who is Bashar al-Assad?

Bashar al-Assad was born on September 11, 1965. He initially had no intention of working in politics, never mind running for president of Syria.

His destiny hinged on a tragic death and the cunning of his father. Instead of becoming a source of transformation propelling Syria into the new century, he instead trod the same path as his tyrannical father.

Early Life

Bashar Hafez al-Assad  was born on September 11, 1965, former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad’s second son.

Hafez rose to power via the Syrian military to seize control of the country in 1970. Integrating the military into his political regime, he ruled Syria with a fist of iron for thirty years.

Bashar was quiet and reserved growing up, unlike his more outgoing brother, Bassel.

Bashar learned to speak fluent English and French at Damascus’s Arab-French al Hurriya School. Graduating in 1982, he went on to major in medicine at the University of Damascus. After graduation in 1988, he performed his ophthalmology residency at Tishreen’s military hospital. He then went to London’s Western Eye Hospital in 1992.

While living the quiet life of a medical student, Bashar had no intention of a life in politics. His brother Bassel was being groomed for presidency instead. In 1994, though, Bassel died in a car crash. Bashar was promptly recalled to Damascus to succeed his father as president.

Bashar enrolled in Homs military academy and was boosted through the ranks, becoming colonel in only 5 years. He served as an advisor to his father, and he spearheaded an anti-corruption campaign. Resultantly, he wiped out many of his rivals.

Bashar al-Assad Wife
Credit: Harold Escalona


Bashar’s father died on June 10, 2000.

Syria’s parliament swiftly lowered the presidential candidate’s minimum age requirement to 34, rendering Bashar eligible for office.

Just 10 days after Hafez’s death, Bashar al-Assad was installed as president of Syria for a 7-year term. He ran unopposed in a public referendum and won 97% of the vote. He was also voted leader of the Ba’ath Party as well as selected as commander in chief of the military.

Bashar was viewed as a young leader who would bring change for Syria, a region with a checkered history of dictators. Early on in his presidency he claimed that democracy was “a tool to a better life”, although he added that democracy should not be rushed in Syria.

During the first year of his presidency, Bashar promised to stamp out corruption in the government. He also talked of moving Syria toward the connected twenty-first century.

When Bashar assumed power, the Syrian economy was in poor shape. Soviet support was no more after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. There was a serious recession during the mid-90s. Syria also squandered oil revenues on an under-performing army. Nevertheless, by 2001, Syria was outwardly a modern society with cell phones, internet cafes and trendy restaurants.

Economic reform proved tough to achieve, though. A private sector was slow emerging due to the corrupt government bureaucracy. Bashar was not initiating the systemic changes required to propel Syria forwards.

Bashar faced many of the same issues as his father on the international stage including:

  • The volatile relationship with Israel
  • Tensions with Turkey
  • Military occupation of Lebanon

Most analysts feel that Bashar continued the foreign policy of his father by directly supporting militant groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, despite official denials.

After a public uprising in Lebanon and international pressure for Syria to remove all troops, relations with the West have deteriorated along with relations with many Arab states.

Despite the promises to reform human rights, little has changed in Syria Bashar al-Assad assumed power.

Instead, the following occurred:

  • 2006: Syria expanded travel bans against dissidents
  • 2007: Syrian Parliament passed a law making it mandatory to post all comments on chat forums publicly
  • 2008 and 2011: social media sites like Facebook and YouTube were blocked

Human rights groups report that Bashar al-Assad’s political opponents are often tortured and imprisoned then killed.

Civil War

After regime change in Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia, there were protests in Syria starting on January 26, 2011. People demanded political reforms, the improvement of human rights, and an end to the state of emergency in place since 1963. Protests spread and grew.

The Syrian military responded in May 2011 with aggressive crackdowns in Homs and Damascus.

Bashar promised a national dialogue in June. No change came, though, and the protests continued.

Also in June, activists from the opposition set up a National Council to spearhead a Syrian revolution.

By late 2011, countries worldwide for calling for Bashar’s resignation. Syria was suspended from the Arab League.

In January 2012, Reuters reported the deaths of 5,000 civilians at the hands of the Syrian militia. 1,000 people were killed by anti-regime forces, too.

In March 2012, the UN endorsed a peace plan drafted by Kofi Annan. Unfortunately, this did not stop the violence.

By June 2012, a full-scale civil war had broken out.

In August 2013, Bashar came under fire from world leaders including Barack Obama and David Cameron, for the way he used chemical weapons against civilians. Assistance from Vladimir Putin allowed him to stave off foreign intervention.

Reelected in June 2014, Bashar continued to campaign against rebel forces.

His position was strengthened in September 2015 when Russia started providing military support.

By February 2016, 470,000 had died in the Syrian conflict. Millions of refugees looked to flee this brutality sparking international debate on how best to handle the situation.

In April 2017, Donald Trump ordered airstrikes on an airbase in Syria after Bashar had once again used chemical weapons against civilians after calling Bashar “an animal.”

A UN report revealed that North Korea had shipped 40 loads of chemical-grade weapons materials to Syria from 2012 to 2017.

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