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Background on Bashar Assad

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    Assalamu alaikum, This background information on Bashar Assad, soon to be sworn in as President of Syria, was written before Hafiz al Assad s death. It is a
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 11, 2000
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      This background information on Bashar Assad, soon to be sworn in as
      President of Syria, was written before Hafiz al Assad's death. It is a bit
      long, but much more detailed than most articles you will read on the
      topic. It was published in Ha'aretz newspaper:

      Bashar Assad - they say he's a gentle man (in depth story)
      He's a 35-year-old media-shy ophthalmologist who loves Phil Collins,
      speaks fluent English, is in no rush to get married and expresses a keen
      interest in Israeli high-tech. Although he was never the favorite son,
      Bashar Assad next week will be declared heir to his father, Hafez. Syria's
      mysterious 'crown prince'

      By Uriya Shavit - Ha'aretz 8 June 2000

      Next Saturday, June 17, will be a fateful day in Syria: The ruling Baath
      party's newly-elected congress will be convening after 15 years of
      foot-dragging. They will most probably be appointing Bashar Assad, the son
      of 70-year-old President Hafez Assad, to the party's 12-member inner
      leadership, and may even appoint him vice president. This will be the
      first public recognition of what has been common knowledge for the last
      six years but was never officially stated: that Bashar Assad is his
      father's designated heir.On the eve of his "coronation," Bashar is still a
      mystery. No biography has been written about him yet and his exposure to
      Western media is almost nil. His personality, world view and attitude
      toward the Israeli-Arab conflict are not clear. Almost nothing is known of
      his friends, hobbies and personal life, and his childhood and high school
      days are yet to be unveiled.

      Mostly off the record (and with serious qualms), analysts, as well as
      those who have met Bashar in person, provide a glimpse into this enigmatic
      figure who is the creation of a regime that thrives on secrecy and
      fire-walling. Mother's way Bashar Assad was born in Damascus on September
      11, 1965. His sister Bushara is five years older, and his brother Basil,
      three. Bashar also has two younger brothers, Maher, one year younger, and
      Majd, who is two years younger than Bashar. Unlike Bushara and Basil,
      Bashar never saw his father fighting to get to the top. When Bashar was a
      toddler, his father was already defense minister, and by the time he was
      six, Hafez Assad was already the all-powerful ruler of Syria. To Bashar,
      this lineage was a fact of life.

      As a boy and teenager, he wasn't a charmer. Bashar is a thinker, like his
      father, says Patrick Seale, Hafez Assad's British biographer and the
      person closest to Assad in the Western world. Unlike Basil, he never got
      involved in horseback riding and the like. He went to the posh Al-Huria
      high school in Damascus. According to Seale, Bashar never got any special
      treatment from his teachers or classmates, and was very well mannered.

      Hafez Assad was not very close to his children. In a conversation with
      Seale in 1988, Basil told him that "we saw father at home but he was so
      busy that three days could go by without us exchanging a word with him. We
      never had breakfast or dinner together, and I don't remember ever having
      lunch together as a family, or maybe we only did once or twice when state
      affairs were involved. As a family, we used to spend a day or two in
      Lattakia in the summer, but then too he used to work in the office and we
      didn't get to see much of him."

      Seale says this is true for Bashar as well, but he stresses that the
      reason for Assad's detachment is his workaholism.

      The most dominant figure in Bashar's life was undoubtedly his mother
      Anissa, a teacher by training. In 1958, she married Hafez Assad even
      though her family was higher up on the social ladder than Assad's.
      Educating the children was her territory. "In Bashar's closest circles,
      the word is that his mother was the most influential. She is a woman with
      very strong political convictions, a pedant," says a man who met with
      Bashar this year. "When he was a boy, she believed there was only one
      right way to raise the children. Hafez Assad's children could not be given
      the same leeway that others were allowed. They lived a relatively modest

      It is not certain that the Assad family really lived so modestly; it may
      well be a successfully marketed image. But one thing is certain: They were
      always very private. In a country where Assad's portrait glares at you
      from every street corner, photos of his family were almost never
      published, nor were reports of their lives. Unlike the children of other
      Arab leaders who received their diplomas overseas, Assad's five children
      received their higher education in Syria. Bushara, Assad's only and
      beloved daughter, tall and with long flowing brown hair, got a doctorate
      in pharmacology at Damascus University. Basel, who was always considered
      the smartest, studied engineering and was from the late 1980s trained to
      follow his father's footsteps and one day become president. Bashar went to
      medical school. Maher studied business administration and Majd is an
      electrical engineer.

      Bashar has never yet been asked why he chose medicine. "One can only
      assume that Assad, who himself wanted to be a doctor when he was young,
      pushed him in that direction, but this is only a guess," says Dr. Eyal
      Zisser of Tel Aviv University, an expert on Syria and Lebanon and author
      of "Assad's Legacy: Syrian Transition."

      After he finished his studies in Damascus in 1991, Bashar went to London
      to specialize in ophthalmology. No one knows where he was living. A
      prominent Syria expert who tried to investigate turned up nothing, as did
      another attempt this week to find information in the records of relevant
      London institutions. "Bashar used an alias," explains a person who met him
      this year. "He would go to the airport alone, wait in line like everyone
      else, and none of the Syrians would recognize him. You must bear in mind
      that back then his face was anonymous in Syria, and certainly in London."

      What is the cultural imprint of his London years? According to one report,
      it is his love for Phil Collins. But Patrick Seale is convinced that his
      stay in the British capital had a much more profound impact on him than
      that. Seale says he absorbed Western values such as the rule of law,
      freedom of expression, the integrity of public administration, fight
      against corruption. Of course, Seale says, he acknowledges the need to
      adapt these values to Syria's local tradition. Seale says that Bashar's
      years in England gave him one more important advantage: good English.

      Bashar's adventure in the British Isles was terminated shortly before he
      was to complete his residency, when his brother Basil was killed in a car
      accident on January 12, 1994 on a foggy road to the Damascus airport. When
      Basil died, he was already recognized as his father's heir and he had
      already received some training to prepare him for his new role. Upon
      Basil's death, Bashar was told to leave school and come back to Syria. His
      training began immediately.

      Major metamorphosis When Bashar Assad started to prepare for the dramatic
      metamorphosis from eye doctor to the ruler of 17 million people, very few
      people believed he could make the transition. An ambassador of a big
      Western country who knew Bashar, was heard saying that "this timid man who
      has no charisma will never be Syria's president." According to Dr. Zisser,
      "even people who would deny it today, didn't think back then that Bashar
      Assad could really become president. When Assad launched the process, they
      said that Bashar's training was a joke, that he was brought over only to
      make the grieving president feel a little better."

      According to various reports published over the years, Bashar at first
      adamantly refused to accept the role designated for him and only consented
      after many talks with his father and after it was hammered into him that
      Syria's future was in his hands. Prof. Moshe Maoz of the Hebrew
      University, a leading Syria analyst, says these reports should be treated
      with some caution. "In families like the Assads, sons do as they're told."

      MK Dr. Azmi Bishara (National Democratic Alliance - Balad), who met Bashar
      in Syria two months ago, got a similar impression. "My impression from my
      conversation with Bashar was that he was very politically inclined all his
      life. He obviously breathed politics from a very early age, knows what a
      balance of power is, what strategies are, a very level-headed man. It is
      also obvious that he is a Baath man, that that's where he grew up. It's
      evident in the terminology he uses."

      To prepare Bashar's road to the top, his father embarked upon two
      missions. One was to train his son in all relevant disciplines. The other
      was to dispose of any and all possible enemies that Bashar may have.
      Bashar's election to the Baath party's inner leadership indicates that, at
      least in his father's mind, the process is complete and Bashar is now ripe
      and ready for the job.

      Before anything else, Bashar had to become a military man. Without meeting
      this prerequisite, the security forces and the public at large would never
      have accepted him as an able leader. This was also the natural first move
      before giving Bashar other responsibilities. When Bashar returned to Syria
      in 1994, he was appointed captain in the medical corps. After speedy
      combat training in the armored forces and advanced general staff training,
      he was promoted to the rank of colonel and appointed divisional commander
      in the Republican Guards elite forces, the position previously occupied by
      his late brother Basil.

      He thus completed a 15-year course in three or four years. "Does this
      training count for much? Probably not," says Dr. Zisser. But Patrick Seale
      holds a different view. He asserts that Bashar excelled in his military
      training. The only thing on which all experts agree is that his time in
      the armed forces did not make Bashar a professional soldier. He did not
      become a military man, but a man with military experience, Seale says.
      "There is no machismo about him, he's a gentle man," MK Bishara testifies.

      Clearing the decks The removal of Bashar's potential adversaries was
      calculated carefully. Hafez Assad's rule, Zisser says, rests on four main
      circles. The first is that of the family. The second is the minority
      Alawite sect, to which the Assad family belongs. The third is the circle
      of other minority groups, like the Christians, who prefer Alawite
      dominance over a return to the hegemony of the Sunni Muslim majority. The
      fourth circle is that of Sunnis from villages and areas in the periphery,
      who during Assad's rule moved up on the social and economic ladder, mainly
      through the Baath party. As long as these four circles overlap, the regime
      will stay stable. Assad had to dispose of his son's potential foes without
      disturbing the balance.

      In the security forces, the first victims were middle-ranking officers.
      "The idea was that once Assad gets around to taking care of the big fish,
      he will have the support of the middle ranks. Assad replaced people who
      owed nothing to Bashar with people who did," Zisser says. "But you have to
      give them some credit, because this reshuffle served purely professional
      purposes as well. There were many old officers and the army needed young

      Two years ago chief of staff Hikmat Al-Shihabi, a Sunni, was retired. He
      was tired and sickly, a borderline hypochondriac, but was still considered
      a prominent candidate for Assad's seat. Half a year ago Assad replaced the
      head of Syrian military intelligence, Ali Duba, who was probably Bashar's
      greatest threat. "He was replaced by another Alawite, Hassan Khalil, who
      owes his appointment to Bashar, at least as long as it serves Khalil's
      best interest to be loyal," Zisser adds.

      In the political and administrative establishment, the first one to go was
      Syrian vice president Abdel Halim Khadam, who was removed from the Lebanon
      portfolio. The replacement of Lebanese prime minister Rafik Al-Hariri with
      Selim Al-Hoss was a move made by the heir-apparent himself.

      The next and possibly most significant target was Rifat Assad, the
      president's exiled brother, who was stripped of his token title of vice
      president, a title he was allowed to carry despite his failed attempt to
      overthrow the ailing Assad in 1982.

      "Rifat was perceived as a threat. He built a media empire in exile, he
      didn't sit still. He greased the palms of various relatives and
      acquaintances to build future support," Zisser explains. Last October the
      Syrian security forces, instructed by Bashar, struck Rifat's supporters in
      Lattakia. Zisser's take on this is that "it was a message from Bashar to
      Rifat to keep his head down."

      Once this message was conveyed, Assad and his son could move on to a
      relatively simple task, the last bit of reshuffling for the time being:
      replacing the government, in place for 13 years now, with a fresher, more
      technocracy-oriented one.

      The deposed prime minister, Mahmoud Al Zouabi, who was accused of
      corruption, will no longer pose a threat to Bashar; last month he
      committed suicide in his cell. Do the other former officials endanger
      Bashar's rule? "I doubt it," says Patrick Seale. Bashar was very
      diplomatic with them, and it is very unlikely that they would try to
      overthrow him, he says.

      Neutralizing the opposition A man who met with Bashar this year says that
      the pockets of opposition have been eradicated almost completely. "The
      military is now on Bashar's side, the security establishment and the
      government as well. Only in the party Bashar's loyalists still don't have
      the majority." But on D-day, all experts agree, it is the security forces
      - not the party - that will tip the scales.

      Bashar's two younger brothers, Maher and Majd, are not considered a
      potential threat. "Because of mental problems, Majd is out of the picture,
      and Maher is an impulsive young man who is not likely to gain any power,"
      Zisser says.

      After all other obstacles have been cleared, there are only two people
      besides Bashar who are deemed to have any real clout: Chief of Staff Ali
      Aslan and head of military intelligence Assaf Chawkat.

      Aslan was portrayed in the Western media as Assad junior's chief sponsor
      and as someone who has a lot of influence over Bashar, but Seale says this
      description isn't accurate. Bashar Assad works with many people in
      whatever context they're in charge of, he says. He works with Ali Aslan on
      the military, just like he works with Foreign Minister Farouk Shara on
      politics, Seale explains. Bashar is above the fray between the various
      branches of government, Seale says. He has many fields of interest, from
      education through agriculture, and has a whole network of advisers and
      assistants. He is very careful not to play favorites.

      General Chawkat seems to be posing the greatest threat for Bashar. In
      addition to his firm footing in military intelligence, he also has the
      necessary family ties: he is married to Bushara, Assad's beloved eldest
      daughter. "Chawkat is a big fat man, and his appearance is much more
      impressive than Bashar's," a man who met him says.

      Still, some observers believe he won't be giving Bashar any trouble.
      "Assaf Chawkat is a man of the system, and won't have any basis on which
      to run for power. The name Chawkat doesn't even come up on the Syrian
      street as a possible heir," a man who met Bashar this year says. Patrick
      Seale says that Chawkat is one of Bashar's supporters, not one of his
      adversaries. He is a security man, he's been there his entire career, and
      he understands that Syria needs to be modernized.

      Father's way Until next week Bashar Assad does not have any official
      status in Syria. Surprisingly, this was also evident in his daily routine.
      A man who met him this year described their meeting at a villa near his
      father's presidential palace. "We were sitting in leather chairs with book
      shelves all around and Western furnishing. There was no picture of Assad
      in the room. It was a private meeting. The phone didn't ring and
      secretaries or advisers did not interrupt. The only person who entered
      during the meeting was a butler who served us refreshments - tea, coffee
      and juice. There were no guards present. At the end of the meeting Bashar
      came outside with me and walked me to the car."

      The Western source who visited Damascus last month says that Bashar is
      guarded all the time, but that his guards keep a low profile. "He doesn't
      have the same kind of massive protection that his father has. His guards
      are there but not for everyone to see. Bashar doesn't want to give the
      impression that he's there yet, in power, that is. That was the whole idea
      behind his journey to the top - doing it slowly, without making waves."

      Everyone who met Bashar says he is relatively educated, well spoken and
      courteous. "We talked about the history of political thought in the 19th
      century," MK Bishara says, "and I didn't have to simplify things, it was
      like talking to an intellectual. His Arabic is high-class. He expressed
      great interest in our [National Democratic Alliance - Balad] attempt to
      integrate democracy, liberalism and nationalism and spent most of our
      conversation listening to me explaining my ideas. The conversation was
      pleasant, and he was very straightforward. He will never interrupt you in
      mid-sentence, he can listen to you 20 minutes straight. He impressed me as
      a nice man. Not a man trained in political niceties, but a genuinely nice

      Friendliness and charisma don't always go hand in hand; it is felt that
      Bashar has somewhat of a problem in appearing leader-like. In November
      1999, Bashar made a visit to France. French officials who met with him
      concluded that he wasn't made of the stuff that makes leaders. A man who
      received a report of this visit said that "Bashar didn't impress the
      French in these talks. They didn't seem to be convinced that he could lead
      a country like Syria. When he was talking to them, he quoted his father a
      lot and used him as an authority. He didn't seem too sure of himself."

      Bashar is soft-spoken; although he is very tall (190 cm.) and
      broad-shouldered, his posture and manners are not menacing. "This is one
      of the big questions: Can a country like Syria be governed by a man who is
      not fearsome, and will Bashar eventually learn how to be fearsome?" Zisser
      ponders. The Western source recently returned from Damascus says that
      "Bashar knows who he is and who he isn't, at least for the time being. He
      knows he still has a lot to prove. He isn't denying it, he says so

      Bashar's tutors in the political and military establishment have in the
      last two years given him ever greater roles in the Lebanese protectorate
      and in the political process vis-a-vis Israel. The positions he presented
      are a direct follow-up on his father's.

      In domestic Syrian matters, on the other hand, he was not only trained to
      implement existing policies, but also formulated his own that are in tune
      with his reformist modern views. One example was his fight against
      corruption, which included many arrests and more openness toward internal
      monitoring of administrative efficiency. The most well-known story about
      him is that a few months ago, when he was walking with a friend in the
      streets of Aleppo, he allowed several hundreds of the townspeople to
      gather around and express their opinions.

      The gates to cyberspace Bashar's steps in promoting education are another
      example of his independence. Seale is very enthusiastic about this. He
      says Bashar introduced a new computer system in the Damascus University,
      adopted programs from American universities, reinforced foreign-language
      programs and gave licenses to private schools. He also opened schools to
      the public during vacation, so that people can surf the Net, Seale says.

      Opening Syria to the Internet is the most noticeable expression of
      Bashar's world view in the last year. This move was made possible only
      after Bashar gained the upper hand in the conflict with the security
      services, which firmly objected to the introduction of the Net. It seems
      Assad himself wasn't too thrilled about the new technology. To date,
      access to the Internet in Syria is still marginal and still subject to
      supervision by the security services. Still, it seems that this is only an
      indicator of a more comprehensive perception that in the future may have
      important implications.

      According to Patrick Seale, Bashar talks a lot about modernization,
      improving the administration, giving the younger generation a chance.
      Seale says Bashar is a young man and like most young men he focuses on the
      future, especially on the high-tech revolution.

      "The economy is the most important thing on his agenda," MK Bishara says.
      "Internet to him is not a value in and of itself. To him, computerization
      is the basis for economic progress. But I suppose he knows what the WWW
      means, the free flow of information it provides. In his conversation with
      me, he wanted to know the proportion of high-tech in Israeli export and
      GDP and how Israel made the transition from an agricultural to a high-tech

      The young Syrians Bashar is surrounded by a group of young academics, some
      of them long-time friends, who together make up the new economic order.
      None of the people who met him will identify themselves by name. "Pointing
      a finger at these people will condemn them in Syria," the Western source
      recently returned from Syria explained. A man who met Bashar this year
      explained that "Bashar does not say what his vision of Syria is, but
      obviously his plans and those of the people around him are to introduce a
      reform. He and his people choose their words very carefully, and they're
      right to do so, but their language is that of a reform."

      Syria probably has no other choice but to opt for a reform. Unemployment
      stands at 30 percent; excessive urbanization is a threat to social
      stability; a high birth rate causes, among other evils, serious land
      shortages; the oil reserves will be depleted within 10 to 20 years;
      infrastructure, including transportation, is dilapidated and in dire need
      of repair. Economic weakness is already translated into military and
      strategic frailty. If the situation is not remedied, this may pose a
      serious threat to the regime's survival, and even to that of the country

      This is a good starting point for a designated president with a platform
      of reforms. But there are no guarantees. Everyone now agrees that Bashar
      Assad is Syria's next president. Although the constitution requires that
      the president be 40, should Assad die before Bashar comes of age, a way
      certainly will be found to get around this. The question isn't whether he
      gets the job, but whether he will be able to hold onto it. And on this
      point no one is willing to make any commitments.

      It's hard to tell whether he's strong enough, Patrick Seale says. He seems
      to be powerful enough, but for the time being he can only be viewed as the
      next one in the dynasty, as implementing his father's ideas, Seale
      explains. Syria is not a monarchy, so Bashar will have to prove himself.
      He was in charge of the Lebanese portfolio, he promoted concepts of
      modernization, and we'll just have to wait and see if he manages to make
      his ideas into a reality or if he will be overthrown, Seale says.

      Prof. Maoz: "A lot depends on when the father dies. Bashar's training for
      the presidency was very methodical. If Assad the father lives a few more
      years, Bashar's chances of surviving as head of state will be very good."

      A man who met Bashar this year: "After all, when Assad dies there won't be
      democratic elections in Syria. The question is, therefore, who the best
      man is to replace him. If someone of the old generation is appointed, it
      means that the current situation will continue. The street doesn't want
      that. Bashar Assad at least represents some hope. There is no guarantee
      that this hope will translate into a reality, and in any case his survival
      doesn't depend only on public opinion. But hope is nothing to sniff at,
      and the Syrians are hopeful."

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