It is no longer news that the great country of Syria has been embroiled in a civil war since the year 2011. It is also no longer news that the war has left a lot of devastation in its wake including turning millions of Syrians into refugees. What people are now waiting for is when the man at the eye of the storm, president Bashar al-Assad, would step down but it does not seem like this would be happening anytime soon.
Having inherited power from his father (a man who had ruled for nearly 30 years) in 2000, Al Assad worked to position his country for greater political and economic prosperity. Unfortunately, he also inherited the dictatorial tendencies that had afflicted his father and has refused to go ever since. Not even the powerful Arab uprising of 2011, which toppled several long-sitting regimes in the Middle East, has been able to wrest power from him. This has led to devastating consequences for Syrians with no end in sight for their misery.
His Background and how they Moved from Penury to Affluence
Bashar al-Assad was born on 11th September 1965 in the largest city of Syria, Damascus. He is the third child born to his parents, Hafez Al-Assad (who was the president of Syria from 1971 to 2000) and Anisa Makhlouf. His other siblings are the eldest sibling, sister – Bushra, elder brother, Basel, younger brother, Majd, and youngest sibling, Maher.
Hafez Al Assad Hafez’s family originally weren’t affluent but his father was able to upgrade the family’s status and this gave him the impetus to work his way up in Syria’s ruling Ba’ath Party. By 1963, he partook in the Coup d’état that brought the party to power and he was rewarded with the position of Syrian Air Force Commander.
The ambitious Hafez would later carry out two more coups and by 1971 installed himself as the undisputed leader of Syria. He would remain in this position for nearly three decades during which he supported the Soviet Union during the Cold War in turn for their support against Israel. He later died of heart failure in the year 2000.
On the other hand, Al Assad’s mom, Anisa Makhlouf, hailed from a relatively-average family. Her marriage to Hafez, however, improved her family’s fortunes as relatives were given contracts in juicy industries such as banking, telecommunications, and oil. One of them was her nephew, Rami, who is now one of Syria’s wealthiest men with a net worth of not less than $6 billion. Anisa is now late having passed away in the year 2016.
Concerning religion, The Al-Assads are of the Alawite faith. This is an outgrowth of Shia Islam that reverences Ali, the Prophet Mohammed’s cousin and son-in-law. The sect has also incorporated some aspects of other faiths, such as Christianity, into their religion. They thus have a Holy Trinity of their own, comprising of Mohammed, Ali, and Salman the Persian, a companion of the prophet.
How Bashar al-Assad went from Being a Timid and Shy Man to President
Bashar al-Assad spent his formative years in the city of Damascus. As the second son of his father and what with his demeanor, all the family’s energies were focused on grooming Basel. The young Bashar was therefore given a free hand and he went on to attend the Arab-French al-Hurriya School in Damascus where he learned to speak English and French.
Upon his graduation in 1982, Bashar enrolled in the University of Damascus where he studied medicine. He graduated in 1988 and subsequently joined the Tishrin military hospital. There he served as a doctor for four years and rendering medical services. Having no interest in politics, Assad relocated to Western Eye Hospital, London, in 1992 where he continued with his studies and received a Master’s degree in ophthalmology.
All through his studies and residency, Bashar al-Assad developed a reputation for being a reserved and geeky fellow. It was quite obvious that he had no stomach for the kind of hard politics that his father indulged in. He, therefore, seemed destined to live out an ordinary life in his elder brother’s shadows. However, all these was radically changed after his eldest brother, and heir apparent to their father, Basel, was killed in a terrific car crash in 1994.
Following this tragedy, Bashar’s father ordered him back to Damascus to prepare him to take over someday. To achieve this grand agenda, the doctor was enlisted into the military academy situated in Homs and was fast-tracked to the rank of colonel within just five years. Additionally, he was also appointed as the head of the country’s special anti-corruption purge as well as computer society.
All these measures helped Bashar to gain popularity and by the year 2000 when his father passed away, the Ba’ath Party choose him as their presidential candidate. They also used their majority in the legislature to amend the constitutional age of the presidency from 40 to 34 to make him eligible to run. All these ensured that Bashar al-Assad emerged president on the 10th of July 2000, exactly a month after his father died.
An Administration Riddled with High-handedness and Dictatorial Tendencies
During his inauguration, Bashar al-Assad struck a conciliatory tone. He promised to carry out much needed economic and political reforms. He also called upon ordinary Syrians to join him and make the country great again. This call was received with cautious optimism and Bashar kept his words for the first few months of his administration. He started by releasing hundreds of political prisoners that had been detained unjustly by his father. He also improved on freedom of expression and liberalized several aspects of the economy. All these developments were gladly welcomed by the Syrian people but it was only a matter of time before Al Assad revealed his true spots.
Several months into his administration, he had a change of mind on the political reforms and started arresting and threatening the political opposition. He also cracked down on journalists and human rights activists. Things weren’t much better on the economic front. His much-touted economic reforms largely benefitted his cronies and family members who got juicy contracts in key sectors.
Beyond the shores of Syria, Bashar al-Assad also sought to maintain his country’s decades-long military presence in Lebanon. It was in the course of doing so that Lebanon’s former Prime Minister, Rafic Hariri, was murdered via a car bomb in 2005. Hariri was popular for his anti-Syria stance and this projected Al Assad as being behind the assassination. He, however, denied all the wrongdoing. Despite his denials, pressure was mounted on him to remove his troops from Lebanon. A UN report later concluded that Syrian officials were behind Hariri’s murder.
The Ongoing Civil war in Syria and Allegations that Bashar has used Chemical Weapons
Having been displaced from Lebanon, Bashar al-Assad focused all of his efforts on his own country and was re-elected for a second term of another seven years in 2007. Rather than use this new mandate to turn from his ways, Al Assad continued with his dictatorial tendencies. This isolated him from several western countries and the economy of Syria suffered. As a result of this, there was an increased level of poverty in his country. This made the populace naturally discontented and their anger was further exacerbated by a continued government clampdown on the opposition.
All these made the country quite ripe for the uprising that spread through the Arab region in the year 2011. Known as the Arab Spring, the uprising sacked life-long dictators in countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. It was finally sparked off in Syria after some boys that had sprayed anti-Assad graffiti on their school walls were detained in the southern city of Daraa. This unconscionable act was the last straw that broke the camel’s back and millions of Syrians took to the streets to protest. They asked for tangible political reforms. They also demanded that the long-time leader give way for another person to rule.
Bashar al-Assad was of course not going to relinquish power easily and decided to placate the protesters. He promised to review draconian legislation such as the emergency law. He also did some cabinet reshuffle and promised electoral reforms. All these was however too little too late and the protesters continued to come out in their numbers. Angered by this development, the Al Assad regime decided to push back the protests with stringent force. Thousands of people lost their lives as a result of this and this led some opposition groups to arm themselves. They subsequently retaliated and this led to an all-out civil war in the country in 2012.
That civil war persists and has multifaceted sides. On one side is the Al Assad regime which is backed by countries such as Russia and Iran. There is also an international coalition, consisting of the likes of the United States and Turkey, which provides support to the Syrian opposition. Finally, the whole matter is further complicated by the presence of terrorist groups such as ISIL/ISIS and Al Qaeda-linked groups. As one can expect, the conflict has brought untold hardship to the people of Syria. Hundreds of thousands have lost their lives. Millions have also been turned into refugees and scattered all over the world.
Another troubling aspect of the conflict is the allegations that Al-Assad is using chemical weapons on his countrymen. Back in August 2013, a Damascus suburb was attacked with the nerve gas sarin. The attack cost the lives of about 1400 civilians and this led to widespread condemnation for Al Assad. The president, however, maintained that he did not order the attack and that he had no stockpile of chemical weapons. The U.S-led coalition did not buy this and was prepared to intervene militarily in the country. This was later averted but Al Assad could still be prosecuted for war crimes someday in the future.
Meet the First Lady that has Stood by His side Through it All
Bashar al-Assad is married to a former investment banker named Asma Akhras. Asma is a native of Syria but was born in the U.K. specifically London. Her father is a Syrian cardiologist named Fawaz while her mother is a former diplomat named Sahar. Asma grew up in London and completed her secondary school education at a posh all-girls school. She subsequently attended Kings College London and obtained a first-class degree in computer science and French literature.
Upon graduation in 1996, Asma spent the next four years working for renowned financial firms one of which is JP Morgan. She subsequently resigned from her banking job to get married to Al Assad in December 2000. The couple now has three children. They are sons, Hafez (born in 2001), and Karim (born in 2004) and a daughter named Zein (born in 2003).
During the early years of her reign as the first lady, Asma cultivated the identity of someone that cares very much for the poor and less-privileged in the society. She set up several different charitable organizations to help various sections of the Syrian society including youths, the disabled, children, and women, etc. She also traveled extensively across her country, meeting with the masses.
Asma did not stop at this juncture. She also spoke out against some atrocities including the three-week Gaza war in 2009. The Kings College alum described Israel bombing and invasion as barbaric and wondered why such was still possible in the 21st century. She then went on to state that all these atrocities had to stop.
All the above made Asma one of the most admired first ladies in the Middle East. She was interviewed by CNN and the likes. She was also profiled by Vogue, who described her as a rose in the desert in 2011. Sadly, this pretty image has taken a heavy battering following the atrocities that have been allegedly committed by her husband in the course of the civil war. Many now see her as a hypocrite while others have bashed her for keeping quiet.
These criticisms were further reinforced after a cache of emails belonging to her family was uncovered in 2012. The emails showed that Asma was busy shopping for clothes, furniture, art, and designer shoes online while the worst was unfolding on the streets of her country. Asma has never responded to these criticisms but maintains the position that she adopted at the onset of the conflict. This is that she supports her husband and comforts the victims of the violence.