Tanya Willmer, AFP
Last updated: 15 August, 2012

Syria’s Assad: an autocrat grappling with a crumbling regime

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad took power 12 years ago pledging reforms but has become one of the region’s most ruthless leaders as he wages an increasingly brutal war to crush a rebellion.

Assad, 46, appears determined to fight tooth and nail to stay in power, even after a string of high-level defections and the killing of his top security chiefs in a bomb attack in July claimed by the rebel Free Syrian Army.

The West has been pushing for Assad to step down as his regime escalates its brutal attacks to stamp out an armed rebellion that began in March last year as a series of peaceful protests against his autocratic rule.

An opthamologist by profession, Assad inherited the leadership of the strategically vital Middle East country in July 2000 after the death of his iron-fisted father Hafez al-Assad.

The tall, blue-eyed Assad who sports a thin moustache, was only 34 when he became president, and initially earned a reputation as a modernist and began to implement economic reforms liberalising the private sector.

But as the violence escalates daily he now boasts only handful of friends — albeit allies that include China and Russia as well as regional heavyweight Iran — and is facing calls for him to stand trial as a war criminal.

“We used to have a lion, now we have a giraffe,” is a familiar refrain among dissidents, referring to Hafez’s nickname (Assad means lion in Arabic) and the fact that Assad junior has a rather elongated neck.

Opponents also lampoon him as a duck, using a term of endearment apparently bestowed on her husband by Assad’s glamorous British-born wife Asma — herself now a target of mockery for her lavish lifestyle while the country burns.

Assad, a member of the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, that has ruled Sunni-majority Syria since 1963, describes the conflict as a “crucial and heroic” battle for the very future of the country.

And despite the bloodshed now having claimed the lives of at least 23,000 people according to opposition activists, Assad defiantly insists he has the backing of the Syrian people.

“I would have already been toppled without the support of the Syrian people,” he told a Turkish newspaper in July.

In a rare US television interview in December, Assad earned Western revulsion when he appeared to be oblivious to the carnage, saying “only a crazy person” would target his own people.

He claims regional Sunni powers want to overthrow his Alawite-led government while the West wants to get rid of a regime in a country that remains technically at war with neighbouring Israel.

Although a number of senior figures have abandoned the regime, analysts say the Assad family and the top echelon of the feared military and security services including his brother Maher remains intact.

When Assad’s forces first launched a crackdown on the Arab Spring-inspired protests in March 2011, the West — including the United States — was reluctant to compare him to slain former Libyan dictator Moamer Kadhafi.

Now Western leaders, and even Syria’s one-time allies in Turkey, are telling Assad he must go, even as China and Russia insist on a political solution that the people of Syria must decide for themselves.

— ‘Rule by murder and fear’ —


“The United States will work with the international community to intensify our pressure on Assad and his cronies, whose rule by murder and fear must come to an end,” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in May.

Earlier this month, Israel’s UN envoy Ron Prosor described Assad as “the world’s most dangerous opthamologist” and warned about the risk of Syria using chemical weapons.

Assad formed his first cabinet in 2001, composed mainly of technocrats, in an attempt to lure in foreign investors amid new legislation easing financial restrictions.

But political life proved little changed from the hardline rule of his shrewd tactician father, as Syria’s notorious security forces continued to clamp down on any opposition with an iron fist.

A short-lived “Damascus Spring,” which opened the door to political debate after the death of Assad senior, was quickly suppressed by the “old guard” as dozens of intellectuals ended up in jail.

In June last year, as the protests grew, Assad announced a string of reforms and to scrap nearly five decades of draconian emergency rule, but the moves failed to appease opponents and the bloody repression continued.

Born on September 11, 1965, Assad is fluent in English and French and studied ophthalmology in Tehran from 1988 and 1992 before moving to London.

His life changed in 1994 when his elder brother Bassel, who was being groomed for the presidency, died in a car crash and Bashar returned to Damascus to embrace politics.

In a country where military and politics are intertwined, Assad became a tank battalion commander in 1994 and rose to the rank of colonel in 1999.

He was elected to the top body of the ruling Baath party at its first congress in 15 years in June 2000, and parliament amended the constitution, scrapping the minimum age limit of 40 to allow Bashar to run for president.

He was the only candidate and took office as Syria’s 16th president on July 11, 2000. In 2007, he won a referendum by 97 percent of votes extending his term for another seven years.

Assad has two sons and a daughter with his wife Asma, who hails from a wealthy Sunni family and was the subject of a controversial article in Vogue magazine that described her in glowing terms as A Rose in the Desert.

A British newspaper in March published emails it claims were sent by Assad and his Western-educated former banker wife which appeared to show that they were still enjoying a life of opulence despite the conflict and a raft of US and EU sanctions against them.

One exchange appears to show Asma spending thousands of dollars on candlesticks, tables and chandeliers via the Internet while another reveals the leader’s eclectic taste in music including British pop duo Right Said Fred best known for their song “I’m Too Sexy for my Shirt”.