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MID-EAST REALITIES - www.MiddleEast.org - Washington - 6/11/00:
It was hardly a secret Hafez el-Assad might soon die. Three months ago on 6 March MER published an article noting that the Israelis and the Americans were quite desperate to get Syria into some kind of a political deal before el-Assad died or was incapacitated, something that might be imminent. This interesting article about the son, now the new President of Syria, Bashar Assad, appeared in the important Israeli daily Ha'aretz just days before Hafez el-Assad passed away.
BASHAR ASSAD - THEY SAY HE'S A GENTLE MAN
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'
[Ha'aretz, by Uriya Shavit, 8 June]
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
Mostly off the record (and with serious qualms), analysts, as well as
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.
Bashar Assad was born in Damascus on September 11, 1965. His sister
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
As a boy and teenager, he wasn't a charmer. Bashar is a thinker, like
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
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
for Assad's detachment is his workaholism.
The most dominant figure in Bashar's life was undoubtedly his mother
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 life."
It is not certain that the Assad family really lived so modestly; it
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
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
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
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
When Bashar Assad started to prepare for the dramatic metamorphosis
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
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
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.
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 blood."
Two years ago chief of staff Hikmat Al-Shihabi, a Sunni, was retired.
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
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,
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
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
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,"
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
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.
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.
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
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
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 softspoken; 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
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
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
"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 economy."
The young Syrians
Bashar is surrounded by a group of young academics, some of them longtime
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 itself.
This is a good starting point for a designated president with a platform
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
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
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
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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