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Syria's President Bashar al-Asad

aljazeera.net (online publication), Doha, Qatar, May 18, 2004

President Bashar al-Asad of Syria

Syrian President Bashar al-Asad (R) and his wife Asma (C) visit the Great Wall near Beijing on June 22, 2004. (Photo: Anwar Amro/AFP-Getty Images)

The son of the late Syrian President Hafiz al-Asad, Bashar al-Asad's life changed dramatically in 1994 with the death of his older brother, Basil, in a car accident.

Born on 11 September 1965, al-Asad was studying ophthalmology in London when Basil's death catapulted him into a political life.

He was summoned back to Damascus to assume his brother's position as the informal heir apparent.

He was largely kept out of the spotlight, partly as a matter of policy and partly because his father did not want to alarm Syria's senior military and political figures, some of whom coveted the top job themselves.

Leaving his medical career, al-Asad joined the military academy in the northern city of Hims. He became a colonel in January 1999.

Bashar emerges

Towards the end of his father's life, al-Asad emerged as an advocate of modernisation and led a public anti-corruption campaign, partly in a bid to raise his profile.

Assuming office in June 2000 following the death of his father, al-Asad was seen as one of a new breed of Middle East leaders.

Along with Jordan's King Abd Allah, the president's name was associated with economic and political reforms, not just for Syria, but, by implication, for the region as a whole.

But to Syria's elite – those in the army, security services and leading members of the ruling Syrian Baath party — al-Asad's rule was meant to ensure stability and the continuity of his father's 30-year rein.

(The Arab Socialist Baath party was originally founded in Syria in the 1940s and held a pan-Arab, secular nationalistic vision as its ideology. In 1951, the party also became the ruling party in Iraq — a fact that led to great rivalry between Damascus and Baghdad.)

The presidency

On the day of his inauguration, al-Asad called for a new policy of openness and transparency.

He released hundreds of political prisoners and eased media restrictions, allowing the first independent newspaper for nearly three decades to be published in the country.

Those who anticipated moves toward democracy were encouraged when the government allowed greater criticism in a formerly restrictive political environment.

Prominent intellectuals cautiously emerged, pressing the government to guarantee freedoms and human rights. Political meetings opposing the government were no longer taboo.

But what began as a promising reform process (nicknamed the New Spring) foundered.

The higher echelons of power seemed more interested in reverting back to the old-guard policies of tight state control.

Stalled progress

Public meetings were closed and the independence of the press was once again compromised.

Political arrests, although on a much smaller scale, were resumed.

None the less, aspects of daily life in Syria indicated that reform was still underway. Damascus saw a number of internet cafes established, a sign of openness unprecedented in the country.

Al-Asad's reforms, needless to say, faced strong criticism. Under intense pressure from government establishments, he announced that his priorities were economic rather than political.

Some analysts argued that the president runs the country with a "hand of style".

The slow pace of reform, they say, will ensure that the powerful governmental institutions maintain their influence and, therefore, guarantee future stability.

Price of stability

Governing in Syria — as al-Asad knows only too well — has traditionally been characterised with tough rule at home and a strong anti-Israel policy abroad.

In 1967 Syria lost the strategic Golan Heights to the Israelis in the Six Day War, while a bloody civil war in neighbouring Lebanon (mid seventies to early nineties) allowed it to extend its influence in the region, by placing troops in Lebanon, who have remained ever since.

Al-Asad has inherited a lot of these complications and has had to deal with a legacy of opposition to his party's rule.

In 1982 his father ordered the harsh crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood organisation, in the city of Hama, which killed thousands.

And in recent years, the legacy of a growing Palestinian refugee population has added to the pressures.

Some of Israel's arch foes, such as the Palestinian resistance movement Hamas, have housed their political leadership in Damascus and this has heightened tensions between Syria and Israel and soured Syrian-US relations.

Iraq and after

Externally, the US war on Iraq in 2003 placed Syria in a tight corner.

The country came under heavy pressure from the US and it faced the neo-conservatives' criticism for hosting what the US sees as terrorist organisations.

It has been accused of aiding the former Iraqi government by hiding its alleged weapons of mass destruction.

Al-Asad faces the tough task of meeting his people's need for reform, freedoms and openness without destabilising the country and while avoiding the wrath of the US.

Whether he can survive politically is yet to be seen.

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