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Bashar al-Assad

Bashar al-AssadBashar al-Assad was born in Damascus on 11 September 1965. The President of the Syrian Arab Republic is married to Mrs. Asma al-Assad, with three children: two boys and a girl. He studied in Damascus schools and got High School Certificate in 1982. He studied Medicine at Damascus University and graduated in 1988. He specialized in Ophthalmology at Tishreen Military Hospital before pursuing his studies in London until 1994.

His public activities before assuming office included numerous political and vocational tasks. He headed the Syrian Computer Society, SCS, in 1995, and worked to spread the culture of information technology nationwide. Since 1995 he has been supervising the reform programs of the two Ministries of Education and Higher Education. In 1977 he launched the national program of informatics in cooperation with the Ministry of Education to allow free access to informatics through free-of-charge training centers.

Bashar al-Assad was uninvolved in Syria politics until his elder brother and unofficial heir, Basel was killed in a car accident in 1994. Bashar had instead chosen a career in medicine and was studying to become an ophthalmologist in London when his father recalled him to Damascus after his brother's death. As a vast press campaign increased his popularity in Syria, Bashar underwent an accelerated grooming process to prepare him for the presidency.

He joined the military as an officer at the Medical Services Department in 1985, and pursued numerous military training courses. Bashar graduated from an armor school in Hims and returned to Damascus in December 1994. Since most political figures of any consequence in Syria have military backgrounds, Bashar's having theoretically become a soldier lent him at least a facade of credibility. Bashar was primarily responsible for ensuring the proper operation of Syrian government agencies, many of which are riven with incompetence and corruption.

In 11/06/2000 he was promoted to the rank of Lt. Gen. and appointed as Commander General of the Army and Armed Forces. He was elected as Chairman of Al-Baath Arab Socialist Party in June 2000, and was elected on 10/07/2000 President of the Republic and assumed office after he was sworn in before the People's Assembly on 17/07/2000.

Daniel Pipes wrote in 2005 that " The possibility existed that Bashar, due to his brief Western sojourn and scientific orientation, would dismantle his father's totalitarian contraption; Bashar’s early steps suggested he might do just that, but then he quickly reverted to his father's autocratic methods - either because of his own inclinations or because he remained under the sway of his father's grandees. His father's methods, yes, but not his skills. The elder Assad was a tactical genius, even if his rule ultimately failed (he never regained the Golan Heights, never came close to destroying Israel, and rode Syria's economy and culture into the ground). The younger Assad combines strategic blindness with tactical ineptitude. Within months of Bashar's accession, questions arose about his ability to retain control over Lebanon; not long after, his ability to hold on to power in Syria itself came under doubt."

Bashar was said not to be happy with the system he inherited, though he had done little to change it, and he did not expect that power can be passed down the Asad family line forever. A peace agreement with Israel, which for Bashar would have to include the return of the Golan, would assure for Bashar himself survival at the head of the regime but not necessarily for his sons. In the absence of peace, Bashar had to accept that security issues are paramount in Syria. But with peace, the reform process - economic, political, and social - could prosper. Although Bashar was said to genuinely believes that peace and reform were necessary, it is said that his UK-raised wife Asma prodded him continually to move along that path.

By 2004 Syria was hesitating between reforms and maintaining the status quo. A certain degree of freedom of speech and criticism - even relating to delicate issues, such as nationalism or democracy - had been authorized. These entirely relative freedoms appeared to be safety valves authorized by the regime, in a country that seemed to be in the state of uncertainty, the ponderousness and inconsistencies of the government having apparently been exacerbated by the prevailing doubts concerning relations with the US and the pressures brought to bear by Washington. This was the situation in Syria, contradictory and confused, it being unclear who decides what, when, and why.

The President was re-elected as Chairman of Al-Baath Party and its Central Committee by the 10th Congress in May 2005. He was re-elected as President on May 27th, 2007 and was sworn in before the People's Assembly on July 17th 2007, ushering in for 2nd constitutional term of office. In the run-up to the vote, the regime devoted significant effort and money to transform Syrian President Bashar al-Asad into the symbol of Syria and Syrians. They wanted to make him into an untouchable personality, in the style of former President Hafez al-Asad, although Bashar had no charisma or discernible political skills. The referendum serves as a good catalyst for this transformation.

According to his official biography "On the internal level, the president focused over the past years on the following: Embarking on an ambitious strategy of gradual social and economic reform and empowering the social market economy. Providing proper political and legislative climate for development of the laws and regulations. Improvement of the economic investment climate, and renovating organizational environment stimulus and infrastructure, building industrial cities, free zones, and liberating the trade. (Investment multiplied 12 times). Development of the financial and banking sector and licensing private banks, insurance companies, securities exchange. Development of the media sector and licensing private newspapers and other media. Development of the education and teaching system and licensing private universities. Consolidation of institutional work at the governmental and popular bodies, combating waste and corruption at the state establishments, promoting the values of innovation, knowledge, team spirit, and investment in human resources skills and training. Direct supervision on the administrative reform, and introducing structure development into the government structure and work, facilitating the measures and procedures by easing bureaucracy and computerization of work.

"On external level, the president focused on the following: Working for the establishment of just and comprehensive peace in the region in the heart of which is the return of the occupied Golan. Consolidating the concepts of right, sovereignty, justice and international legitimacy in international relations. Diplomatic and political action to consolidate the basis of Arab solidarity and regional and international cooperation. Encouraging economic and commercial partnerships, and cooperation relations in spheres of culture, sciences, technology, and openness to the experiences of other nations with stress on dialogue of cultures. The president chaired in March 2008 the Arab League Council on the summit level."

Syrian President Bashar al-Asad is neither as shrewd nor as long-winded as his father, but he, too, prefers to engage diplomatically on a level of abstraction that seems designed to frustrate any direct challenge to Syria's behavior and, by extension, his judgment. Bashar's vanity represents another Achilles heel. The late President Hafiz al-Asad could wear down his interlocutors through sheer staying power in 10-hour meetings without breaks; the wealth of detail and historical perspective he brought to those discussions also tested the mettle of those who were attempting to persuade him to a course of action he questioned. His son Bashar is neither as shrewd nor as long-winded as his father but he, too, prefers to engage diplomatically on a level of abstraction that seems designed to frustrate any direct challenge to Syria's behavior and, by extension, his judgment. Bashar's presentations on world affairs suggest that he would prefer to see himself as a sort of philosopher-king, the Pericles of Damascus.

Bashar al-Asad does not rule exclusively by diktat, but in his minority-led regime the Syrian policy-making dynamic revolves heavily around getting the President's ear. Since the low point in 2005 when Bashar's grip on power - post Lebanon-withdrawal - was widely questioned, he has solidified his position, averted the emergence of rivals, and imposed his will across the apparatus of government. Bashar's success in ensuring his own survival convinced him of the near-infallibility of his own judgment: while his entourage may attempt to shape his thinking, they do not overtly challenge it. Bashar is the key - only his opinion counts when it comes to foreign policy decisions.

Syrian government scope of action is limited the President's span of control. He is generally able to monitor the activities of his foreign minister, political/media advisor, intelligence chiefs, and brother Maher. At various times, his vice president and national security advisor are also active and therefore under his direct supervision. While communication flows between him and his subordinates, it appears not to be formalized and information is highly compartmented. Subordinates' portfolios are not clearly delineated; overlapping areas create tension and competition. There is no "interagency" policy development process that lays out advantages and disadvantages of policy choices. There are, as far as we know, no briefing or decision memos. The bench is not deep; beyond the principals lie only a few trusted staffers. Bashar and his team also find it difficult to juggle more than one major foreign policy issue at a time.

On foreign policy, Bashar easily defaulted to the Ba'athist ideology and its heavy reliance on framing all issues through the prism of the Arab-Israeli conflict but he is capable of pragmatism. Whatever principles Bashar evokes in his rhetoric, his ultimate goal is to preserve his regime which, for him, requires preserving all existing options without forgoing new options. The only internal consistency in Syria's foreign policy is the Syrian government's desire to play all sides off each other; Bashar has added an additional requirement that Syrian foreign policy must also showcase his abilities as a leader.

The President's self-image plays a disproportionate role in policy formulation and diplomatic activity. Meetings, visits, trips abroad that enhance his respectability and prestige are pursued; encounters that may involve negotiations or difficult debate are declined or delegated to subordinates. The President responds with anger if he finds himself challenged by visitors, but not until after the meeting. He seems to avoid direct confrontation. When engaged in summit diplomacy, he often seeks to include allies to bolster his confidence (e.g., Quadripartite Summit in September 2008, Riyadh Summit in April 2009). His foreign policy subordinates are all "employees" without constituencies or influence independent of the President's favor. Their overriding concern when engaging foreigners is to avoid the appearance of overstepping or violating their instructions. They are particularly cautious in the presence of other Syrians; requests to meet one-on-one often yield more expansive and candid responses.

Communicating with Bashar is challenging enough, reaching meaningful agreement is yet more difficult. What appears to have been agreed in one encounter may prove not to be agreed in the next. A common experience for all those who deal with Syria, the French ran into this phenomenon in spectacularly public way: prior to French President Sarkozy's visit to Damascus in September 2008, the event that formally ended Syria's isolation, Bashar committed to the French to install an ambassador in Beirut and begin the border demarcation process by December 31. That deadline passed with an embassy established in Beirut, but no ambassador and no reinvigorated border demarcation process. The lesson learned from the French experience is not "Trust but verify;" it is "Trust but ensure that mutual commitment delivery is incremental and simultaneous."

Asad is an inexperienced, incompetent leader, surrounded by stronger actors whom he is afraid to cross. Bashar al-Asad was schizophrenic in his approach to foreign policy - the president does not like to listen and take advice (as he used to), feeling that he knows everything. On Iran policy, it was not clear that the president fully understands what he is doing. Bashar al-Asad is unabile to act as a "rational dictator" the way his father did. Instead, Bashar has created a "multi-headed dictatorship" that ends up making irrational decisions because he cannot dominate the competing security services and bureacracy as his father did. The son is derided for his ignorance of politics and weakness. Bashar is also viewed as a hypocrite who has duped the more gullible Syrians and Western observers, paying lipservice to reform that he neither believes in nor is capable of implementing. There are frequent criticisms by Syrians [in private] of Bashar as inexperienced, prone to taking bad advice, making decisions that deepened Syria's isolation and squandered its assets.

By 2006 Bashar Asad's growing self-confidence - and reliance on this small clique -- could lead him to make mistakes and ill-judged policy decisions through trademark emotional reactions to challenges. Regime decision-making is limited to Bashar and an inner circle that often produces poorly thought-out tactical decisions and sometimes emotional approaches. Bashar's reported preoccupation with his image and how he is perceived internationally is a potential liability in his decision making process. Bashar's weaknesses are in how he chooses to react to looming issues, both perceived and real. His inexperience and his regime,s extremely small decision-making circle make him prone to diplomatic stumbles that can weaken him domestically and regionally.

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Page last modified: 19-08-2016 13:58:35 ZULU