Syria conflict – Who is Bashar al-Assad?

Born on September 11, 1965, Bashar al-Assad is the second son of former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, and his wife Anisa. His father, Hafez, rose to power through the Syrian military and the minority Alawite political party before taking control of Syria in 1970.

Bashar al-Assad was educated at the Arab-French al-Hurriya School in Damascus where he learned to speak English and French fluently. He graduated from school in 1982 and continued studying medicine at the University of Damascus, graduating in 1988. He went to London in 1992 to the Western Eye Hospital to further his studies, at this time, the ruler was leading the life of a medical student and had no ambitions to start a political career.

Assad was forced to return to Damascus from London after his older brother Basil – who was initially groomed for the presidency – died in a car crash in 1994, at the age of 33.

He entered the military academy at Homs, located in North Damascus, and was quickly pushed through the ranks and became a lieutenant-colonel in five years. He was then promoted to colonel in January 1999.When Hafez al-Assad died on June 10, 2000, the Syrian parliament quickly voted to lower the minimum age for presidential candidates from 40 to 34, so that Assad could be eligible for the office. He was elected president, officially with more than 97 percent of the vote, and in his inaugural speech, affirmed his commitment to economic liberalization and vowed to carry out some political reform. He was also selected leader of the Ba’ath Party and commander in chief of the military. He rejected Western-style democracy as an appropriate model for Syrian politics.

Despite promises of human rights reforms, not much changed after Assad took office.

In 2006, Syria expanded its use of travel bans against dissidents, preventing many from leaving the country. In 2007, a referendum was held to confirm the presidential candidate with no opposition parties competing. Voters were asked whether they “approve the candidacy of Dr Bashar al-Assad for the post of president of the republic”. Once again, he won with 97 percent of the vote.

In 2007, and again in 2011, social media sites such as Facebook were blocked. Human rights groups have reported that political opponents of Bashar al-Assad were routinely tortured, imprisoned, disappeared, and killed.

According to Human Rights Watch, in 2009, Syria’s human rights situation was one of the worst in the world, and it had “deteriorated further”.