On 17 July, 2000, Bashar Al-Assad assumed the office of the presidency of the Syrian Arab Republic. A shy and largely unknown figure, in his inaugural address to parliament Al-Assad called upon all Syrian citizens to participate in the “development” and “modernisation” of the country. However, hopes that the new President would usher in an era of reform were short-lived; within a year of assuming office, civil society activists hoping to open Syria up to human rights, democracy, and free speech were imprisoned. The repression at the beginning of his presidency would come to characterise his rule.
What: Bashar Al Assad becomes President of Syria
Where: Damascus, Syria
When: 17 July 2000
The story of Bashar Al-Assad’s ascension to power is not unlike something out of a Shakespearean play. He was not supposed to inherit the role. As the second-born son of Syria’s brutal leader Hafez Al-Assad, who ran the Mediterranean country with an iron fist and extensive secret police network, Bashar was destined for a life in relative obscurity. His older brother Bassel was first in line to replace their father, a role for which he had spent most of his life preparing.
After graduating as a doctor from Damascus University in 1988, Bashar Al-Assad moved to London to study ophthalmology and was training at the Western Eye Hospital when, in January 1994, he was whisked back to Syria after Bassel had been killed in a car accident. His brother’s death meant that he was now next in line and his father began preparing him for the role of president. This included a role in charge of the Syrian army in Lebanon.
On 10 June, 2000, Hafez Al-Assad suffered a heart attack and died while talking with the Lebanese leader Selim Hoss. His sudden death surprised many and tension was high in Syria in the run-up to his funeral. The Syrian authorities were concerned that the dead president’s brother Rifaat Al-Assad might attempt to return to Damascus and take over the reins of power. Rifaat had been exiled to Europe after he attempted to overthrow Hafez in 1984 when the President started having health problems. While the Syrian establishment-backed Bashar Al-Assad to succeed his father, there was a problem; the constitution required a presidential candidate to be over 40 years old. Bashar was just 34, and so the Syrian parliament had to amend the constitution to allow him to take power.
He was inaugurated as President of Syria on 17 July, 2000. In December the same year, he married British-born Asma Akhras, a computer science graduate of Syrian heritage.
While many hoped that Bashar Al-Assad would reform Syria’s political system — a view that was boosted by his calls for ordinary citizens to help develop the country — political reform has remained elusive. Those who responded to his calls to help the country were either silenced or imprisoned within the first 12 months of his rule. However, there were significant shifts in the country’s economic sphere as President Bashar opted for market neoliberalism and opened many of the country’s state owned industries to private businesses. A new economic elite developed under his leadership; most of its members were either related to him or close associates of his family.
His foreign policy has seen Bashar Al-Assad reverse some of his father’s gains. The most notable example was the loss of Lebanon which, since 1976, had been occupied by Syrian troops with the backing of the Arab League and the United States. Lebanon was already embroiled in its Civil War (1975-1990) and it was reasoned that Syria could help bring stability to its neighbour. Syria thus became the dominant power broker in Lebanon with all major political decisions being made in Damascus.
This continued until 2005, when Prime Minister Rafic Hariri was killed by a massive car bomb in Beirut and Syria was widely suspected to be behind the assassination. International pressure and the threat of sanctions forced Bashar Al-Assad to pull Syrian forces out of Lebanon, which was a major loss for his regime. Moreover, during the US occupation of Iraq between 2003 and 2009, Syria was routinely accused of being a transit point for Jihadi extremists crossing into the country. This isolated Damascus internationally even more.
In 2011, protests erupted in the southern city of Daraa after local school children were detained by security forces for spraying graffiti on some walls. The boys were tortured and locals demanded their release from prison. The security forces opted instead to crackdown violently on demonstrations and this turned civil unrest into an uprising.
The Arab Spring had been sweeping Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, and Yemen, and in each country, protesters called for their respective presidents to step down and for new and democratic systems to replace them. The violent repression of demonstrations in Daraa brought the Arab Spring to Syria.
Bashar Al-Assad responded to all of the civil protests across the country with violence, initially with the security forces, and then later by using the military. His extreme response tipped Syria into a civil war, which is still being fought to this day.
Bashar Al-Assad’s rule has left Syria’s in tatters. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed, with millions displaced, and their homes and infrastructure have been destroyed. His regime has been accused of using chemical weapons against his own people, which he denies.
Foreign troops are engaged on both sides of the war, with Russia and Iran backing the Assad regime, and Turkey taking the opportunity to tackle Kurdish separatists and coordinate with Russia in an effort to protect civilians the last rebel stronghold of Idlib. An international coalition ostensibly led by the US has also been involved on and off over the past nine years. The situation on the ground in Syria was complicated further by the emergence of the “Caliphate” of Daesh extremists and opposition groups linked to Al-Qaeda.
Syria’s economy has been shattered, and the value of the currency is in freefall. Presiding over all of this chaos, Bashar Al-Assad is still in power. Calls for him to step down have been ignored as the international community tries to find a political solution with or without Assad at the helm. So far, the efforts have been unsuccessful, and it looks as if Bashar Al-Assad will be President of Syria for the foreseeable future.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.