Middle East

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad: Facing down rebellion

Bashar al-Assad (January 2014) Image copyright AFP
Image caption Bashar al-Assad says he is fighting foreign-backed terrorists in Syria

President Bashar al-Assad of Syria has confounded many observers by holding on to power for more than seven years in the face of a rebellion by a large part of the population.

Unlike his former counterparts in Tunisia and Egypt, when protests against him and his government began in 2011 he gave orders to crush the dissent, rather than tolerate it.

The brutal crackdown by the security forces did not, however, stop the protests and eventually triggered an armed conflict that activists say has left more than 350,000 people dead, displaced 11 million others, devastated cities and drawn in other countries.

Russia and Iran have helped turn the tide of the war decisively in Mr Assad's favour over the past three years, with rebel forces being routed in many areas.

But UN-brokered talks on a political solution to end the fighting have so far failed, with the main sticking point being the future of a president accused of atrocities.

Second son

Born on 11 September 1965, Bashar al-Assad was not always destined for the highest office.

As the second son of President Hafez al-Assad, he was largely left to follow his own interests.

He graduated from the College of Medicine of the University of Damascus in 1988, intending to pursue a career in this field.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The Assad family has ruled Syria for more than four decades

Between 1988 and 1992 he specialised in ophthalmology at Tishrin military hospital in the capital, before going to London to pursue further studies.

After the death of his older brother Basil in a high-speed car crash in 1994, Mr Assad was hastily recalled from the UK and thrust into the spotlight.

He soon entered the Syrian military academy at Homs, and rose through the ranks to become an army colonel in 1999.

In the last years of his father's life, Mr Assad emerged as an advocate of modernisation and the internet, becoming president of the Syrian Computer Society.

He was also put in charge of a domestic anti-corruption drive, which reportedly resulted in prominent figures from the old leadership being put on trial.

Flirtation with reform

Following his father's death in June 2000, after more than a quarter of a century in power, Mr Assad's path to the presidency was assured by loyalists in the security forces, military, ruling Baath Party and his minority Alawite sect.

He was then promoted to the rank of field marshal, and appointed commander of the armed forces and secretary general of the Baath Party.

A July 2000 referendum confirmed him as president with 97% of the vote.

Mr Assad promised wide-ranging reforms, including modernising the economy, fighting corruption and launching "our own democratic experience".

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Bashar al-Assad and his British-born wife Asma were welcomed to the UK in 2002

It was not long before the authorities released hundreds of political prisoners and allowed the first independent newspapers for more than three decades to begin publishing. Intellectuals pressing for reforms were even permitted to hold public political meetings.

But the "Damascus Spring", as it became known, was short-lived.

By early 2001, the intellectuals' meetings began to be closed down, and several leading opposition figures were arrested. Limits on the freedom of the press were also soon put back in place.

For the rest of the decade, emergency rule remained in effect. Security agencies continued to detain people without arrest warrants and held them incommunicado for lengthy periods. And what economic liberalisation there was appears to have benefitted the elite and its allies.

In May 2007, Mr Assad won another referendum with 97% of the vote - criticised as a sham by opposition groups - extending his term for another seven years.

Hardline diplomacy

In foreign policy, Bashar al-Assad continued his father's hardline policy towards historic foe Israel, which has occupied the Syrian Golan Heights since the 1967 Middle East war.

President Assad has insisted there would be no peace with Israel until occupied land was returned "in full" and has supported militant groups opposed to the Jewish state.

His vocal opposition to the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, and the Syrian authorities' tacit support of Iraqi insurgent groups, also prompted anger in Washington, but it was popular in Syria and in the wider region.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Syria withdrew its troops from Lebanon after being blamed for the assassination of Rafik Hariri

Syria's already tense ties with the US soured in the wake of the February 2005 assassination of Lebanon's former Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri.

The finger of suspicion was immediately pointed at President Assad, his inner circle and the Syrian security services, which dominated Lebanon. Despite their denials of involvement, international outrage at the killing forced Syrian troops to withdraw from Lebanon that April, ending a 29-year military presence.

'External conspiracy'

When anti-government protests erupted in the southern city of Deraa in mid-March 2011, President Assad initially appeared to be unsure how to respond.

In his first speech addressing the unrest, he insisted that questions of reform and economic grievances had been overshadowed by a small number of troublemakers and saboteurs who were part of an external conspiracy to undermine Syria's stability and national unity.

The following month, Mr Assad lifted the hated Emergency Law that had been in place since 1963.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Mr Assad initially blamed a small number of troublemakers and saboteurs for the unrest

But days later, the crackdown against protesters was stepped up. Soldiers supported by tanks were sent into restive towns and cities to combat "armed criminal gangs".

Despite the security forces' concerted and ruthless efforts, and pledges by President Assad to start a "national dialogue" on reform, the uprising continued unabated in almost every part of the country. Opposition supporters began to take up arms, first to defend themselves and then to oust loyalist forces from their areas.

Mr Assad denied ordering the military to kill people, saying only a "crazy person" would do so. But in January 2012 he vowed to crush what he called "terrorism" with an "iron fist".

Referendum

Mr Assad pressed ahead with holding a referendum on a new constitution which dropped an article giving the Baath Party unique status as the "leader of the state and society" in Syria. It also allowed new parties to be formed. The government claimed the charter was approved by almost 90% of voters, but the opposition denounced it as sham.

Over the next few months, pressure built the president as rebels seized control of large parts of the north and east of the country and launched offensives against Damascus and Aleppo; four top security chiefs were killed in a bombing; and the opposition National Coalition was recognised as "the legitimate representative" of the Syrian people by more than 100 countries.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Homs, like many Syrian cities and towns, has been devastated by the fighting

By the end of the year, as the death toll passed 60,000, Mr Assad ruled out any peace talks with the rebels, whom he denounced as "enemies of God and puppets of the West".

In early 2013, pro-government forces launched - offensives to recover territory in the south and west of the country, notably in the third city of Homs - once dubbed the "capital of the revolution".

They received a major boost when the Lebanese Shia Islamist movement, Hezbollah, began sending members of its military wing to fight the rebels, whose appeals for heavy weaponry were rejected by Western and Gulf allies concerned by the prominence of jihadists.

Chemical weapons

That August, Mr Assad was forced on the defensive after his supporters were blamed for a chemical weapons attack on the outskirts of Damascus. Hundreds of people died after rockets containing the nerve agent Sarin were fired at rebel-held towns in the Ghouta region.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption UN chemical weapons experts did not ascribe blame for the 2013 Sarin attack on the Ghouta

The US, UK and France concluded that the attack could only have been carried out by government forces, but the president blamed rebel fighters.

Although the Western powers did not carry out their threats to launch punitive air strikes, they did compel Mr Assad to allow the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to destroy Syria's declared chemical arsenal.

The disarmament process ended in June 2014, the same month that Mr Assad run for a third term in office, winning 88.7% of votes cast in areas under his control. Despite the presence of other candidates on the ballot for the first time in decades, many dismissed the election as a farce.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Mr Assad's re-election in 2014 was dismissed by his opponents as a farce

That summer also saw international attention largely shift away from the war between the Syrian government and opposition towards the threat posed by the Islamic State (IS) militants who had overrun large swathes of Syria and Iraq and proclaimed the creation of a "caliphate".

Russian intervention

In the first half of 2015, the government suffered a string of defeats, losing control of the northern provincial city of Idlib to rebel factions and more territory in the east to IS.

Worried by his ally's precarious position, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the start of a major air campaign in support of Mr Assad that September.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Russian air strikes were decisive in the battle for eastern Aleppo in 2016

The Russian military said its strikes would only target "terrorists", but activists said they repeatedly hit mainstream rebel groups and civilian areas.

The intervention swung the conflict heavily in Mr Assad's favour.

Intense Russian air and missile strikes were decisive in the battles for the besieged rebel strongholds of eastern Aleppo in late 2016 and the Eastern Ghouta in early 2018.

UN human rights investigators have accused government and Russian forces of committing war crimes during the offensives, which reportedly left hundreds of civilians dead and led to the forced displaced of tens of thousands.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Russia says 63,000 of its military personnel have seen combat in Syria since 2015

The government has also been accused by a joint UN-OPCW mission of being behind a Sarin attack on the rebel-held northern town of Khan Sheikhoun in April 2017, which opposition health officials say killed more than 80 people, and an alleged chemical attack in the Eastern Ghouta town of Douma in April 2018 that rescue workers say left 40 dead.

The latter prompted the US, UK and France to conduct air strikes that they said targeted facilities associated with the "Syrian regime's chemical weapons programme".

Mr Assad and the Russian military have denied committing war crimes, and said the incidents in Khan Sheikhoun and Douma were "staged" by the opposition and their Western backers.