Assad gearing up for second term

DAMASCUS (AFP) — Syria’s President Bashar Assad is a would-be reformer who is now gearing up for a second seven-year term having refused to bow to international calls for reform.

Assad, running in a no-contest referendum on Sunday, came to power in July 2000 with the reputation of a modernist, but his efforts to implement change fell flat in the face of his late father’s rigid military-political system.

The biggest political challenges have been a UN probe implicating Syria in Lebanese ex-premier Rafiq Hariri’s murder in 2005 and increased isolation over US claims Damascus is backing the insurgency in Iraq and Middle East “terrorists”.

Assad — which means lion in Arabic — showed little interest in politics as a young man but the June 2000 death of his father, Hafez Al Assad who had ruled Syria with an iron grip for three decades, propelled him to power.

When he took office, the slim, blue-eyed opthamology major who is now aged just 41 promised to inject new freedoms and open up Syrian society.

But the reforms he began, known as the “Damascus Spring,” proved short-lived, as members of the old guard stifled his initiatives and steered him towards more orthodox, authoritarian policies.

With little room for manoeuvre, Assad soon began to speak of “economic reform before political reform”, like in China. In 2003, he said the opposition had “misunderstood” his references to democracy during a speech on investment.

Earlier this month, the United States condemned Syria’s jailing of several prominent political activists as proof of the country’s “continued contempt for human rights”.

On the economic front, with oil reserves running out, almost 10 per cent of Syrians live below the poverty line, according to a UN document, amid a housing crisis and high inflation although the economy grew 5.4 per cent in 2006.

Tall but shy, Assad bears an uncanny physical resemblance to his father, from the breakaway Alawite Muslim sect, who took power in a 1970 coup.

The elder Assad proved remarkably adept at navigating crises — both domestic and international — during his 30 years in power, but his son has yet to establish himself in a similar way.

Critics say Assad’s inexperience has made it difficult for him to establish Syria’s place in the new world order, with its former Soviet ally dissolved, the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq that toppled neighbouring Baath Party leader Saddam Hussein, and increasing Western pressure for Syria to democratise.

“Syria has become a dictatorship without a dictator,” said a European diplomat in Damascus.

However, Assad has rejected comments by some observers that he is not really in charge of Syria, saying there is no logic in accusing him of being a dictator on one hand and lacking authority on the other.

“You cannot be a dictator and not in control. If you are a dictator you are in full control… I have my authority by the Syrian constitution,” he told CNN last year.

Born on September 11, 1965, Assad speaks perfect English and French, having studied at the Franco-Arab Al Hurriyet School in Damascus before going to medical school.

There was nothing to suggest that, as the second son of the president, Bashar was destined for high office. Between 1988 and 1992 he chose to study opthalmology in Tehran, before going to London for further studies.

But his life was changed in 1994 by the death in a car crash of his older brother Basil who was being groomed for the presidency.

Bashar, who has two younger brothers, was forced to return to Damascus to embrace politics.

In a country where a military career often opens the door to a political career, Bashar became a tank battalion commander in 1994, then lieutenant-colonel in 1997, before being promoted to colonel in January 1999.

He was elected to the top body of the Baath Party at its first congress for 15 years in June 2000, and parliament passed an amendment to the constitution, scrapping the age limit of 40 to allow Bashar to run for president.

He was elected president with more than 97 per cent of the vote and took office on July 11, 2000.

Assad has two sons and a daughter with his wife, Asma, who comes from a wealthy Sunni family and studied economics and computer technology. The president shares her passion for computers and information technology.

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