Bashar Hafez al-Assad (Arabic: بشار حافظ الأسد Baššār Ḥāfiẓ al-ʾAsad, Levantine pronunciation: [baʃˈʃaːr ˈħaːfezˤ elˈʔasad]; born 11 September 1965) is the President of Syria, commander-in-chief of the Syrian Armed Forces, General Secretary of the ruling Ba'ath Party and Regional Secretary of the party's branch in Syria. On 10 July 2000, he was elected president succeeding Hafez al-Assad, his father, who had led Syria for 30 years and died in office a month prior. In both the Syrian presidential election, 2000 and subsequent 2007 election, Bashar Assad received votes in his favor in the upper 90th percentile in uncontested elections where other candidates were not permitted to run against him. On 16 July 2014, Bashar Assad was sworn in for a new seven-year term, after taking 88.7% of votes in the presidential elections, running against two regime sanctioned candidates, the first contested presidential election in Ba'athist Syria's history. An international delegation  from more than 30 countries including Bolivia, Brazil, Cuba, Ecuador, India, Iran, Iraq, Nicaragua, Russia, South Africa and Venezuela issued a statement claiming the election was "free, fair and transparent".
Assad graduated from the medical school of Damascus University in 1988, and started to work as a doctor in the army. Four years later, he attended postgraduate studies at the Western Eye Hospital, in London, specialising in ophthalmology. In 1994, after his elder brother Bassel was killed in a car crash, Bashar was recalled to Syria to take over Bassel's role as heir apparent. He entered the military academy, taking charge of the Syrian occupation of Lebanon in 1998. In December 2000, Assad married Asma Assad, born Akhras.
The form of government Assad presides over has been designated as an authoritarian regime by political scientists. The Assad regime describes itself as secular, while experts contend that the regime exploits ethnic and sectarian tensions in the country to remain in power. The regime's sectarian base relying upon the Alawite minority has been noted.
Once seen by the domestic and international community as a potential reformer, Assad disappointed those expectations definitively when he ordered crackdowns and military sieges on Arab Spring protesters, leading to the Syrian Civil War. The Syrian opposition, the United States, Canada, the European Union and the majority of the Arab League had called for al-Assad's resignation from the presidency. During the Syrian Civil War, an inquiry by the United Nations human rights chief found evidence to implicate Assad in war crimes and crimes against humanity. Assad was included in a list of 20 sample war crimes indictments of government officials and rebels handed to the International Criminal Court, by David Crane, an American professor at Syracuse University College of Law in New York. In November 2014, the prosecutor of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon announced that evidence would be brought against Assad.
Childhood and education: 1965–1988
Bashar al-Assad was born in Damascus on 11 September 1965, the second oldest son of Anisa Makhlouf and Hafez al-Assad. His last name in Arabic means "the lion"; Assad's peasant paternal grandfather had changed the family name from Wahsh (meaning "Savage") when acquiring minor noble status in 1927. His father, born to an impoverished rural family of Alawite background, rose through the Ba'ath Party ranks to take control of the Syrian branch of the Party in the 1970 Corrective Revolution, culminating in his rise to the Syrian presidency. Hafez al-Assad promoted his supporters within the Ba'ath Party, many of whom were also of Alawite background. After the coup, Alawite strongmen were installed and Sunni, Druze and Ismaili individuals were systematically arrested and purged from the army and Ba'ath party.
Assad had five siblings, three of whom are deceased. A sister named Bushra died in infancy. Assad's youngest brother, Majd al-Assad, was not a public figure and virtually nothing is known about him other than he was mentally or emotionally disabled, and according to SANA he died in 2009 after a "long illness". Unlike his brothers Bassel and Maher, and second sister, also named Bushra, Bashar was quiet and reserved and says that he lacked interest in politics or the military, and the Assad regime's personality cult focused on Bassel prior to his death. Bashar was said to have been bullied by his older brother Bassel. The Assad children reportedly rarely saw their father, and Bashar later stated that he only entered his father's office once while he was in power and he never spoke about politics with him. He received his primary and secondary education in the Arab-French al-Hurriya School in Damascus. In 1982, he graduated from high school and went on to study medicine at Damascus University.
In 1988, Assad graduated from medical school and began working as an army doctor in the biggest military hospital, "Tishrin", on the outskirts of Damascus. Four years later, he went to the United Kingdom to begin postgraduate training in ophthalmology at the Western Eye Hospital, part of the St Mary's group of teaching hospitals in London. Bashar at the time had few political aspirations. His father had been grooming Bashar's older brother Bassel as the future president. Bashar, however, was recalled in 1994 to the Syrian Army, after Bassel's death in a car accident.
Rise to power: 1994–2000
Soon after the death of Bassel, Hafez Assad made the decision to make Bashar the new heir-apparent. Over the next six and half years, until his death in 2000, Hafez went about systematically preparing Bashar for taking over power. Preparations for a smooth transition were made on three levels. First, support was built up for Bashar in the military and security apparatus. Second, Bashar's image was established with the public. And lastly, Bashar was familiarized with the mechanisms of running the country.
To establish his credentials in the military, Bashar entered in 1994 the military academy at Homs, north of Damascus, and was propelled through the ranks to become a colonel in January 1999. To establish a power base for Bashar in the military, old divisional commanders were pushed into retirement, and new, young, Alawite officers with loyalties to him took their place.
Parallel to his military career, Bashar was engaged in public affairs. He was granted wide powers and became a political adviser to President Hafez al-Assad, head of the bureau to receive complaints and appeals of citizens, and led a campaign against corruption. As a result of his campaign against corruption, Bashar was able to remove his potential rivals for president.
In 1998, Bashar took charge of Syria's Lebanon file, which had since the 1970s been handled by Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam, one of the few Sunni officials in the Assad regime, who had until then been a potential contender for president. By taking charge of Syrian affairs in Lebanon, Bashar was able to push Khaddam aside and establish his own power base in Lebanon. In that same year after minor consultation with Lebanese politicians, Bashar installed Emile Lahoud, a loyal ally of his, as the President of Lebanon and pushed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri aside, by not placing his political weight behind his nomination as prime minister.
Damascus Spring and pre–Civil War: 2000–2011
Al-Assad was elected president by an unopposed ballot on 10 July 2000. Immediately after Assad took office, a reform movement made cautious advances during the Damascus Spring, which led to the shut down of Mezzeh prison and the declaration of a wide ranging amnesty releasing hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood affiliated political prisoners. However, security crackdowns commenced again within the year. The New York Times reported that soon after Assad assumed power, he "made Syria’s link with Hezbollah — and its patrons in Tehran — the central component of his security doctrine."
In 2005, the former prime minister of Lebanon was assassinated. The Christian Science Monitor reported that "Syria was widely blamed for Hariri’s murder. In the months leading to the assassination, relations between Hariri and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad plummeted amid an atmosphere of threats and intimidation." The BBC reported in December 2005: "New Hariri report 'blames Syria'."
On 27 May 2007, Bashar was approved as president for another seven-year term, with the official result of 97.6% of the votes in a referendum without another candidate.
In his foreign policy, Assad is an outspoken critic of the United States, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. Until he became president, Assad was not greatly involved in politics; his only public role was head of the Syrian Computer Society, which introduced the Internet to Syria in 2001.
During the Syrian Civil War
Mass protests in Syria began on 26 January 2011. Protesters called for political reforms and the re-instatement of civil rights, as well as an end to the state of emergency which had been in place since 1963. One attempt at a "day of rage" was set for 4–5 February, though it ended uneventfully. Protests on 18–19 March were the largest to take place in Syria for decades and the Syrian authority responded with violence against its protesting citizens.
First, limited, sanctions against the Assad government were imposed by the U.S. in April 2011, followed by Barack Obama's executive order as of 18 May 2011 targeting Bashar Assad specifically and six other senior officials. On 23 May 2011, the EU foreign ministers agreed at a meeting in Brussels to add Assad and nine other officials to a list affected by travel bans and asset freezes. On 24 May 2011, Canada imposed sanctions on Syrian leaders, including Assad.
On 20 June, in a speech lasting nearly an hour, in response to the demands of protesters and foreign pressure, Assad promised a national dialogue involving movement toward reform, new parliamentary elections, and greater freedoms. He also urged refugees to return home from Turkey, while assuring them amnesty and blaming all unrest on a small number of saboteurs. Assad blamed the unrest on "conspiracies" and accused the Syrian opposition and protestors of "fitna", breaking with the Syrian Ba'ath Party's strict tradition of secularism.
In July 2011, U.S. foreign minister Hillary Clinton said president Assad had “lost legitimacy.” On 18 August 2011, Barack Obama issued a written statement echoed by the leaders of the UK, France, and Germany, that urged President Assad to "step aside".
In August, Syrian security forces attacked the country's best-known political cartoonist, Ali Farzat, a noted critic of Assad's regime and its five-month crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators and dissent. Relatives of the severely beaten humorist told Western media that the attackers threatened to break Farzat's bones as a warning for him to stop drawing cartoons of government officials, particularly Assad. Farzat was hospitalized with fractures in both hands and blunt force trauma to the head.
Since October 2011, Russia, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, repeatedly vetoed Western-sponsored draft resolutions in the UN Security Council that would have left open the possibility of UN sanctions, or even military intervention, against the Bashar Assad government.
By the end of January 2012, it was reported that over 5,000 civilians and protesters (including armed militants) had been killed by the Syrian army, militia (Shabiha) and security agents, while 1,100 people had been killed by the anti-regime forces.
On 10 January 2012, Assad gave a speech in which he maintained the uprising was engineered by foreign countries and proclaimed that "victory [was] near". He also said that the Arab League, by suspending Syria, revealed that it was no longer Arab. However, Assad also said the country would not "close doors" to an Arab-brokered solution if "national sovereignty" was respected. He also said a referendum on a new constitution could be held in March.
On 27 February 2012, Syria claimed that a proposal that a new constitution be drafted received 90% support during the relevant referendum. The referendum introduced a fourteen-year cumulative term limit for the president of Syria. The referendum was pronounced meaningless by foreign nations including the U.S. and Turkey; the European Union announced fresh sanctions against key regime figures. In July 2012, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov denounced Western powers for what he said amounted to blackmail thus provoking a civil war in Syria.
On 6 January 2013, Assad, in his first major speech since June, said that the conflict in his country was due to "enemies" outside of Syria who would "go to Hell" and that they would "be taught a lesson". However he said that he was still open to a political solution saying that failed attempts at a solution "does not mean we are not interested in a political solution."
After the fall of four regime military bases in September 2014, which were the last government footholds in Raqqa province, Assad received significant criticism from his Alawite base of support. This included remarks and symbolic gestures made by Douraid al-Assad, cousin of Bashar al-Assad, demanding the resignation of the Syrian Defence Minister, Fahd Jassem al-Freij, following the massacre by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant of hundreds of regime troops captured after the ISIL/ISIS victory at Tabqa Air base. This was shortly followed by Alawite protests in Homs demanding the resignation of the governor, and the dismissal of Assad's cousin Hafez Makhlouf from his security position leading to his subsequent exile to Belarus. Growing resentment towards Assad among Alawites was fuelled by the disproportionate number of soldiers killed in fighting hailing from Alawite areas, a sense that the Assad regime has abandoned them, as well as the failing economic situation exacerbated by government corruption. Figures close to the Assad regime began voicing concerns regarding the likelihood of its survival, with one saying in late 2014; "I don’t see the current situation as sustainable ... I think Damascus will collapse at some point."
Several members of the Assad family who were once considered untouchable died in Latakia under unclear circumstances, raising questions about the Assad family's influence in the pro-government bastion. On 14 March 2015, an influential cousin of Bashar Assad and founder of the shabiha, Mohammed Toufic Assad, was assassinated with five bullets to the head in a dispute over influence in Qardaha. The village is the ancestral home of the Assad family, and the cousin had been previously injured in a dispute in 2012. In April 2015, Assad ordered the arrest of his cousin Munther al-Assad in Alzirah, Lattakia. It remains unclear whether Munther al-Assad's arrest was due to actual crimes or plotting against the regime. After a string of government defeats in northern and southern Syria, analysts noted growing government instability coupled with continued waning support for the Assad government among its core Alawite base of support, and that there were increasing reports of Assad relatives, Alawites, and business men fleeing Damascus for Latakia and foreign countries. Intelligence chief Ali Mamlouk was placed under house arrest sometime in April by the regime, and stood accused of plotting with Bashar Assad's exiled uncle Rifaat al-Assad to replace Bashar as president. Further high profile deaths included the commanders of the Fourth Armoured Division, the Belli military airbase, the army's special forces and of the First Armoured Division, with an errant air strike in Palmyra after the regime's collapse in the Tadmur offensive (2015) killing two officers who were reportedly related to Assad.
Since Russian intervention in September 2015
In early September 2015, against the backdrop of reports that Russia was deploying troops in Syria ready for combat, Russian president Vladimir Putin said that while such talk was "premature", Russia was "already providing Syria with sufficiently serious help: with both materiel and training soldiers, with our weapons". Shortly after the start of direct military intervention by Russia on 30 September 2015 at the formal request of the Syrian government, Russian president Vladimir Putin said the military operation had been thoroughly prepared in advance and defined Russia′s goal in Syria as "stabilising the legitimate power in Syria and creating the conditions for political compromise".
In November 2015, Bashar Assad re-iterated that a political process to end the country's civil war could not begin while it was occupied by "terrorists". On 22 November 2015, Bashar Assad said that within two months of its air campaign Russia had achieved more than the U.S.-led coalition in its fight against ISIL for a year. In a televised interview broadcast by Česká televize on 1 December 2015, he said that the Western leaders who demand his resignation were of no interest to him, as he said nobody takes them seriously because they are "shallow" and controlled by the U.S. At the end of December 2015, senior U.S. officials privately admitted that Russia had achieved its central goal of stabilising the Assad government and, with the costs relatively low, could sustain the operation at this level for years to come.
In January 2016, Russian president Putin said that Russia was supporting Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces and was ready to back anti-Assad rebels as long as they were fighting ISIL. On 11 January 2016, the senior Russian defence ministry official said that the "Russian air force was striking in support of eleven groups of democratic opposition that number over 7 thousand people."
On 22 January 2016, FT, citing anonymous "senior western intelligence officials", claimed that Russian general Igor Sergun, the director of GRU, the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, had shortly before his sudden death on 3 January 2016 been sent to Damascus with a message from Vladimir Putin asking that president Bashar Assad step aside. Assad was said to have "angrily refused", Sergun’s failed mission in Damascus leaving Assad "more entrenched than before". The newspaper′s report was promptly denied by Putin′s spokesman.
Syria under Bashar Assad's rule
As a result of the Syrian Civil War, "government-controlled Syria is truncated in size, battered and impoverished". Economic sanctions (the Syria Accountability Act) were applied long before the Syrian Civil War by the United States, and were joined by the European Union and other countries at the outbreak of the civil war, causing the regime to slowly disintegrate. These sanctions were reinforced in October 2014 by the EU and US. Industry in parts of the country that are still Assad regime held is heavily state-controlled, with economic liberalization being reversed during the current conflict. The London School of Economics has stated that as a result of the Syrian Civil War, a war economy has developed in Syria, similar to USA and the United Kingdom.
A 2014 European Council on Foreign Relations report found that:
The Syrian economy lies in ruins. Assets and infrastructure have been destroyed, half of the population lives below the poverty line, and the human development index has fallen back to where it stood 37 years ago. It is estimated that even with average annual growth rate of 5 percent it would take nearly 30 years to recover Syria’s 2010 GDP value."
A United Nations commissioned report by the Syrian Centre for Policy Research states that two thirds of the Syrian population now lives in "extreme poverty". Unemployment stands at 50 percent. In October 2014 a $50 million mall opened in Tartus provoked criticism from regime supporters, and was seen as part of the Assad regime's policy of attempting to project a sense of normalcy throughout the civil war. A regime policy to give preference to families of slain soldiers for government jobs was cancelled after it caused an uproar, while rising fuel prices and corruption caused protests in regime controlled areas. In December 2014 the EU banned sales of jet fuel to the Assad regime, forcing the regime to buy more expensive uninsured jet fuel shipments in future.
Since 2014, the Assad regime has bought oil directly from ISIL. A business man operating in both regime and ISIL controlled territory has stated; “Honestly speaking, the regime has always had dealings with ISIS, out of necessity.” Rising fuel prices were exacerbated by the airstrikes of the American-led intervention in Syria on ISIS controlled oil fields, as the Assad regime was no longer able to buy oil from ISIS at favorable rates, thus forcing the regime further into survival mode. ISIS established trade lines with Syrian rebels in northern Aleppo Governorate, with fuel and oil being sent from ISIS territory in exchange for food and basic supplies. These supply lines came temporarily under a blockade in June 2015, before a new agreement was reached between the rebels and ISIL and they were reopened. At its height ISIS was making $40 million a month from the sale of oil primarily to the Assad regime, as thousands of spreadsheets and accounts kept by ISIS oil boss Abu Sayyaf revealed, documents which were retrieved in the biggest intelligence raid in US Special Forces' history in 2015.
A 2007 law required internet cafes to record all the comments users post on chat forums. Websites such as Wikipedia Arabic, YouTube and Facebook were blocked intermittently between 2008 and February 2011.
Human Rights groups, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have detailed how the Assad regime's secret police routinely tortured, imprisoned, and killed political opponents, and those who speak out against the regime. In addition, some 600 Lebanese political prisoners are thought to be held in regime prisons since the Syrian occupation of Lebanon, with some held for as long as over 30 years. Since 2006 it expanded the use of travel bans against dissidents. In that regard, Syria is the worst offender among Arab states. The Syrian mukhabarat is Alawite dominated.
In an interview with ABC News in 2007 he stated: "We don't have such [things as] political prisoners," yet The New York Times reported the arrest of 30 Syrian political dissidents who were organizing a joint opposition front in December 2007, with 3 members of this group considered to be opposition leaders being remanded in custody. Foreign Policy magazine editorialized on his position in the wake of the 2011 protests:
During its decades of rule... the Assad family developed a strong political safety net by firmly integrating the military into the government. In 1970, Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, seized power after rising through the ranks of the Syrian armed forces, during which time he established a network of loyal Alawites by installing them in key posts. In fact, the military, ruling elite, and ruthless secret police are so intertwined that it is now impossible to separate the Assad government from the security establishment.... So... the government and its loyal forces have been able to deter all but the most resolute and fearless oppositional activists. In this respect, the situation in Syria is to a certain degree comparable to Saddam Hussein’s strong Sunni minority rule in Iraq.
It was reported that 200,000 political prisoners were in jail in Syria for opposing the Assad regime.
War crimes and crimes against humanity
The FBI has said that at least 10 European citizens were tortured by the Assad regime while detained during the Syrian Civil War, potentially leaving Assad open to prosecution by individual European countries for war crimes committed under his rule. Stephen Rapp, the United States Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues, has argued that Assad's crimes are the worst seen since those of Nazi Germany. In March 2015, Rapp further stated that the case against Syrian President Bashar Assad is "much better" than those against Slobodan Milošević of Serbia or Charles Taylor of Liberia, both of whom were indicted by international tribunals.
In a February 2015 interview with the BBC, Assad described accusations that the Syrian Arab Air Force used barrel bombs as "childish", claiming that his forces have never used these types of bombs and responded with a joke about not using "cooking pots" either. The BBC Middle East editor conducting the interview, Jeremy Bowen, later described Assad's claim regarding barrel bombs as "patently not true". The Syrian Arab Air Force's use of barrel bombs is well documented.
In March 2015 a report published by Physicians for Human Rights documented that the Assad regime was responsible for the vast majority of the deaths of 600 medical workers since the Syrian Civil War began; 88% of recorded attacks on hospitals and 97% of killings of medical workers were attributed to Assad's forces.
For the last three years evidence compiled by the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA), made up of investigators and legal experts who formerly worked on war crimes tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda and for the international criminal court, have cooperated with a team of 50 Syrian investigators to indict Bashar al-Assad and 24 senior members of his regime.
Nadim Shehadi, the director of The Fares Center for Eastern Mediterranean Studies stated that “In the early 1990s, Saddam Hussein was massacring his people and we were worried about the weapons inspectors [...] Bashar Assad did that too. He kept us busy with chemical weapons when he massacred his people”. A 2015 report by the Syrian Network for Human Rights found that 49 of 56 major massacres displaying "obvious sectarian or ethnic cleansing traits" were carried out by the Assad regime.
In September 2015, France began an inquiry into Assad's regime for crimes against humanity, with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius stating "Faced with these crimes that offend the human conscience, this bureaucracy of horror, faced with this denial of the values of humanity, it is our responsibility to act against the impunity of the killers".
"The mass scale of deaths of detainees suggests that the government of Syria is responsible for acts that amount to extermination as a crime against humanity," head of the UN commission of inquiry on Syria, Paulo Pinheiro, told reporters in Geneva in February 2016, with the commission finding "unimaginable abuses" by the Assad regime including women and children as young as seven perishing while being held by the Syrian authorities. "There are reasonable grounds to believe that high-ranking officers -- including the heads of branches and directorates -- commanding these detention facilities, those in charge of the military police, as well as their civilian superiors, knew of the vast number of deaths occurring in detention facilities," the UN commission's report stated, "Yet (they) did not take action to prevent abuse, investigate allegations or prosecute those responsible".
In March 2016, the House Foreign Affairs panel of the United States House Committee on Foreign Affairs called for a resolution led by New Jersey Republican Rep. Chris Smith, calling on the Obama administration to create a war crimes tribunal to investigate and prosecute violations "whether committed by the officials of the Government of Syria or other parties to the civil war".
Iraq War and Insurgency
Assad opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq despite a long-standing animosity between the Syrian and Iraqi governments. Assad used Syria's seat in one of the rotating positions on the United Nations Security Council to try to prevent the invasion of Iraq. Following the Iraq invasion by US and allied forces, Assad was accused of supporting the insurgency in Iraq.
According to veteran U.S intelligence officer Malcolm Nance, the Syrian government had developed deep relations with former Vice Chairman of the Iraqi Revolutionary Command Council Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri. Despite the historical differences between the two Ba'ath factions, Al-Douri reportedly urged Saddam to open oil pipelines with Syria, building a financial relationship with the Assad family. After the 2003 Invasion of Iraq, al-Douri allegedly fled to Damascus where he organised the National Command of the Islamic Resistance which co-ordinated major combat operations during the Iraqi insurgency. In 2009, General David Petraeus, who was at the time heading the United States Central Command, told reporters from Al Arabiya that al-Douri was residing in Syria.
The U.S commander of the coalition forces in Iraq George W. Casey, Jr. accused Assad of providing funding, logistics, and training to insurgents in Iraq to launch attacks against U.S. and allied forces occupying Iraq. Iraqi leaders such as former national security advisor Mowaffak al-Rubaie and former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki have accused Assad of harbouring and supporting Iraqi militants.
At the outset of the Arab Spring, Syrian state media focused primarily upon Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, demonizing him as pro U.S. and comparing him unfavorably with Assad. Assad told the Wall Street Journal in this same period that he considered himself "anti-Israel" and "anti-West", and that because of these policies he was not in danger of being overthrown.
Involvement in Lebanon
Assad argued that Syria's gradual withdrawal of troops from Lebanon, beginning in 2000, was precipitated as a result of the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and ended in May 2005.
According to testimony submitted to the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, when talking to Rafic Hariri at the Presidential Palace in Damascus in August 2004, Bashar Assad allegedly said to him, "I will break Lebanon over your [Hariri's] head and over Walid Jumblatt's head" if Émile Lahoud was not allowed to remain in office despite Hariri's objections; that incident was thought to be linked to Hariri's subsequent assassination. Rafik Hariri’s attempts to reduce tensions with Syria were considered a “mockery” by Assad, journalist and ad-hoc Lebanese-Syrian intermediary Ali Hamade stated before the Special Tribunal for Lebanon in early 2015.
Despite gaining re-election in 2007, Assad’s position was considered by some to have been weakened by the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon following the Cedar Revolution in 2005. There has also been pressure from the U.S. concerning claims that Syria is linked to terrorist networks, exacerbated by Syrian condemnation of the assassination of Imad Mughniyeh, Hezbollah military leader, in Damascus in 2008. Interior Minister Bassam Abdul-Majeed stated that, "Syria, which condemns this cowardly terrorist act, expresses condolences to the martyr family and to the Lebanese people."
The United States, European Union, the March 14 Alliance, Israel, and France accuse Assad of providing practical support to militant groups active against Israel and against opposition political groups. The latter category would include most political parties other than Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad. According to the Middle East Media Research Institute, Assad claimed the United States could benefit from the Syrian experience in fighting organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood at the Hama Massacre.
In April 2008, Assad told a Qatari newspaper that Syria and Israel had been discussing a peace treaty for a year, with Turkey as a go-between. This was confirmed in May 2008, by a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. As well as a peace treaty, the future of the Golan Heights is being discussed. Assad was quoted in The Guardian as telling the Qatari paper:
... there would be no direct negotiations with Israel until a new US president takes office. The US was the only party qualified to sponsor any direct talks, [Assad] told the paper, but added that the Bush administration "does not have the vision or will for the peace process. It does not have anything."
According to leaked American cables, Assad called Hamas an "uninvited guest" and said "If you want me to be effective and active, I have to have a relationship with all parties. Hamas is Muslim Brotherhood, but we have to deal with the reality of their presence," comparing Hamas to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood which was crushed by his father Hafez al-Assad. He then claimed Hamas would disappear if peace was brought to the Middle East.
Assad has indicated that the peace treaty that he envisions would not be the same kind of peace treaty Israel has with Egypt, where there is a legal border crossing and open trade. In a 2006 interview with Charlie Rose, Assad said "There is a big difference between talking about a peace treaty and peace. A peace treaty is like a permanent ceasefire. There's no war, maybe you have an embassy, but you actually won’t have trade, you won't have normal relations because people will not be sympathetic to this relation as long as they are sympathetic with the Palestinians: half a million who live in Syria and half a million in Lebanon and another few millions in other Arab countries."
During the visit of Pope John Paul II to Syria in 2001, Assad requested an apology to Muslims for the medieval Crusades and criticised Israeli treatment of Palestinians. Comparing their suffering to that endured by Jesus Christ in Palestine, Assad claimed that followers of Judaism "tried to kill the principles of all religions with the same mentality in which they betrayed Jesus Christ and the same way they tried to betray and kill the Prophet Muhammad." Responding to claims that his comment was antisemitic, Assad said that whereas Judaism is a racially heterogeneous religion, the Syrian people are the core of the Semitic race and therefore are opposed to the term antisemitism. When offered to retract his comment implying that the Jews were responsible for Jesus' suffering, Assad replied, "As always, these are historical facts that we cannot deny," and stressed that his remarks were not anti-Jewish. In February 2011, Bashar backed an initiative to restore 10 synagogues in Syria, which had a Jewish community numbering 30,000 in 1947, but had only 200 Jews by 2011.
Assad met with U.S. scientists and policy leaders during a science diplomacy visit in 2009 and he expressed interest in building research universities and using science and technology to promote innovation and economic growth.
North Korea has aided Syria in developing and enhancing its ballistic missiles program. They also helped Syria develop a nuclear reactor in the Deir ez-Zor region. The reactor was destroyed by the Israeli Air Force in 2007 during Operation Orchard.
While hosting an 8 March 2015 delegation from North Korea led by North Korean Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Sin Hong Chol, Assad stated that Syria and North Korea were being "targeted" because they are "among those few countries which enjoy real independence".
Al-Qaeda and ISIS
In 2001, Assad condemned the September 11 attacks. In 2003, Assad revealed in an interview with a Kuwaiti newspaper that he doubted the organization of al-Qaeda even existed. He was quoted as saying, "Is there really an entity called al-Qaeda? Was it in Afghanistan? Does it exist now?" He went on further to remark about bin Laden commenting, he "cannot talk on the phone or use the Internet, but he can direct communications to the four corners of the world? This is illogical."
Since the Iraq War and Syrian Civil War Assad's relationship with al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has been subject to much attention. In 2014, terrorism expert Peter R. Neumann maintained, citing Syrian records captured by the US military in the Iraqi border town of Sinjar and leaked State Department cables, that "in the years that preceded the uprising, Assad and his intelligence services took the view that jihad could be nurtured and manipulated to serve the Syrian government’s aims". Other leaked cables contained remarks by US general David Petraeus while commanding the US Army during the Iraq war, stating that "Bashar al-Asad was well aware that his brother-in-law ‘Asif Shawqat, Director of Syrian Military Intelligence, had detailed knowledge of the activities of AQI facilitator Abu Ghadiya, who was using Syrian territory to bring foreign fighters and suicide bombers into Iraq", with later cables adding that Petraeus thought that "in time, these fighters will turn on their Syrian hosts and begin conducting attacks against Bashar al-Assad’s regime itself". During the Iraq War, the Assad regime was accused of training jihadis and facilitating their passage into Iraq, with these infiltration routes remaining active until the Syrian Civil War; US General Jack Keane has stated that "Al Qaeda fighters who are back in Syria, I am confident, they are relying on much they learned in moving through Syria into Iraq for more than five years when they were waging war against the U.S. and Iraq Security Assistance Force". Iraqi president Nouri al-Maliki threatened Assad with an international tribunal over the matter, and ultimately lead to the 2008 Abu Kamal raid, and United States airstrikes within Syria during the Iraq War.
During the Syrian Civil War, multiple opposition and anti-Assad parties in the conflict have accused Assad of collusion with ISIS to some degree. Several sources have claimed that ISIS prisoners were strategically released from Syrian prisons at the beginning of the Syrian Civil War in 2011. The Assad regime has bought oil directly from both ISIS and al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front. United States Secretary of State John Kerry has stated that the Assad regime has tactically avoided ISIS forces in order to weaken moderate opposition such as the Free Syrian Army, as well as "even purposely ceding some territory to them [ISIS] in order to make them more of a problem so he can make the argument that he is somehow the protector against them". An IHS Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Center database analysis confirmed that only a small percentage of Assad regime attacks were targeted at ISIS in 2014. The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces has stated that the Assad regime has operatives inside ISIS, as has the leadership of Ahrar ash-Sham. ISIS members captured by the FSA have claimed that they were directed to commit attacks by Assad regime operatives. Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi disputed such assertions in February 2014, arguing that "ISIS has a record of fighting the regime on multiple fronts", many rebel factions have engaged in oil sales to the Syrian regime because it is "now largely dependent on Iraqi oil imports via Lebanese and Egyptian third-party intermediaries", and while "the regime is focusing its airstrikes [on areas] where it has some real expectations of advancing" claims that it "has not hit ISIS strongholds" are "untrue". He concluded: "Attempting to prove an ISIS-regime conspiracy without any conclusive evidence is unhelpful, because it draws attention away from the real reasons why ISIS grew and gained such prominence: namely, rebel groups tolerated ISIS."
The UK’s Ambassador to the United Nations Mark Lyall Grant concluded at the outset of the American-led coalition intervention in Syria that "ISIS is a monster that the Frankenstein of Assad has largely created". French President Francois Hollande stated regarding the airstrikes, "Assad cannot be a partner in the fight against terrorism, he is the de facto ally of jihadists". Analyst Noah Bonsey of the International Crisis Group has suggested that ISIS are politically expedient for Assad, as "the threat of ISIS provides a way out [for Assad] because the regime believes that over time the U.S. and other countries backing the opposition will eventually conclude that the regime is a necessary partner on the ground in confronting this jihadi threat", while Robin Wright of the Middle East studies at the Wilson Center has stated "the outside world’s decision to focus on ISIS has ironically lessened the pressure on Assad. And he’s getting away literally with murder on a daily basis". In May 2015, Mario About Zeid of the Carnegie Middle East Center stated that the recent Hezbollah offensive "has exposed the reality of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) in Qalamoun; that it is operated by the Syrian regime's intelligence", after ISIS in the region engaged in probing attacks against FSA units at the outset of the fighting.
On 1 June 2015, the United States stated that the Assad regime was "making air-strikes in support" of an ISIS advance on Syrian opposition positions north of Aleppo. Referring to the same ISIS offensive, the president of the Syrian National Coalition Khaled Koja accused Assad of acting "as an air force for ISIS", with the Defence Minister of the SNC Salim Idris stating that approximately 180 Assad regime officers were serving in ISIS and coordinating the group's attacks with the Syrian Arab Army. Christopher Kozak of the Institute for the Study of War states that "Assad sees the defeat of ISIS in the long term and prioritizes in the more short-and medium-term, trying to cripple the more mainline Syrian opposition [...] ISIS is a threat that lots of people can rally around and even if the regime trades … territory that was in rebel hands over to ISIS control, that weakens the opposition, which has more legitimacy [than ISIS]". A media consultant who works directly for Assad threatened the Druze community in Suwayda with allowing ISIS to attack them if they refused to let their sons join the Syrian Arab Army; the Druze continued to refuse to be associated with the Assad regime, and ISIL attacks subsequently occurred soon after in northern Suwayda.
In 2015, al-Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate, issued bounty worth millions of dollars for the killing of Assad. The head of the al-Nusra Front, Abu Mohammad al-Julani, said he would pay "three million euros ($3.4 million) for anyone who can kill Bashar al-Assad and end his story". As of 2015, Assad's regional main opponents, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, are openly backing the Army of Conquest, an umbrella rebel group that reportedly includes an al-Qaeda linked al-Nusra Front and another Salafi coalition known as Ahrar ash-Sham. In the course of the conflict, ISIS has repeatedly massacred pro-government Alawite civilians and executed captured Syrian Alawite soldiers, with most Alawites supporting Bashar al-Assad, himself an Alawite. ISIS, al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front and affiliated jihadist groups reportedly took the lead in an offensive on Alawite villages in Latakia Governorate of Syria in August 2013. Assad condemned the November 2015 Paris attacks, but added that France's support for Syrian rebel groups had contributed to the spread of terrorism, and rejected sharing intelligence on terrorist threats with French authorities unless France altered its policy.
In 2016, Syrian Democratic Forces found paperwork including regime bank statements at a recently captured oil refinery during the Al-Shaddadi offensive (2016) showing that ISIS had sold oil to the Assad regime, with a SDF commander stating; "The regime says that it's fighting terrorists, but it's not really. In fact, it's always maintained economic ties. Bashar Assad controls nothing anymore and he has a massive logistical lead in terms of oil especially so he's bought oil from the jihadists, and in return, he's supplied them with weapons".
Public and personal life
Domestic opposition and support
The Druze in Syria have largely sought to remain neutral, "seeking to stay out of the conflict" according to some, while according to others over half support the regime despite its relative weakness in Druze areas. The "Sheikhs of Dignity" movement, which had sought to remain neutral and to defend Druze areas, blamed the regime after its leader Sheikh Wahid al-Balous was assassinated and led to large scale protests which left 6 regime security personnel dead. It has been claimed at various stages of the Syrian Civil War that other religious minorities such as the Alawites and Christians in Syria favor the regime of Bashar al-Assad's because of its appearance as a secular government, however opposition exists among Assyrian Christians who have stated that the Assad regime seeks to use them as "puppets" and deny their distinct ethnicity which is non-Arab. Syria's Alawite community is widely written about in the foreign media as the hard core support base of the Assad government and is said to dominate the regime's security apparatus, yet in April 2016 Alawite leaders released a document seeking to distance themselves from both Assad and Shia Islam stressing that "Alawites should not be associated with the crimes the [Assad] regime has committed".
In 2014, the Christian Syriac Military Council, the largest Christian organization in Syria, formed an alliance with the Free Syrian Army opposed to Assad, joining other Syrian Christian militias such as the Sutoro who had joined the Syrian opposition against the Assad regime.
In June 2014, Assad won a controversial election held in regime held areas (and ignored in opposition held areas and Kurdish areas governed by the PYD) with 88.7% of vote Syrian presidential election. Individuals interviewed in a "Sunni-dominated, middle-class neighborhood of central Damascus" claimed wide support for Assad among the Sunnis in Syria. Attempts to hold an election under the circumstances of an ongoing civil war were criticized by UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon.
Assad has attracted support from the far-right both before and during the Syrian Civil War. Former leader of the Ku Klux Klan David Duke hosted a televised speech on Syrian national television in 2005. The Ukrainian far-right figure Georgy Shchokin was invited to Syria in 2006 by the Syrian foreign minister and awarded a medal by the Ba'ath party, while Shchokin's institution the Interregional Academy of Personnel Management awarded Assad with an honorary doctorate. In 2014, research by the Simon Wiesenthal Center concluded that Bashar al-Assad had, like his father Hafez al-Assad, sheltered Nazi war criminal Alois Brunner in Syria. Brunner was Adolf Eichmann’s top lieutenant and was believed to have advised the Assad regime on torture techniques and on purging Syria's Jewish community. Brunner is thought to have died in Syria of natural causes in 2010.
The National Front in France has been a prominent supporter of Assad since the civil war, as has the former leader of the neo-fascist Third Way (Troisième voie) organization. In Italy, the far-right parties Forza Nuova and CasaPound have both been supportive of Assad, with Forza Nuova putting up pro-Assad posters and the party's leader praising Assad's commitment to the ideology of Arab nationalism in 2013, while CasaPound has issued statements of support for Assad. Syrian Social Nationalist Party representative Ouday Ramadan has worked in Italy to organize support movements for Assad. Other far-right political parties expressing support for Assad include the National Democratic Party of Germany, the National Revival of Poland, the Freedom Party of Austria, the Bulgarian Ataka party, the Hungarian Jobbik party, the Serbian Radical Party, the Portuguese National Renovator Party, as well as the Spanish Falange Española de las JONS and Authentic Falange parties. The Greek Neo-Nazi political party Golden Dawn has spoken out in favor of the Assad regime, and the more radical Strasserist group Black Lily has claimed to have sent mercenaries to Syria to fight alongside the Syrian regime, specifically mentioning their participation in the Battle of al-Qusayr.
Far-right politician Nick Griffin, the former leader of the British National Party, has been chosen by the Assad regime to represent the United Kingdom as an ambassador and at regime-held conferences; Griffin had been an official guest of the Assad regime three times since the outbreak of the civil war. The European Solidarity Front for Syria, representing several extreme right political groups from across Europe, has had their delegations received by the Syrian national parliament, with one particular delegation being met by Syrian head of parliament Mohammad Jihad al-Laham, Prime Minister Wael Nader Al-Halqi and Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad. In March 2015, Assad met with Filip Dewinter of the Belgian far-right party Vlaams Belang. Most recently Assad met with a far-right French delegation, including former leader of the youth movement of the National Front Julien Rochedy.
Left-wing support for Assad has been split since the start of the Syrian Civil War; the Assad regime has been accused of cynically manipulating sectarian identity and anti-imperialism to continue its worst activities. Before the Civil War, British politician George Galloway said of Bashar al-Assad, and the country he leads, during a visit to the University of Damascus in November 2005: "For me he is the last Arab ruler, and Syria is the last Arab country. It is the fortress of the remaining dignity of the Arabs," and a "breath of fresh air," Galloway later criticized the Assad regime at the outset of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, dismissing its "gross distortions" regarding the uprising.
Hadash has expressed support for the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The leader of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, reiterated his full support for the Syrian people in their struggle for peace and reiterates its strong condemnation of "the destabilizing actions that are still in Syria, with encouragement from members of NATO". The leader of the National Liberation Front, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, has sent a cable of congratulations to President of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, on the occasion of winning the presidential elections. The leader of Guyana's People's Progressive Party, Donald Ramotar, said that Assad's win in the presidential election is a great victory for Syria. The leader of the African National Congress, Jacob Zuma, congratulated Assad on winning the presidential elections. The leader of the Sandinista National Liberation Front, Daniel Ortega, has said that President Assad's victory [in the presidential elections] is an important step to "attain peace in Syria and a clear cut evidence that the Syrian people trust their president as a national leader and support his policies which aim at maintaining Syria's sovereignty and unity". The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine supports the Assad regime. The leader of Fatah, Mahmoud Abbas, has said that electing President Assad means "preserving Syria's unity and sovereignty and that it will help end the crisis and confront terrorism, wishing prosperity and safety to Syria".
International public relations
In order to promote their image and media-portrayal overseas, Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma al-Assad hired American and United Kingdom-based PR firms and consultants. Notably, these secured photoshoots for Asma al-Assad with fashion and celebrity magazines, including Vogue's March 2011 "A Rose In The Desert". These firms included Bell Pottinger Group and Brown Lloyd James, with the latter being paid $5,000 a month for their services.
At the outset of the Syrian Civil War, Syrian government networks were hacked by the group Anonymous, revealing that an ex-Al Jazeera journalist had been hired to advise Assad on how to manipulate the public opinion of the United States. Among the advice was the suggestion to compare the popular uprising against the regime to the Occupy Wall Street protests. In a separate e-mail leak several months later by the Supreme Council of the Syrian Revolution, which were published by The Guardian, it was revealed that Assad's consultants had coordinated with an Iranian government media advisor. In March 2015, an expanded version of the aforementioned leaks with nearly 3,000 additional emails from Assad’s personal account, were handed to NOW News and published the following month; the emails detail attempts to manipulate the opinion of American Christians, flirtatious emails between Assad and a Paris-based geneticist Dr. Suzanne Kuzbari, attempts to organize the kidnapping of individuals with border smugglers, attempts to falsify the results of a poll on the FOX News website, frequent remarks showing contempt for the Arab people, and emails from Fawaz Akhras (Asma al-Assad's father) discussing 9/11 conspiracy theories, how "Jews" created Al-Qaeda and how "Hitler was the founding father of the state of Israel”. One email showed Assad's wife Asma Assad sharing a modified version of the famous Arab Nationalist song Biladol Orb Awtani, changing the lyrics from "The Arab provinces are my homelands” to "The Russian provinces are my homelands”.
After the Syrian Civil War began, the Assad regime began a social media campaign which included an online presence on Facebook, YouTube, and most notably Instagram. A Twitter account for Assad was reportedly activated, however it remained unverified. This resulted in much criticism, and was described as "a propaganda campaign that ultimately has made the [Assad] family look worse". The Assad regime has arrested and forced disappeared pro-regime activists for creating Facebook groups that the regime disapproved of, as well as appealed directly to Twitter to remove accounts it disliked. The social media campaign as well as the previously leaked e-mails lead to comparisons with Hannah Arendt's A Report on the Banality of Evil. In 2013, Assad's 11-year-old son made a post on Facebook calling American soldiers "cowards with new technology" and claiming that Syria would beat America "just like Hezbollah defeated Israel" if they attacked.
In the Summer of 2014, the Syrian Ministry of Defense provided photos to the Material Evidence. Syria. Ukraine exhibition that took place in Berlin and New York City, a self described "photo journalism" exhibition critical of democracy efforts in Ukraine and Syria that sought to ask questions such as "Who is taking advantage of the Syrian war and of what happened to this country?".
In October 2014, images from some 27,000 photographs of torture committed by the Assad regime and smuggled out of the country by a Syrian Army defector during the Syrian Civil war were put on display at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The lawyers were hired to write the report by the British law firm Carter-Ruck, which in turn was funded by the Government of Qatar.
In November 2014, the Quilliam Foundation reported that a propaganda campaign launched "with the full backing of Assad" spread false reports of European jihadist deaths in order to draw attention away from Assad regime war crimes. Using a picture of a Chechen fighter from the Second Chechen War, pro-Assad media reports disseminated to Western media outlets leading them to publish a false story regarding the death of a non-existent British jihadist.
Assad speaks fluent English and basic conversational French, having studied at the Franco-Arab al-Hurriyah school in Damascus. In December 2000, Assad married Asma Assad, born Akhras, a British citizen of Syrian origin, from Acton, London. In 2001, they became the parents of their first-born child, named Hafez after the child's grandfather Hafez al-Assad. Zein was born in 2003 and Karim in 2004. Bashar Assad's sister Bushra al-Assad and mother Anisa al-Assad left Syria in 2012 and 2013 respectively and are living in the United Arab Emirates.
Honours and awards
|Image||Award or decoration||Country||Date||Place||Note||Ref|
|Order of Prince Yaroslav the Wise||Ukraine||21 April 2002|||
|Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Order of Francis I||Two Sicilies||21 March 2004||Damascus||Dynastic order of the House of Bourbon-Two Sicilies; Revoked several years later by HRH the Duke of Castro.|||
|Knight Grand Cross with Collar of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic||Italy||11 March 2010||Damascus||Highest ranking honour of the Republic of Italy. Revoked by the President of the Republic on 28 September 2012 for "indignity".|||
|Collar of the Order of the Liberator||Venezuela||28 June 2010||Caracas||Highest Venezuelan state order.|||
|Grand Collar of the National Order of the Southern Cross||Brazil||30 June 2010||Brasília||Brazil's highest order of merit.|||
|Grand Cordon of the National Order of the Cedar||Lebanon||31 July 2010||Beirut||Second highest honour of Lebanon.|||
|High Medal of Honor of the Islamic Republic of Iran||Iran||2 October 2010||Tehran||Highest national medal of Iran.|||