The president known as Dr. Bashar likes to dine out. An eye doctor by training, Bashar Assad is often spotted with his wife and three kids in the homier restaurants of the Syrian capital.
The lanky 39-year-old leader is working on his English and occasionally raves to guests about his digital music player. When he took over the country from his late father in 2000, he told newspapers to stop calling him "immortal leader" and said he had no interest in the cult of personality that had plastered the landscape with statues and photos of his father.
But today the younger Assad is at the center of a widening international crisis: A United Nations inquiry into the Feb. 14 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri held Syria responsible for political tensions leading up to the killing. Investigators say Assad physically threatened Hariri, but the UN stopped short of blaming Syria for the fatal Beirut bombing.
The report further damaged the Syrian president's failing relationship with the West. With Saddam Hussein in prison, and flickers of change in Cairo and Beirut, the Bush administration calls Assad's government a primary obstacle in its bid to promote democracy in the Middle East. Whether the U.S. and Syria are headed for further confrontation may hinge on a central question: Can an authoritarian regime like Assad's reform?
Syrian officials declined Tribune requests for an interview with the president. But interviews with advisers, ministers, rivals, analysts and foreign diplomats, and a review of his record in office, yield the portrait of a leader with far more control of the country than is often ascribed to him.
His handling of Lebanon offers the clearest evidence. After struggling for years to shed his late father's shadow, Assad has made key decisions regarding Syria's influence in Lebanon that have shaped the crisis he confronts today.
In a fateful move, Assad overruled senior advisers and ordered Lebanon to amend its constitution to extend the term of pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud, according to diplomats and several Syrians close to the regime. The decision ignited a Lebanese popular movement that is forcing Assad to withdraw thousands of troops from Lebanon.
The roots of that decision and others lie in the political and familial pressures that created this accidental autocrat--an avowed reformist who never sought the presidency until it was thrust upon him, who appears to lack the political will or capital to confront widespread governmental corruption and repair Syria's reputation as a "rogue regime."
Assad's dedication to political survival has isolated him from Syria's historic allies and stalled reforms. Nearly five years into office, he veers between helping the U.S. and working against it, drawing the ire of an increasingly hostile White House.
"Every day we are working for reform in our institutions," said Syrian Cabinet Minister Bouthaina Shaaban. "But we don't accept the fact that some [Bush] administration officials speak about our country as if we don't exist, as if we need someone to tell us what is going on in the world."
Understanding Assad is important beyond Syria. He is one of an emerging crop of Arab leaders already or soon to be heading authoritarian governments. Jordan's King Abdullah II succeeded his father, Hussein; Saudi leader Crown Prince Abdullah and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak are aging. Whether new leaders such as Assad can break with the past will help determine the prospects for regional democratization.
For Assad, the deepening crisis in Lebanon presents a pivotal test of whether he can bring back Syria from isolation and revamp the regime without losing his grip on power.
"The strange thing about this is that it doesn't need to be this way," said Syrian democracy advocate Ammar Abdulhamid. "If this president decided to be a champion of reform, he might get the West off his back and probably win a few more elections that way. But will this president reach that conclusion?"
An unexpected rise
Assad stands out among today's Arab leaders: He is younger, favors trim European suits and doesn't dominate conversations. And he never set out to be president.
Born Sept. 11, 1965, Bashar is the third child of Hafez and Anisa Assad. His father seized power by coup in 1970 and delivered repressive stability with Soviet backing to a nation that had seen 20 presidents, nearly one a year, since gaining independence in 1946.
Compared with Basil, the outgoing eldest son and presumed heir, Bashar was an unassuming and diligent student. Their father worked constantly, as Basil told his father's biographer Patrick Seale: "We never had breakfast together, or dinner."
Basil joined the military, and Bashar enrolled in Damascus University medical school. In 1992, he moved to London for his residency in ophthalmology, but two years later Basil died after crashing his Mercedes-Benz, catapulting the younger Assad ahead in the line of succession. At the time, the definitive 552-page biography of his father mentioned Bashar on one page.
But upon his return, he soared through military and party ranks: from captain to three-star general in six years. He revitalized the Syrian Computer Society, touting the potential of the Internet. Amr Salem, co-founder of the society, says bureaucrats greeted the Web with suspicion, laying bare how blinkered the country had become.
"We were accused of everything--I was accused of being an American agent. They said you will open up the country to spying, it will make us vulnerable," said Salem, now a lead program manager at Microsoft Corp. in Redmond, Wash.
Bashar visited ministries to discuss technology and, Salem recalled, showed a comfort with criticism that was rare in rigid Syrian politics.
"He was democratic about it. He never forced his opinions," Salem said.
Assad's father died June 10, 2000, and by nightfall, the government had amended the constitutional age for assuming the presidency from 40 to 34--Bashar Assad's age. The next month, a national referendum blessed his leadership with approval of 97 percent.
Nation under pressure
Today, Assad reigns over a country livelier and more modern than his father delivered. Cell phones and satellite dishes bring a constant infusion of information. Damascus' ancient alleys are alight with trendy restaurants and Internet cafes.
But mounting pressures at home and abroad are forcing the regime toward difficult choices.
Yellowed concrete buildings shelter bloated government ministries and state companies. The government vows to curb corruption, but entrenched officials dilute reforms before they have effect.
"We are trying to run a modern state with the same old structure," said Ayman Abdel-Nour, a political analyst and childhood friend of the president's.
The capital's sidewalks bustle with young people facing unemployment estimated at 20 percent. Oil sales keep food on the table and the economy afloat, but economists warn of a reckoning point.
"We have five or six more years of oil money, but then it could become a crisis," said Nabil Sukkar, a former World Bank economist who has advised Assad. "That cushion is not going to be there forever."
Syria's diverse religious and ethnic groups are restless. Hafez Assad brutally protected Syria's secularism--a 1982 government assault on the Muslim Brotherhood in the city of Hama killed at least 5,000 people--but a religious revival is under way. Islamist lawmaker Mohammad Habash calls the overflowing mosques a backlash against the failings of the secular regime.
"After independence, the government . . . went the secular way," he said. "But the problem in the Middle East is that secularism has not given us freedom. So people move to the other side."
Assad and the government's 15 security agencies keep a wary eye on fundamentalists and Kurds, who rioted last year for greater rights. As members of the Alawite religious minority--Syria is majority Sunni Muslim--the Assads are acutely sensitive to upheaval and have moved swiftly to prevent it.
Reform and reversal
At the time, Syrians called it Damascus Spring. Their young president, just months into office, hinted of a new era. He tolerated criticism and pledged modernization. Activists exulted, drafting petitions for free elections and further reform.
But within a year, authorities clamped down. Outside the government, people could only wonder whether Assad or his influential aides had ordered the crackdown. But it would become the pattern of Assad's government: a winding path between tolerance and suppression, isolation and engagement, as he strains to modernize his father's empire without causing its collapse.
He turns toward the U.S. and away from it on key issues such as Iraq, Israel and Lebanon, trying not to provoke the superpower but seeking to avoid the appearance that he bows to it.
The president has freed 600 political prisoners, eliminated martial-law courts and decreed that anyone charged with a crime has the right to a lawyer. Some private banks and newspapers have opened.
Yet he has made no moves to suspend martial law, stage free elections or curb corrupt judges. Engineer and political activist Salim Kheirbek, imprisoned for 13 years by Assad's father, was encouraged by the son's pledges of reform, but those hopes have withered.
"The serious steps for reform in Syria would be to stop working by emergency law and make a new law for political parties. And to now, we have not seen any of them," said Kheirbek, vice president of the Human Rights Association of Syria. "Today they can come and take us at any time because they have the emergency law."
Syria's stance on terrorism is at the heart of its troubled relations with Washington. Syria is one of seven nations that the U.S. classifies as sponsors of terrorism, largely for its ties to Hezbollah, Lebanon's powerful Islamic political and militant movement. Syria also permits leaders of Palestinian factions such as Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine to work from houses in Damascus. The U.S. considers all three groups terrorist, while Assad defends them as "resistance" movements.
The White House accuses Syria of pursuing weapons of mass destruction. An unclassified CIA report to Congress in June 2003 alleged that Syria possesses the nerve agent sarin and still develops a biological capability, though such claims have receded in Washington since the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
But Assad has reached out to the U.S. at crucial moments. He denounced the Sept. 11 attacks and gave the U.S. valuable intelligence on Al Qaeda--cooperation that "saved American lives," then-Assistant Secretary of State William Burns told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in October 2003.
Yet Syria believes its cooperation never yielded warmer relations.
"There are people in the administration who just want to give dictates: `You do this and then we talk,'" said Shaaban, Assad's minister of expatriates. "But you don't deal with countries like this, no matter how small we are. We have our dignity."
Some in Washington believe that the U.S. has missed an opportunity for closer ties by not matching Assad's help on Al Qaeda with tangible benefits.
"Bashar wants to reach some kind of strategic understanding with this administration," said former CIA and National Security Council analyst Flynt Leverett.
"But he feels he can't give up his cards unless he knows what he is going to get in return."
As the U.S. prepared for the invasion of Iraq, Assad publicly backed Hussein. The U.S. accuses Assad of failing to control his borders and sheltering organizers of the Iraqi insurgency.
But supporters of Assad in Washington and Damascus say it is unclear whether Assad even has the ability to stop such border traffic. It echoes a central question in U.S. policy toward Syria: Does the president really run the country?
Old guard and new
At a Damascus meeting in October 2002, Assad waited until his aides left the room before he made a startling admission to Burns. If U.S. officials really hoped to talk to him, Assad said, they must avoid usual government channels and rely only on the special intelligence route created to share data on Al Qaeda. Only that channel, he said, "comes to me unfiltered," according to a former senior U.S. official briefed on the exchange.
Analysts have long described Assad as prisoner to an entrenched "old guard." But there are distinct signs that Assad holds far greater power than he did several years ago--and his decisions have not marked the decisive turn toward reform that many had predicted.
Indeed, some of the "new guard" he has promoted have been shunted aside, while others, including relatives, are becoming as entrenched as the men they replaced.
Three-quarters of the top 60-odd officials in political and security ranks were replaced by the end of 2002, according to German foreign policy analyst Volker Perthes. Last June, Assad retired 500 more military officers over age 60--a delicate move he considers vital to removing checks on his power, advisers say.
"The old officers believe that Hafez al-Assad brought them to power, but that they brought Bashar al-Assad to power," a senior adviser to the government said.
To understand that older generation, visit Jibran Kourieh, who spent 22 years as Syria's lead government spokesman until he retired three years ago. As he puffs a water pipe at a Damascus cafe, his crown of white hair, V-neck sweater and pinstriped suit give the air of an aging apparatchik, reinforced by his contempt for Mikhail Gorbachev as a leader who "destroyed the Soviet Union." Above all, Kourieh blames the U.S. for pressuring Assad into the position he faces today.
But asked how the father might have handled similar pressure, Kourieh said: "If President Hafez al-Assad was here, it wouldn't have reached this point. He passed through very serious situations in his time."
To counter the influence of that old guard, Bashar is turning to younger, largely Western-trained technocrats. His wife, Asma Akhras, a Syrian financial analyst raised in London, has taken a more public role, encouraging a civil society and small businesses. The president's younger brother Maher heads a key military unit, and Bashar promoted his brother-in-law Assef Shawkat to head of military intelligence.
But diplomats and critics say Assad's failure to rein in the economic advantages senior officials and relatives enjoy limits his power to reform the economy. Without Assad combating that corruption, critics say, powerful interests quash change.
"There is urgent need for economic reform," said economist Hussein Amach. "Unemployment is high, poverty is widespread, economic enterprises are losing in every kind of operation. Bureaucratic corruption is widespread."
But Amach knows that voicing such criticism can be dangerous. After openly urging reform of Syria's deeply corrupt public sector, he was fired Jan. 1 as head of Syria's Agency for Combating Unemployment. Like many before him, he had touched the government's rawest nerve. And for Assad, the criticism couldn't have come at a more sensitive time.
The Lebanese challenge
Three decades after his father sent Syrian forces across the border to help quell the Lebanese civil war, Syria's hold over its smaller neighbor is under fire. A Lebanese opposition is forcing Syria to remove about 15,000 Syrian soldiers and intelligence agents. Withdrawal is costly. It would reduce Syria to a nation with little influence beyond its borders and leave it without deep financial roots that Assad's father helped establish.
So when signs emerged last summer that Hariri, the influential businessman and former Lebanese prime minister, intended to push for a Syrian withdrawal, Assad summoned him to Damascus.
According to the UN inquiry, Hariri told friends and aides that Assad had threatened him if he opposed extending the term of Lebanon's pro-Syria president. Assad said he "would rather break Lebanon over the heads of Hariri and [Lebanese opposition leader Walid] Jumblatt than see his world in Lebanon broken," investigators wrote.
Syrian officials dispute that account. But weeks later, Assad overruled several senior aides who suggested finding a new pro-Syrian candidate, and he ordered Lebanese officials to keep Lahoud in place.
Analysts are divided over why Assad would provoke further confrontation with the West by insisting on the extension. Some say he favored the 68-year-old Lahoud because of proven loyalty. Others call it an act of defiance.
Hariri resigned in protest. Months later, on Feb. 14, a bomb detonated as his limousine sped through Beirut, killing him and 20 others and sparking anti-Syrian and pro-Syrian demonstrations.
Syria denies involvement in the Hariri attack. But even longtime Assad allies such as Russia, Saudi Arabia and Egypt demanded an immediate withdrawal of the Syrian troops from Lebanon. Under pressure, Assad has announced that Syrian troops would leave by the end of April, though the Lebanese opposition accuses Syria of intending to maintain a shadow presence of intelligence agents.
As the UN considers launching a second, broader investigation into the assassination, many in Washington and Damascus say Assad's handling of Lebanon ultimately may answer the question of whether he will break with the past.
"I am convinced of this," said Rep. Tom Lantos of California, the ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee, who has met Assad and his father. "He has control of the military and security apparatus, and my feeling is that he both understates and underestimates his internal power and has a grave psychological obstacle to overcome in making a dramatic change."
As the Lebanon crisis builds, U.S. officials are openly discussing the possibility of Assad's downfall. For the moment, though, observers see few threats.
The democracy movement is fragmented and weak. Military leaders, humiliated by the Lebanon withdrawal, could be a source of discontent, but many owe their positions to Assad or his father, and undermining Assad could jeopardize their own financial and political interests.
The most viable challenge could come from the Sunni-led Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. But the Brotherhood has been fractured by years of arrests and, by most accounts, lacks the infrastructure for a strong challenge. Syrian officials hope the prospect of fundamentalism will deter the U.S. from encouraging regime change.
For Assad's part, he no longer bothers to hide his sense of isolation.
"This is how we live today," he recently told a crowd of Syrian expatriates, "in a state of chaos, of misunderstanding and false terminology, which aims to divide cultures and clear the path for more wars and bloodshed."
Lately, the president's forays to restaurants have dried up. On the streets of Damascus, people whisper that he is afraid of assassination.
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Son maintains father's legacy
The Assads have led Syria for 35 years, ruling with a mix of socialist politics, authoritarian tactics and a roguish foreign policy.
In power 1970-2000
After years of political turmoil in Syria, he quickly consolidated power and brought stability. During the first decade of his rule, the Baathist secular agenda was often challenged by Muslim fundamentalists, whom Assad suppressed by force.
In power 2000-present
Early in his reign, he called for reform and permitted greater dissent. But entrenched government and business interests have since quashed momentum. More recently, suspicions about Syria's support for Iraqi insurgents and its role in Lebanon's deepening political crisis have isolated his country from much of the world.
CALL FOR CHANGE
A quiet dissent
The reform movement that blossomed after Bashar Assad's ascent to president in 2000 has been largely derailed since.
But the nascent democracy in neighboring Iraq has increased calls for minority rights in a country with its share of ethnic divisions. Among those seeking reform are humanrights activists, a large Kurdish minority and those who want a greater role for Islam in public life.
Sunni Muslim: 74%
Alawite Muslim: 12%
CLAIMS ON LEBANON
A Greater Syria?
Syria exerts control over its smaller neighbor, due in part to claims by some in both countries that Lebanon is part of a Greater Syria.
The territory that makes up both countries, which had been part of the Ottoman Empire, was put under a French mandate after World War I.
In 1926, Lebanon became a country apart from Syria, although it did not become independent from France until 1943.
Syria sent troops to Lebanon in 1976 at the outbreak of that country's civil war, and they have remained ever since, although Syria recently began withdrawing them.
Syria: 18.0 million
Lebanon: 3.8 million
Syria: $21.5 billion
Lebanon: $19.0 billion
At odds on many fronts
Relations between the U.S. and Syria have been strained by several longstanding and recent issues:
Syria has been on a U.S. list of states that sponsor terrorism since the list's inception in 1979. In recent years, the U.S. has criticized
Syria's support of Lebanon's Hezbollah militia and Palestinian militant groups. However, Syria has provided the U.S. with valuable intelligence on Al Qaeda.
Syria is critical of U.S. support for its sworn enemy Israel, which captured the Golan Heights from Syria in 1967.
Syria opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. U.S. officials
believe that insurgents have been entering Iraq through Syria, perhaps with the approval of the Syrian government.
Syria's pursuit of weapons of mass destruction--particularly chemical weapons--and its links to terrorism led to U.S. economic sanctions in 2004.
Syria became an independent nation in 1946, but over the next two decades, political upheaval was the norm. The leftist Baath Party seized power in 1963, but it wasn't until Hafez Assad took power that the country achieved political stability.
Minister of Defense Hafez Assad seizes power. He becomes president
the next year.
Syria sends troops to Lebanon to intervene in its civil war. They have
Remained for decades.
The Syrian military crushes a revolt by members of the fundamentalist
Muslim Brotherhood in the city of Hama. At least 5,000 are killed.
Syria joins the U.S.-led coalition opposing Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.
Assad dies at 69. His 34-year-old son, Bashar, replaces him.
Syria opposes the U.S.-led war in Iraq. The U.S. increases pressure on Syria to stop supporting terrorism and pursuing weapons of mass destruction.
Sources: U.S. State Department, CIA World Factbook, Congressional Research Service, ESRI, GDT
Chicago Tribune / Adam Zoll and Steve Layton
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