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How Race is Lived in America
June 14, 2000

MAN IN THE NEWS

Bashar al-Assad: The Shy Young Doctor at Syria's Helm

By SUSAN SACHS

 


Agence France-Presse
Bashar al-Assad, Syria's expected new leader, followed his father's coffin on Tuesday.

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DAMASCUS, Syria, June 13 -- This was Bashar al-Assad's first real day on the job as the ruler of Syria.

From 8 in the morning until 8 at night, as his father's coffin was wept over, prayed over and finally buried, Dr. Assad was constantly in the spotlight.

During the long memorial ceremonies today, it was Dr. Assad, standing tall and forlorn, who accepted all of the condolences on behalf of the country and his family.

Television stations in Syria and around the Arab world broadcast live nearly every minute of his debut as a political celebrity. He was sought out by visiting diplomats, princes and foreign ministers for hints about Syria's future direction. In the crowds of mourners around the country, people brandished as many pictures of Dr. Assad as of his father.

It was not supposed to be this way. For years the heir apparent to President Hafez al-Assad was his eldest son, Basil, a dashing and gregarious sportsman who was popular with his army buddies and accepted by many of his father's generation of political operatives.

Bashar al-Assad, the soft-spoken younger brother, an ophthalmologist by training, kept out of the limelight. He was a gangly bachelor and computer buff whose personal blueprint for life appeared to include nothing more public than running a quiet medical practice.

But Basil's death in a high-speed car crash in 1994 suddenly called for a new game plan. Its centerpiece was Dr. Assad, the eldest surviving son.

Since the death of his father on Saturday, this 34-year-old eye doctor who never held a government post has swiftly assumed at least the most visible accouterments of his father's power.

Although his military background is limited, he was selected as commander in chief of the armed forces. And while his political experience is nil, he was nominated as the only candidate in a field of one to assume the presidency in a week or two.

It has been an exhausting climax to his brief six-year apprenticeship in leadership. Death, once again, has changed Dr. Assad's plans.

Bashar al-Assad was born on Sept. 11, 1965, in Damascus, the third of President Assad's five children. He was educated at one of the capital's elite high schools, Al Hurriyeh, where courses were taught in French as well as Arabic. After graduating in 1982, he studied medicine at Damascus University and received a degree as a general practitioner six years later. He trained in the specialty of ophthalmology at a military hospital in Damascus and left for England in 1992 to continue those studies.

Dr. Assad -- long known to Syrians as "Doctor Bashar" -- was considered by his Damascus contemporaries to be a shy young man very much in Basil's shadow. The younger brother came to the attention of most Syrians only after Basil's death, when their father summoned him home from London. He never returned to his studies.

Instead, he was sent to a military academy north of Damascus to acquire the necessary credentials for power and set on the path to become the new ruler-in-waiting.

President Assad slowly introduced the new heir apparent to the outside world, sending him on trips to meet the leaders and journalists of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Oman and, in the riskiest instance, France. In Paris he made headlines by exploring the city without bodyguards.

As Dr. Assad accepted the condolences of hundreds of visitors and well-wishers today, huddling in private with some like Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and President Jacques Chirac of France, his education seemed to have reached jet-propelled speed.

He had appeared to acknowledge, not long before his father's death, that his preparation for power was not yet complete.

In an interview last week with the London-based daily newspaper Asharq al Awsat, Dr. Assad listed his three personal conditions for accepting a nomination from the ruling Baath Party for a political role: his own sense of worthiness, the confidence of others and the articulation of a personal vision of what he could bring to the country.

"I have a lot of respect for experience," he was quoted as saying, "and I am going to try always to acquire it."

Up to that point, Dr. Assad had the luxury of a relatively uncomplicated life in Syria. He is said to have become friends with another young man who inherited his own father's regime, King Abdullah II of Jordan, and once shrugged off the visiting king's protocol organization and bodyguards and took him for a spin in his car around the port city of Latakia.

Most Syrians have expressed public confidence in Dr. Assad, even while conceding that he is young and inexperienced. They know him as the director of the Syrian Scientific Society for Information Technology, which offers computer courses, though only a small percentage of Syrians can afford luxury items like computers.

Thanks to an orchestrated campaign in the state news media to credit him with fighting corruption and promoting a more open economy, Dr. Assad also is seen as a beacon of hope for a new, more relaxed Syria.

He recently told The Washington Post that he personally favored lifting all of hidebound Syria's restrictions on what people read, watch on television or discover on the Internet.

"As a point of principle, I would like everybody to be able to see everything," he was quoted as saying. "The more you see, the more you improve." But others, Dr. Assad added, have their reservations.

One of his challenges will be to avoid disappointing the legions of Syrians who are his age and younger.

"There are very high expectations, because he's young and open and wants to give more liberty and democracy," said Youssef Jedani, a member of the Syrian Parliament and leader of a tiny Arab nationalist party.

But, like his father, Dr. Assad is likely to go slow rather than upset the traditionalists who still control the military and much of the state-run economy.

"I think he'll follow the same rhythm as his father," Mr. Jedani said. "You can't go fast here. You have to wait for things to develop."



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