June 14, 2000
MAN IN THE NEWS
Bashar al-Assad: The Shy Young Doctor at Syria's Helm
By SUSAN SACHS
AMASCUS, Syria, June 13 -- This was Bashar
al-Assad's first real day on the job as the ruler of
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
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
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
"I have a lot of respect for experience," he was
quoted as saying, "and I am going to try always to
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
One of his challenges will be to avoid disappointing the legions of Syrians who are his age
"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
"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."