Doctor, 'Butcher,' President: The Journey of Syria's Infamous Leader

Everything you need to know about Bashar Assad

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Pro-Syrian regime protester waves a Syrian flag as he stands in front of portrait of Syrian President Bashar Assad, in Damascus, Syria, December 2, 2011
Pro-Syrian regime protester waves a Syrian flag as he stands in front of portrait of Syrian President Bashar Assad, in Damascus, Syria, December 2, 2011Credit: AP

Syrian President Bashar Assad's accession to office at the age of 34 was not assured when his hasty grooming process was cut short by his father's sudden death in June 2000 after ruling Syria for 30 years.

Hafez aAssad's heir apparent had been Bashar's elder brother Basel until he was killed in a car crash in 1994.

Within hours of Hafez Assad's death the Syrian parliament amended the constitution in Assad's favour, cutting the minimum age for the president from 40 to 34. He was then appointed commander of the armed forces and elected secretary of the ruling Baath Party's Regional Command, the party's top policy-making body.

Following his nomination for president by parliament, Assad won overwhelming support in a single-candidate nation-wide referendum. He was formally sworn in for a seven year term on July 17, 2000, vowing to preserve his father's unyielding policy towards Israel and promising to reform the ailing economy.

He kept relatives and members of his minority Alawite faith -- an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam -- in key positions of authority around him.

Assad's first visit abroad after taking office was to Cairo for talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak aimed at bolstering Syria's position in the stalled peace process with Israel. He emulated his father's insistence that any peace treaty with Israel must include the return of all land captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war.

During an historic visit to Syria by Pope John Paul in May 2001 Assad attracted a storm of protest when he accused Jews of betraying Jesus Christ and attempting to kill the Prophet Mohammed. The remarks were widely condemned as anti-Semitic, and although Assad claimed he was misunderstood, successive controversial comments have continued to cause outrage.

In January 2001 Assad married British-born economic analyst Asma al-Akras. The Syrian first lady accompanied her husband on most state visits abroad and played an active part in promoting the role of women.

Seeking better ties with Ankara, Assad became the first Syrian president to visit Turkey in January 2004. Decades of poor relations between the neighbours had been caused by rows over territory, shared water resources and Syria's tacit support for Kurdish separatists fighting in southeast Turkey. The two countries came to the brink of war in 1998 before Damascus expelled Kurdish guerrilla leader Abdullah Ocalan.

Increasingly at odds with Washington, Assad urged Russia to revive its influence in the Middle East. During Assad's fist official visit to Moscow, in January 2005, Russia agreed to write off 73 percent of Syria's Soviet-era debt. The move was seen as a sign Moscow wanted to boost its Middle East role and was ready to take its relations with Syria to a new level.

After the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, Lebanese opposition figures blamed Damascus for the killing and thousands of Lebanese took to the streets to demand Syria end 30 years of military presence and political sway in their country. Assad has always insisted that Damascus had no role in the killing.

Faced with mounting Arab and international pressure, Assad addressed parliament on March 5th, announcing the complete pullout of the 14,000 troops who had remained in Lebanon since Syria's 1976 intervention in the country's civil war.

In May 2007 Assad was returned for a second seven year term, winning 97.6 percent of the vote in an uncontested presidential referendum.

In December 2009 Rafik al-Hariri's son Saad al-Hariri arrived in Damascus on his first official visit to Syria since forming a unity government under his leadership. The visit eased nearly five years of animosity between Damascus and Hariri's "March 14" political alliance which often clashed with Syria's allies in Lebanon, led by the powerful Iranian-backed group Hezbollah.

Six months later Saudi King Abdullah accompanied Assad on a visit to Lebanon in a dramatic attempt to avert a crisis over possible indictments of Hezbollah members in the assassination of Rafik al-Hariri. It was Assad's first visit to Beirut since Rafik al-Hariri's death.

During his years in power, Syria became Iran's closest Arab ally . He portrayed his country as a champion of Arab resistance to Israel, maintaining his foreign policy protected him from the public anger which swept the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya from power in 2011.

Nevertheless, protests against his rule erupted in March 2011 in conservative rural regions and spread to Damascus. Assad sought to crush the protests with a fierce security crackdown while at the same time his government approved legislation to lift nearly 50 years of emergency rule and allow parties other than the ruling Baath Party to be established.

Months of escalating violence and a mounting death toll alienated even sympathetic Arab neighbours.

Assad remained defiant and was able to rally huge crowds for a state-organised demonstration in January 2012. The following month Russia and China vetoed a resolution in the United Nations Security Council, backed by the Arab League, calling for him to step down. In July 2012 a suicide bombing in Damascus delivered the heaviest blow yet to Assad's rule, killing his brother-in-law Assef Shawkat, his Defence Minister Daoud Rajha and two senior security officials. The killings were swiftly followed by the defection to the opposition of his Prime Minister Riyad Hijab.

Assad's public appearances grew rarer as the rebellion gathered force. Several years after the uprising began with mainly peaceful protests Syria has descended into civil war with millions of its citizens displaced.

Assad was dubbed the "Butcher of Damascus" for his regime's brutal crackdown on protests and use of airstrikes and alleged chemical attacks on civilian areas controlled by rebel factions. Allegations of torture and murder emerged from regime controlled prisons as the civil war raged on.

Assad showed no sign of compromising, driven not least by the belief his Alawite sect would be slaughtered if the largely Sunni rebels are victorious. As the war raged on he faced increasing isolation and a resilient opposition intent on his downfall. Assad's regime was accused of using chemical weapons on multiple occasions and twice U.S. and European powers intervene by attacking weapons facilities in response to those attacks.

Russia intervened on his side in 2015 to help bolster Hezbollah fighters who were helping to keep the Assad regime from falling to rebel factions. 

Assad regained the upper hand in Syria's war with the help of Russian air power and Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah forces, retaking all main cities from rebels and militants backed variously by Western powers and Gulf Arabs. 

Assad turns the tide

Assad made his first public visit to his closest regional ally Iran since the start of Syria's war in 2011, meeting Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran on Monday and championing their alliance, state media reported.

Syrian and Iranian state television showed Assad and Khamenei smiling and embracing. Syrian television said the two leaders agreed "to continue cooperation at all levels for the interests of the two friendly nations".

Khamenei was quoted as saying the two countries' military victories in Syria had dealt "a harsh blow" to U.S plans in the region.

Sitting next to Assad was Major General Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran's elite Quds Force - an overseas arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). He has appeared on frontlines across Syria, where his presence has infuriated Sunni-led insurgents who oppose what they view as Shi'ite Iran's expansion in the region.

It was Assad's first known foreign visit other than to Russia since the war began and his first to Tehran since 2010.

Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias have expanded their control over mainly Sunni areas around Damascus, southern and eastern Syria that bore the brunt of the heaviest bombardment and led to mass displacement or emigration to neighbouring countries.

Assad was also briefed by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani about efforts by Russia, Iran and Turkey - supporters of the main sides in the Syrian civil war - to end the conflict.

Syria wants Turkey, which has backed Sunni rebels and carved a sphere of influence in the northwest of the country, to remove its troops from Syrian territory and end its support for rebels.

Efforts have so far failed to make progress towards a political settlement to end a war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced about half of Syria’s pre-war population of 22 million. 

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