Will the lion roar?

Following the death of Rafik Hariri, America has turned up the heat on Syria. But as Anil Bhoyrul reveals, president Bashar Assad would much rather be out of the kitchen.

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By  Anil Bhoyrul Published  February 27, 2005

Will the lion roar?|~|PRESSURE-200.jpg|~|PRESSURE: Syria’s president Assad is facing mounting problems.|~|SYRIA’S young president Bashar Assad must sometimes wonder how on earth he ever found himself in his current situation. The forces of America’s military might are as mounting against him. The Lebanese are publicly accusing him on being involved in the killing of Rafik Hariri, while neighbours Israel are pondering over plans for an air strike. Ironically, the 39-year-old eye doctor never even wanted to run the country ruled his father had Hafez ruled for 30 years. The death two weeks ago of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri has put Assad firmly back in the world spotlight. It has led to calls for 17,000 troops to withdraw from Lebanon, and for Assad to clamp down on the terror group’s based in Damascus. But while much of the West sees Assad (the Arabic word for lion) as a leader with parallels to Iraq under Saddam, reality couldn’t be more different. Until just 11 years ago, nobody outside Syria had even heard about the current president. His elder brother Bassel has been seen as the natural heir to the Syrian throne. That all changed in 1994 when Bassel was killed in a car accident. Bashar had been busy forging ahead with his own career in medicine. He studied ophthalmology at the Tishrin military hospital in Damascus from 1988 to 1992, and then travelled to London to resume his studies as an eye doctor. After Bassel’s sudden death Bashar Assad was recalled from London to take over his job as commander of the Syrian army’s armored division. Suddenly, he was thrown into the public and military spotlight. That same year he entered the Syrian military academy, and five years later rose through the ranks of the Syrian Army to become a Colonel. After being appointed as a colonel of the Syrian army, Bashar Al Assad became more involved in state affairs. On several occasions he was sent as a personal representative of President Hafiz Al Assad for discussions with other presidents like Lebanese President, Emile Lahoud, and French President, Jacques Chirac. Currently, President Bashar Al Assad is also the President and Chairman of the Syrian Computer Society, which aims at promoting and improving Information Technology in Syria. After the death of President Hafez Al Assad, support for Assad has been very positive. The Syrian parliament ratified his presidency and their vote was backed by a referendum held on 10 June 2000 for a seven-year mandate. Although the “dictator” tag is often used, since taking office President Assad has freed hundreds of political detainees and allowed the first independent newspapers for more than three decades to start publishing. And Syria’s once-closed economy is opening slowly. Since 1989 the oil and natural gas sector has witnessed a great investment and has become one of the essential resources for the development of the Syrian economy. Syria’s economy has undergone a profound transformation since the early 1970s and is now pluralist: a mix between public, private and joint sectors. Over the past four years, the economy has continued its expansion (an average of 7-8% per annum of real growth), due to a relaxation of economic controls and increased domestic investment and private sector growth. In his first years in office, Assad has also made several gestures, such as legalising the country’s first private newspaper in 50 years, and arresting a former chief of intelligence, Mahmoud Zohby, for corruption. Mobile phones and the internet were legalised. Assad’s marriage to a young Syrian Sunni woman, Aniseh Al Akhras, from London, helped open up ties with Europe. Civil society groups calling for reform sprang up, and members were not arrested. “Put simply, the people in Syria are happy with Assad, regardless of what the rest of the world is saying,” says economic analyst Rogan Khan. He adds: “This is a president who never wanted to be president. He didn’t storm his way into office. He hasn’t locked up all his rivals. But economic reform is clearly more important to him than political reform.” So young is the current leader, he was only 16 in 1982, when an uprising by Islamic fundamentalists and an Israeli invasion of Lebanon threatened the survival of the regime. The “Muslim Brotherhood” had seized control of the northern city of Hama that spring. A few months later, Israel decimated his father’s army in Lebanon and destroyed its air force. Israel then appointed Bashir Gemayel, as Lebanon’s president to undertake further actions against Syria. Assad’s health nearly gave out. A year later, while he languished in hospital with a weak heart, his younger and brother Rifaat put his own troops onto the streets of Damascus to stake a claim to the crown. Hafez Assad, whose enigmatic style led his biographer Patrick Seale to dub him the “sphinx of Damascus”, refused to budge. Assad’s father, who had taken power in a bloodless coup in 1970, it turned out, had cards to play. He armed all the Lebanese militias who resisted the Israeli occupation and the American-led Multinational Peacekeeping Force. With Iran, he helped to create the Shia Muslim Hizbollah. Hizbollah, combining guerrilla war with suicide bombing and the kidnapping of foreigners, drove first the US and then Israel out of the country. Within two years, the Lebanese president whom the US and Israel swore to defend was on his knees begging forgiveness. Syria has named every Lebanese president since. When America needed credible Arab cover for its war to take Kuwait back from Iraq in 1991, it went to Syria. Just as Henry Kissinger had asked Syria to intervene in Lebanon the first time in 1976, his successor, James Baker, negotiated with Hafez Assad to grant Syria a free hand to occupy the Christian eastern half of Beirut and put an end to the civil war in 1991. By then, Assad was back on top. As a student living at home with his older sister and three brothers, Bashar Assad watched his father slowly recover his health and his position. The family’s life was notoriously simple. Patrick Seale told the story in his biography of Assad that the builders who arrived each morning in 1973 to put an air-raid shelter in the basement ended up having coffee with the president and watching his wife bring the family laundry to the washing machine. Seale wrote: “He was more interested in power than its trappings.” Hafez Assad’s death in June 2000 left a young man with little experience to govern a country of 17 million in the world’s most volatile region. As the US turns up the heat on Assad, he appears to show no sign of feeling it, at least in public. Behind the scenes, he appears to be drawing closer to those he trusts, that is, people within his Alawite community and family. His reported appointment of his wife’s brother, Brigadier General Asef Shawkat, as head of military intelligence is one sign that the regime is unlikely to open up while it is under severe pressure. What happens in the coming weeks on the world political stage is far from clear. The US have recalled their ambassador to Syria, and President Bush says he is waiting for the results of a UN inquiry into the death of Hariri before passing judgement. Assad for his part has also been busy on the diplomatic front, making noises over talks with Israel over the Golan Heights. Syria has also entered into a pact with Iran, which effectively means both countries pledging support to each other in times of crisis. But as his father found, the biggest threat to his leadership is likely to come not from the US, but from Lebanon. There, the fall out from Hariri's death continues with may Lebanese now marching on the streets of Beirut openly calling for the withdrawal of Syrian troops from the country. Such scenes would have been unthinkable only a year ago. President Bush, meanwhile, during his visit last week to Europe, said: "The choices for the Syrian people are clear. They must stop sponsoring terrorism, they must give up their nuclear ambitions and they must pull their troops out of Lebanon. These are not threats, these are perfectly reasonable demands which the international community fully expects President Assad to comply with. And nothing less." By late last week, speculation was mounting that Assad may be planning at least a partial withdrawal from Lebanon, although Syrian officials were officially denying this. However, a series of high-level meetings are planned this week between Syrian and Lebanese officials. Whether the Syrian leader will change his stance is unclear. Either way, the chances are he would still rather be an eye doctor. For full story, buy Arabian Business, on sale from February 27.||**||

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