How Bashar al-Assad Became So Hated

The Western-educated ophthalmologist was never intended to be the Assad brother in charge. Did his inept policies contribute to the civil war?
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Syria's President Bashar al-Assad speaks at the Opera House in Damascus on January 6, 2013. (Reuters)

The current president of Syria never aspired to be involved in politics. His brother Bassel Al-Assad was being groomed to become his father's successor. His name summoned images of a vocal, shrewd, dynamic man who was a parachutist, a ladies' man, an accomplished athlete, and an outgoing statesman. Bassel al-Assad was very popular and idolized by the Syrian youth. Everyone was certain that he would be the next president of Syria, after his father Hafez al-Assad, the founder of the current regime.

Compared to Bassel, his brother Bashar was not as charismatic or appealing. When I was a student in high school, I would walk the busy streets of Damascus, Aleppo, or Latakia and find the walls and windows of shops and buildings papered with posters and photographs of Bassel. His images were even plastered across cars, but there was not a trace of Bashar's presence.

Did Bashar's idealistic vision of creating a "Switzerland" Syria -- but still consolidating power at the top -- play a role in the uprising

Bashar did not seek out recognition or popularity. He had no interest in being in the middle of politics, as his brother did. In his school days, he was perceived by the Syrian society as a shy, reserved, weak, hesitant child who did not inherit any of his father's or brother's intelligence and leadership. Regardless of the assumptions of the entire country, soon the invisible hand of history would sweep away these perceptions prove everyone wrong.

Unlike his dynamic brother, the people of Syria viewed Bashar as a nerd, not someone with the instincts or the drive to lead a country. "He's certainly not a leader," my cousin, who was later killed in the recent uprising, and his friends would say of Bashar. Even a sympathizer with the regime, an Alawite named Abu Hisham, would say, "Bashar can not stand against powers such as Israel and the United States. We need a leader who is strong like Bassel."

Even Bashar's physical appearance -- his thin frame -- gave him an image of frailness. Nor did Bashar seem interested in projecting leadership; he was looking for a normal, peaceful, luxurious life somewhere in Europe with a prospective wife.

Bassel was following in the footsteps of his father, though he was a little wilder than his father had ever been. Bashar's sister Bushra was confident and influential in the country. Bashar was viewed as the "momma's boy," and was often seen as a bit of a joke, according to Jean-Marie Quemener , a journalist who has written about Assad . (Even during the recent uprising, people would lampoon him in a satirical web series where he is labeled as "Beesho," or "baby Bashar.")

However, while the entire country focused on his alluring older brother, Bashar was educating himself. He learned to be fluent in French at the Arab-French Al Hurriya School in Damascus and graduated from high school the same year of the Hama massacre, during which an estimated 10,000 to 25,000 people were killed by his father. Bashar had a love for medicine, and he continued his education at the University of Damascus. As dedicated as he was to his country, he was always more attracted to the Western style of life than his father and siblings, so after finishing his residency in ophthalmology at the Tishreen military hospital outside of Damascus, Bashar then traveled to England in 1992 to study at the Western Eye Hospital.

At the same time, his father was grooming Bassel to become the future president and vivacious leader that the country expected him to be. Bashar was savoring a comfortable life in a luxurious home and continuing on as a deeply devoted medical student. He appeared to adore the anonymity that London offered him.

Bashar's years living in London made his attraction to the Western style of living to grow even stronger. His later speeches would indicate that he always wondered why Syria had not evolved in a similar way, and that he wished his country was more modernized.

Then one day in 1994, Bashar received the phone call that would alter his life forever. His brother Bassel had died in a car accident. Since that day many have questioned why Bashar's calculative father chose his quiet, subdued son to take his place, rather than Bashar's other brother Maher, who was much more similar to Bassel.

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Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-Syrian scholar, is the president of the International American Council on the Middle East. 

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