By Alex Bregman
Who is Bashar Assad, the man at the center of the Syrian crisis? What got him into power, and what keeps him there?
He was born the second son of Hafez Assad, who seized power in Syria in a coup and held it, with an iron grip, from 1970 to 2000.
As part of a religious minority, a Muslim sect known as the Alawites, the Assad family needed the full support of the military to avoid uprisings and often used that force to suppress their opposition, most notoriously in 1982, crushing an uprising in the town of Hama and killing as many as 30,000 people.
Bashar was never supposed to be president. His charismatic older brother, Bassel, was the heir apparent, but in 1994 he was in a car accident on a Damascus highway and died.
At the time Bashar was in London training for an ophthalmology career. He was called home and succeeded his father, whose health was failing.
When he became president in 2000, Assad promised to make Syria less repressive. There was even talk of a “Damascus Spring.” But soon it was business as usual, with the government rigging elections and cracking down on political opponents.
In 2011, when antigovernment rebels rose up against the regime, Assad initially offered new elections and political reform. But despite those overtures, he ultimately called on his country’s security forces to carry out a campaign of imprisonment, torture and murder.
Over the past five years, there have been many calls for Assad to step down. In 2011, President Barack Obama said, “The Syrian regime has chosen the path of murder and the mass arrests of its citizens. … The Syrian people have shown their courage in demanding a transition to democracy. President Assad now has a choice: He can lead that transition, or get out of the way.”
Those calls intensified in recent days after video of a grisly and barbaric chemical attack was broadcast around the world, leading to U.S. military strikes against Assad.
Now at least some in the Trump Administration are saying Assad must go. U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley said recently, “In no way do we see peace in that area with Assad as the head of the Syrian government.”
Despite little evidence that the Syrian people are behind him, Assad recently said that if he doesn’t have their support he will step aside. He told Yahoo News earlier this year: “I would worry if I’m in that position and I don’t have the public support. This is going to be a big problem for me, and — I can’t bear it.”
Meanwhile, Syria has become the epicenter of a global crisis — at least 400,000 people killed, millions of refugees, a hotbed for ISIS and a potential powder keg for the U.S. as Russia and Iran continue to prop up the Assad regime.
As the human toll continues to mount and the world’s superpowers navigate their role in the region, Syria’s president will continue to be the man in the middle. So when you hear the name Bashar Assad, who he is and how he got there, at least you can say, “Now I can get it.”
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