Assad was born on September 11, 1965, in Damascus. When Bashar was only five years old, his father, Hafez al-Assad, took control of the Ba’ath Party in the 1970 revolution, eventually leading to him being elected president that same year.
Bashar received his primary and secondary education in the Arab-French al-Hurriya School in Damascus, graduating in 1982. He then studied medicine at the University of Damascus and graduated as a physician specializing in ophthalmology in 1988. He went to Britain in 1992 to continue his specialization and returned to Syria two years later. Bashar was thrown into politics in 1994 by the death of his older brother Basil (in a car crash), who was being groomed for the presidency. He subsequently joined the military and was promoted to colonel in January 1999.
Immediately following his father’s death on June 10, 2000, the Syrian parliament amended the constitution, reducing the mandatory minimum age of the president from 40 to 34 so Bashar would be legally eligible for nomination by the ruling Ba’ath Party. On July 10, 2000, running unopposed, Bashar was elected to a 7-year term as president by referendum with 97.29% of the vote, according to Syrian government statistics.
In 2005, Assad was blamed for assassinating Rafik Hariri, the former prime minister of Lebanon, because of Hariri’s opposition to Syrian interference in his country.
On May 27, 2007, Assad was reaffirmed by referendum for a second 7-year term with 97.6% of the vote. The same year, Israel destroyed a nuclear reactor Syria was constructing to manufacture nuclear weapons.
In March 2011, widespread discontent with the Ba’athist government led to large-scale protests and pro-democracy rallies across Syria as part of the wider Arab Spring protests in the region. Numerous protests were violently suppressed by security forces in deadly crackdowns ordered by Assad, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths and detentions. The Syrian revolution transformed into an insurgency with the formation of resistance militias across the country, deteriorating into a full-blown civil war by 2012.
The war is fought by several factions. The Syrian Arab Armed Forces, alongside its domestic and foreign allies, represent the Syrian Arab Republic and the Assad government. Opposed to it is the Syrian Interim Government, a big-tent alliance of pro-democratic, nationalist opposition groups (whose military forces consist of the Syrian National Army and allied Free Syrian militias). Another faction is the Syrian Salvation Government, whose armed forces are represented by a coalition of Sunni militias led by Tahrir al-Sham. Independent of them is the de facto autonomous territory of Rojava, whose armed wing is the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Other competing factions include Jihadist organizations such as the Al-Qaeda-branch Hurras al-Din (successor of Al-Nusra Front) and the Islamic State (IS).
Foreign countries, including Iran, Russia, Turkey, and the United States, have been directly involved in the civil war, providing support to opposing factions in the conflict. Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah support the Syrian Arab Republic militarily, with Russia conducting airstrikes and ground operations in the country since September 2015. The Russian intervention turned the tide in the war and ensured Assad’s survival.
Since 2014, the U.S.-led international coalition has been conducting air and ground operations primarily against the Islamic State and occasionally against pro-Assad forces. It has been militarily and logistically supporting factions such as the Revolutionary Commando Army and Rojava’s Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Iranian-linked forces in Syria have attacked U.S. bases on multiple occasions, and America has on several occasions struck back.
Turkish forces currently occupy parts of northern Syria and, since 2016, have fought the SDF, IS, and the Assad government while actively supporting the Syrian National Army (SNA). Between 2011 and 2017, fighting from the Syrian civil war spilled over into Lebanon as opponents and supporters of the Syrian government traveled to Lebanon to fight and attack each other on Lebanese soil.
Besides Russia, Syria became heavily dependent on Iran and its principal ally. Iranian troops and its Hezbollah proxies were establishing bases in Syria from which to threaten Israel. The Israelis repeatedly warned both Syria and Iran not to smuggle weapons or move fighters into the country and launched repeated airstrikes to ensure its security was protected.
In October 2019, Kurdish leaders of Rojava, a region within Syria, announced they had reached a deal with Assad in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal of most of its troops from Syria. The Kurdish leaders needed Syria’s help to stop Turkish forces from attacking them.
By 2020, hopes for regime change had evaporated as the Syrian government-controlled about two-thirds of the country and was consolidating power. Frontline fighting between the Assad government and opposition groups had subsided by 2023. Still, there had been regular flareups in northwestern Syria, and large-scale protests emerged in southern Syria and spread nationwide in response to extensive autocratic policies and the economic situation.
In 2021, Syria held another election. Assad won his fourth 7-year tenure with 95.2% of the eligible votes. The opposition and SDF boycotted the elections, while the refugees and internally displaced citizens were disqualified to vote, enabling only 38% of Syrians to participate in the process.
The war has resulted in an estimated 470,000–610,000 violent deaths, making it the second deadliest conflict of the 21st century after the Second Congo War. The conflict has caused a significant refugee crisis, with millions of people fleeing to neighboring countries such as Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan; however, a sizable minority has also sought refuge in countries outside of the Middle East, with Germany alone accepting over half a million Syrians since 2011.
In November 2023, France issued an international arrest warrant for Assad over the use of banned chemical attacks against civilians. The attacks killed more than 1,400 people in the town of Douma and the district of Eastern Ghouta near Damascus in August 2013. Warrants were also issued for Assad’s brother, Maher, and two generals.
Assad is married to Asma Akhras, a British citizen of Syrian origin, and has three children - Hafez, Zein, and Karim.
U.S. Department of State.
“Bashar al-Assad,” Wikipedia.
“Syrian civil war,” Wikipedia.
Eric Schmitt, “U.S. Carries Out Another Round of Airstrikes on Targets Tied to Iran,” New York Times, (November 12, 2023).
Henry Samuel, “France issues arrest warrant for Assad over chemical weapons war crimes,” The Telegraph, (November 15, 2023).