Just who is this seemingly composed, nattily dressed, English-speaking dictator who has been charged with killing more than 1400 of his own people with chemical weapons on August 21? Among the dead: over 400 children.
Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, 47, has denied committing this heinous act of terror, blaming it instead on rebel groups in his country.
Assad told Charlie Rose of CBS in an interview that took place in Damascus and aired Monday, “We are against any WMD, any weapons of mass destruction whether chemical or nuclear.” He also said that any retaliatory U.S. strikes against his government would only help the al-Qaeda branches in his country: “It’s going to be direct support,” he said in the interview.
Assad also warned Washington that if there is military retaliation, “You’re going to pay the price if you’re not wise. There are going to be repercussions.”
Even as a possible diplomatic breakthrough emerges, it’s clear that few will ever understand the man who two years ago cracked down on his political opponents – killing some 10,000 Syrians. But in an effort to at least get closer to some of the facts of his life, here’s a biographical roundup:
- This Wednesday, September 11, is his 48th birthday. He was born in Damascus, one of four children.
- He’s 6’2” tall.
- He has served as president of Syria since 2000, handpicked by his father, Hafez al-Assad, who ran the country for 30 years after rising through the ranks to seize control of the Syrian branch of the Ba’ath Party. His last name in Arabic means “the lion.”
- Bashar Assad was educated at the Arab-French al-Hurriya School in Damascus. After high school, he studied medicine at Damascus University and later worked as an army doctor.
- He began his post-graduate work in ophthalmology in the U.K., at the Western Eye Hospital, part of the St. Mary’s group of teaching hospitals in London.
- When his older brother Bassel – who had been the heir apparent – was killed in a car crash, Bashar was immediately recalled to Damascus, his education abruptly shortened. His father then began grooming him for the role of future dictator.
- Assad quietly but steadfastly amassed a fortune of over $1 billion while “serving in public office.”
- He met his wife, Asma, a Briton of Syrian descent, while studying in Britain. She grew up in London and worked as an investment banker at JPMorgan in New York. They were married in 2000.
- A country of some 22 million, Syria has been wracked by a violent civil war that began in early 2011 and has so far killed over 100,000 people; it’s also created some two million refugees, half of them children. Peaceful protests presumably inspired by the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia rose up to challenge the country’s iron-fisted dictatorship, but the government responded by openly killing activists and terrorizing their families. Armed civilians then organized into rebel groups.
- Assad is said to have learned from his father: Back in the early 1980s, then-dictator Hafez al-Assad, in responding to a Muslim Brotherhood-led uprising, killed thousands of civilians.
- Russia is Syria’s most vital ally: The country regularly supplies Syria with weapons. Iran is another key ally.
- Writing in The New York Times, Bill Carter and Amy Chozick summed up the appeal of Syria's “glam” first couple by quoting Andrew Tabler, an expert on Syria with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy: “He speaks English, and his wife is hot.”
- To ensure their media image was properly buffed up, the Assads hired American-based PR firms and consultants. Eventually, French Elle magazine called Mrs. Assad one of the best-dressed women in world politics, and in March 2011, a 3,200-word profile in Vogue entitled “A Rose in the Desert” called her “the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies.”