- Title: FILE: Bashar al-Assad seeks re-election in midst of civil war
- Date: 31st May 2014
- Summary: BEIRUT, LEBANON (FILE - FEBRUARY 21, 2005) (ORIGINALLY 4:3) (REUTERS) THOUSANDS OF ANTI-SYRIAN PROTESTERS GATHERED AT SITE OF HARIRI ASSASSINATION PROTESTERS MARCHING WAVING LEBANESE FLAGS AND ANTI-SYRIAN BANNERS
- Reuters ID: LVA94QFFJJRST76HSIJ24KOGCW7J
- Location: Egypt
- Country: Egypt
- Duration: 00:00:09
- Topics: General
- Story Text: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad looks set to win Tuesday's (June 3) presidential election which his Western and Arab foes have dismissed as a parody of democracy.
Syria's opposition leaders in exile, barred from standing by a constitutional clause requiring candidates to have lived in Syria continuously for 10 years, dismissed the vote as a charade.
The constitution also says candidates must have the backing of 35 members of the pro-Assad parliament, effectively ruling out dissenting voices from the campaign.
The National Coalition, Syria's main opposition umbrella group in exile, said Assad's determination to win another term in office showed he was not interested in a negotiated settlement to the conflict.
Some 160,000 people have been killed in Syria's conflict, which started when protests against Assad's rule erupted in March 2011, inspired by other Arab uprisings.
Demonstrations were put down by force and the uprising became an armed insurgency which now pits mainly Sunni Muslim rebels and foreign jihadis against forces loyal to Assad, who is from Syria's Alawite minority - an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.
Another 2.5 million refugees have fled Syria, many smuggling themselves across the frontier to avoid Assad's security forces. Election commission head Hisham al-Shaar was quoted by Syria's Al-Watan newspaper as saying Syrians who had left the country illegally would not be eligible to vote.
The president has been backed by Iran and Russia and his soldiers have been reinforced by Shi'ite fighters from Iraq and Lebanon's militant group Hezbollah, while regional Sunni Muslim powers have backed the rebels.
Assad's accession to office at the age of 34 was not assured when his hasty grooming process was cut short by his father's sudden death in June 2000 after ruling Syria for 30 years. Hafez al-Assad's heir apparent had been Bashar's elder brother Basel until he was killed in a car crash in 1994.
Assad was abruptly recalled from his medical studies in London and during the next six years he was rapidly promoted through the military. He was put in charge of policy in Lebanon and dispatched to meet Middle Eastern leaders.
Within hours of Hafez al-Assad's death the Syrian parliament amended the constitution in Assad's favour, cutting the minimum age for the president from 40 to 34.
He was then appointed commander of the armed forces and elected secretary of the ruling Baath Party's Regional Command, the party's top policy-making body.
Following his nomination for president by parliament, Assad won overwhelming support in a single-candidate nationwide referendum. He was formally sworn in for a seven year term on July 17, 2000, vowing to preserve his father's unyielding policy towards Israel and promising to reform the ailing economy.
He kept relatives and members of his minority Alawite faith -- an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam -- in key positions of authority around him.
Assad's first visit abroad after taking office was to Cairo for talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak aimed at bolstering Syria's position in the stalled peace process with Israel. He emulated his father's insistence that any peace treaty with Israel must include the return of all land captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war.
In March 2001 Assad attended an Arab League Summit in Amman where he publicly offered an olive branch to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to end years of rancour between the Syrian and Palestinian leaderships. Ties between Arafat and Syria deteriorated after he secretly negotiated the 1993 Oslo interim peace accords with Israel, which Damascus saw as a betrayal of joint Arab action.
During an historic visit to Syria by Pope John Paul in May 2001 Assad attracted a storm of protest when he accused Jews of betraying Jesus Christ and attempting to kill the Prophet Mohammed. The remarks were widely condemned as anti-Semitic, and although Assad claimed he was misunderstood, successive controversial comments have continued to cause outrage.
In January 2001 Assad married British-born economic analyst Asma al-Akras. The Syrian first lady accompanied her husband on most state visits abroad and played an active part in promoting the role of women in business and initiating credit schemes to encourage sustainable development in rural areas.
In contrast to the 1991 Gulf War, when Syria contributed troops to end the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, Assad strongly opposed the 2003 U.S-led invasion of Iraq. After overthrowing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, Washington accused Assad of harbouring fleeing Iraqi officials, hiding Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and failing to stop anti-U.S. fighters from crossing into Iraq from Syrian soil.
Seeking better ties with Ankara, Assad became the first Syrian president to visit Turkey in January 2004. Decades of poor relations between the neighbouring countries had been caused by rows over territory, shared water resources and Syria's tacit support for Kurdish separatists fighting in southeast Turkey. The two countries came to the brink of war in 1998 before Damascus expelled Kurdish guerrilla leader Abdullah Ocalan.
Increasingly at odds with Washington, Assad urged Russia to revive its influence in the Middle East. During Assad's first official visit to Moscow, in January 2005, Russia agreed to write off 73 percent of Syria's Soviet-era debt. The move was seen as a sign Moscow wanted to boost its Middle East role and was ready to take its relations with Syria to a new level.
In February 2005, following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, Lebanese opposition figures blamed Damascus for the killing and thousands of Lebanese took to the streets to demand Syria end 30 years of military presence and political sway in their country. Assad has always insisted that Damascus had no role in the killing.
Faced with mounting Arab and international pressure, Assad addressed parliament on March 5th, announcing the complete pullout of the 14,000 troops who had remained in Lebanon since Syria's 1976 intervention in the country's civil war.
In May 2007 Assad was returned for a second seven year term, winning 97.6 percent of the vote in an uncontested presidential referendum.
In December 2009 Rafik al-Hariri's son Saad al-Hariri arrived in Damascus on his first official visit to Syria since forming a unity government under his leadership. The visit eased nearly five years of animosity between Damascus and Hariri's "March 14" political alliance which often clashed with Syria's allies in Lebanon, led by the powerful Iranian-backed group Hezbollah.
Six months later Saudi King Abdullah accompanied Assad on a visit to Lebanon in a dramatic attempt to avert a crisis over possible indictments of Hezbollah members in the assassination of Rafik al-Hariri. It was Assad's first visit to Beirut since Rafik al-Hariri's death.
During his 13 years in power, Syria became Iran's closest Arab ally and Assad forged closer ties with Turkey and Qatar. He portrayed his country as a champion of Arab resistance to Israel, maintaining his foreign policy protected him from the public anger which swept the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya from power in 2011.
Nevertheless, protests against his rule erupted in March 2011 in conservative rural regions and spread to Damascus. Assad sought to crush the protests with a fierce security crackdown while at the same time his government approved legislation to lift nearly 50 years of emergency rule and allow parties other than the ruling Baath Party to be established.
Months of escalating violence and a mounting death toll alienated even sympathetic Arab neighbours and in November 2011 the Arab League suspended Syria and introduced political and economic sanctions.
The killings accelerated with the arrival of observers to monitor Syria's compliance with a peace plan agreed with the Arab League.
Assad remained defiant and was able to rally huge crowds for a state-organised demonstration in January 2012. The following month Russia and China vetoed a resolution in the United Nations Security Council, backed by the Arab League, calling for him to step down.
In July 2012 a suicide bombing in Damascus delivered the heaviest blow yet to Assad's rule, killing his brother-in-law Assef Shawkat, his Defence Minister Daoud Rajha and two senior security officials. The killings were swiftly followed by the defection to the opposition of his Prime Minister Riyad Hijab.
Assad's public appearances have grown rarer as the rebellion has gathered force. In his first public speech to an audience in six months he addressed a crowd of supporters in the Damascus Opera House in January. Billed as the unveiling of a new peace plan, Assad offered no concessions and even appeared to have hardened his position.
At the end of his speech supporters rushed to the stage, mobbing him and shouting: "God, Syria and Bashar is enough!" as a smiling president waved and was escorted by bodyguards from the hall.
Two years after the uprising began with mainly peaceful protests Syria has descended into civil war.
Assad shows no sign of compromising, driven not least by the belief his Alawite sect would be slaughtered if the largely Sunni rebels are victorious. But he faces increasing isolation and a resilient opposition intent on his downfall.
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