IT is alleged that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is behind the recent chemical attack on Syrian civilians. This is not the first time an atrocity such as this has the world pointing fingers at him.
He would have taken an enormous gamble and committed a war crime if his forces were indeed responsible for the attack that killed dozens. This occurred at a time when United States President Donald Trump’s administration and most Western leaders had made clear they were no longer seeking his immediate removal.
Although he can count on the support of his top allies, Russia and Iran, the attack has reignited international outrage at a time when Trump is still formulating his policy on Syria. Many people find it difficult to believe that Syrian forces were behind the attack, especially those who had known him earlier as a decent young man inspired to do his best in medicine.
He has been accused of carrying out a vicious campaign against his own people that resulted in some 400,000 deaths and the immense humanitarian catastrophe of displacing millions, a magnitude eclipsed only by World War 2. Imagine a doctor, who recited the Hippocratic oath of “First, do no harm”, leaving a massive trail of unspeakable atrocities in his own country.
So who is Dr Bashar al-Assad? Is he really capable of such monstrous deeds?
He is the second-born son of the late Syrian leader, Hafez al-Assad, which meant he was initially free to pursue a career well away from politics. After studying in Damascus, he moved to London in the early 1990s, where he did specialist training in ophthalmology. But he was forced to return to Syria when his older brother was killed in a car crash in 1994.
According to The New York Times analyst Susan Sachs in June 2000: “Bashar al-Assad, the soft-spoken younger brother, an ophthalmologist by training, kept out of the limelight. He was a gangly bachelor and computer buff whose personal blueprint for life appeared to include nothing more public than running a quiet medical practice.”
A new political game started after the death of his father in 2000. This 34-year-old eye doctor, who had never held a government post, was nominated as the only candidate for the presidency. He swiftly assumed the most visible accoutrements of his father’s power. Known to Syrians as “Doctor Bashar”, he was considered by his Damascus contemporaries to be a shy young man. They had great hopes that he would usher in a period of reform and good times.
Although he had limited military experience, he became the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Most Syrians expressed confidence in him, while conceding that he was young and inexperienced. They knew him as the director of the Syrian Scientific Society for Information Technology, which offered computer courses, though only a small percentage of Syrians could afford luxury items such as computers at the time.
His father had slowly introduced the new heir apparent to the outside world, sending him on trips to meet the leaders and journalists of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Oman and France. In Paris he made headlines by exploring the city without bodyguards.
Up to that point, he had had the luxury of a relatively uncomplicated life in Syria. He was said to have become friends with another young man who had inherited his own father’s regime — King Abdullah II of Jordan. On one occasion, he set aside protocol, dismissed the bodyguards and took the Jordanian monarch for a spin in his car around Latakia, the principal port city of Syria.
His leadership was described by diplomats and academics as “nice” and “easygoing”. One said: “The shy young doctor at Syria’s helm seemed relatively normal”.
“There are very high expectations, because he’s young and open and wants to give more liberty and democracy,” said Youssef Jedani, a member of the Syrian Parliament and leader of a tiny Arab nationalist party. But, like his father, he was expected to go slow rather than upset the traditionalists who controlled the military and much of the state-run economy.
By the time civil war broke out in Syria in 2011, the regime’s honeymoon period had ended and entered a terrifying period.
Throughout the six-year conflict that tore his nation apart, he has maintained that the conflict was a Western-backed conspiracy executed by “terrorists” and not a popular revolt by people inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings, seeking democracy and disenchanted with his authoritarian rule.
Whether or not he is responsible for last week’s attack, he has the moral obligation to stop these atrocities. After six years of sickness, it is time to heal Syria, doctor!
The writer, a Fulbright scholar and Japan Institute of International Affairs fellow, is a former lecturer of UiTM Shah Alam and International Islamic University Malaysia, Gombak