London eye surgeon Edmund Schulenburg knew that the young physician who arrived in 1992 to study under him had an impressive lineage. But Bashar Assad—who used public transportation and had no bodyguard—mixed so well with the staff at the Western Eye Hospital that it was easy to forget that his father, Hafez Assad, was president of Syria. “He was friendly, outgoing and witty,” says Schulenburg, “just a sincere person.” Then, two years into his studies, Bashar, now 34, gave abrupt notice. “He said that he had very bad news from home,” recalls Schulenburg, “and he wouldn’t be coming back.”
The news was that his older brother Basil, 31, his father’s presumed successor as president, had died in a car crash. That left Bashar, with little apparent interest in politics, his father’s choice to follow him at Syria’s helm. After Hafez Assad, 69, died of a heart attack June 10, it was clear his ophthalmologist son had support among the masses, who lined the streets on the day of the funeral, chanting, “Our swords and our blood, we pledge to you, Bashar!” But there was angry opposition from his uncle Rifaat Assad, 62, the late president’s exiled billionaire brother. Now living in Spain, Rifaat charged that the ruling Baath Party was violating Syria’s constitution by hurriedly anointing Bashar. To make his case, he went on the European-based Arab News Network (of which he is part owner) to threaten “a new corrective movement” to bring himself to power. Unmoved, Baath named Bashar its party leader on June 18, clearing the way for Parliament to hold a one-candidate presidential referendum by the fall.
A bachelor, Bashar lives with his mother, Aniseh, although some speculate he may soon seek a suitably prominent wife. He will clearly have a hard act to follow. Many Syrians can remember no leader but Hafez Assad, who emerged from modest origins in a tiny farming village to stage a bloodless coup—which he also termed a “corrective movement”—in 1970. Elected president by Parliament the next year, Assad governed with an iron fist, meeting dissent with merciless force, refusing to make peace with Israel (unless it returned the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in 1967) and ignoring charges that he sponsored international terrorism, including the 1983 Beirut bombing that killed 241 U.S. Marines. In 1982 Assad had sent his army, led by brother Rifaat, to quell a fundamentalist Muslim uprising in the city of Hama, leaving more than 10,000 dead. “Rifaat felt that he was the protector of the regime of his brother,” says Maher Othman, who reports on Syria for the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper. “It went to his head.”
Indeed, a year later, when Assad was hospitalized with exhaustion, Rifaat led tanks down the streets of Damascus, threatening to topple his brother. Assad promptly exiled him and began grooming his would-be heir, Basil, a flamboyant champion equestrian with a passion for fast cars. “You could see him at the Sheraton, by the pool or playing darts,” recalls Damascus businessman Louay Jeroudi. “People loved him.” Then, on Jan. 12,1994, Basil was killed when he wrecked his Mercedes en route to the Damascus airport. “It was a terrible blow for his father,” says Assad biographer Patrick Seale.
Until then, Bashar had kept a low profile, attending medical school in Syria and planning to return from London after a 3½-year residency. Instead he came home for a crash course in leadership from his father, who promoted him through the military and saw Bashar spearhead a drive against government corruption. “He has gained people’s confidence,” says Seale, “and gone about it in a gentle, persuasive way.”
The same can hardly be said for his uncle. In exile, Rifaat has amassed a fortune of some $3 billion from real estate and, reportedly, international trade and smuggling. He maintains homes in France, Spain and Switzerland. Hafez Assad did let him return to Syria after their mother died in 1992, and even named him a vice president, but stripped him of the honorary title in 1998.
For now it seems unlikely Rifaat will get another chance, unless his nephew should prove unequal to the task. “Bashar was such a gentle, honest young man,” Schulenburg recalls of his ex-pupil. “Politicians have to be ruthless, and he was not that type of person.”
Doug Hatt in Damascus, Eileen Finan in London and Peter Mikelbank in Paris