Childhood and education: 1965–1988
Bashar Hafez al-Assad was born in Damascus on 11 September 1965, the second oldest son of Anisa Makhlouf and Hafez al-Assad. Al-Assad in Arabic means "the Lion”. Assad's paternal grandfather had managed to change his status from peasant to minor notable and, to reflect this, in 1927 he had changed the family name from Wahsh (meaning "Savage") to Al-Assad.
Assad's father, Hafez, was born to an impoverished rural family of Alawite background and rose through the Ba'ath Party ranks to take control of the Syrian branch of the Party in the 1970 Corrective Revolution, culminating in his rise to the Syrian presidency. Hafez promoted his supporters within the Ba'ath Party, many of whom were also of Alawite background. After the revolution, Alawite strongmen were installed while Sunnis, Druzes and Ismailis were removed from the army and Ba'ath party.
Assad had five siblings, three of whom are deceased. A sister named Bushra died in infancy. Assad's youngest brother, Majd, was not a public figure and little is known about him other than he was intellectually disabled, and died in 2009 after a "long illness".
The al-Assad family, c. 1993
. At the front are Hafez and his wife, Anisa. At the back row, from left to right: Maher, Bashar, Bassel, Majd, and Bushra
Unlike his brothers Bassel and Maher, and second sister, also named Bushra, Bashar was quiet, reserved and lacked interest in politics or the military. The Assad children reportedly rarely saw their father, and Bashar later stated that he only entered his father's office once while he was president. He was described as "soft-spoken", and according to a university friend, he was very shy, avoiding eye contact and speaking in a low voice.
Assad received his primary and secondary education in the Arab-French al-Hurriya School in Damascus. In 1982, he graduated from high school and went on to study medicine at Damascus University.
, Bashar's older brother, died in 1994, paving the way for Bashar's future presidency.
In 1988, Assad graduated from medical school and began working as an army doctor at the Tishrin Military Hospital on the outskirts of Damascus. Four years later, he went to London to begin postgraduate training in ophthalmology at the Western Eye Hospital. He was described as a "geeky I.T. guy" during his time in London. Bashar had few political aspirations, and his father had been grooming Bashar's older brother Bassel as the future president. However, Bassel died in a car accident in 1994 and Bashar was recalled to the Syrian Army shortly thereafter.
Rise to power: 1994–2000
Soon after the death of Bassel, Hafez al-Assad made the decision to make Bashar the new heir apparent. Over the next six and half years, until his death in 2000, Hafez prepared Bashar for taking over power. Preparations for a smooth transition were made on three levels. First, support was built up for Bashar in the military and security apparatus. Second, Bashar's image was established with the public. And lastly, Bashar was familiarised with the mechanisms of running the country.
To establish his credentials in the military, Bashar entered the military academy at Homs in 1994, and was propelled through the ranks to become a colonel of the elite Syrian Republican Guard in January 1999. To establish a power base for Bashar in the military, old divisional commanders were pushed into retirement, and new, young, Alawite officers with loyalties to him took their place.
In 1998, Bashar took charge of Syria's Lebanon file, which had since the 1970s been handled by Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam, who had until then been a potential contender for president. By taking charge of Syrian affairs in Lebanon, Bashar was able to push Khaddam aside and establish his own power base in Lebanon. In the same year, after minor consultation with Lebanese politicians, Bashar installed Emile Lahoud, a loyal ally of his, as the President of Lebanon and pushed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri aside, by not placing his political weight behind his nomination as prime minister. To further weaken the old Syrian order in Lebanon, Bashar replaced the long serving de facto Syrian High Commissioner of Lebanon, Ghazi Kanaan, with Rustum Ghazaleh.
Parallel to his military career, Bashar was engaged in public affairs. He was granted wide powers and became head of the bureau to receive complaints and appeals of citizens, and led a campaign against corruption. As a result of this campaign, many of Bashar's potential rivals for president were put on trial for corruption. Bashar also became the President of the Syrian Computer Society and helped to introduce the internet in Syria, which aided his image as a moderniser and reformer.