With Hafez Assad's death, the spotlight turns to his son Bashar, 34, a mild-mannered ophthalmologist and perhaps the most unlikely political heir among the new generation of Arab leaders who have started assuming power in the Middle East. Indeed, Bashar's older brother Basil, a daring, charismatic figure, had been favored to follow in their father's footsteps until he was killed in a traffic accident in 1994.
By all accounts, Dr. Bashar, as many Syrians call him, never wanted to be President. Educated in Syria and England, Assad's second son is an intellectual by temperament--rather like his brooding father--and not the best public speaker. But after his brother's death, Bashar returned from his studies in London, and at his father's request underwent accelerated military training, eventually earning the rank of colonel in the elite Presidential Guard.
Being groomed as his father's successor clearly put the modest doctor in an awkward position. "I am not seeking high posts," he told Al-Wasat, an Arabic magazine published in London. "But I will not evade my responsibilities." Bashar is, in many ways, a more impressive figure than was his brother, says British author and Assad biographer Patrick Seale. "Basil was a very physical man, very keen on dangerous sports like hang gliding, parachuting, fast cars," Seale recalls. "[Bashar] is much more reflective, much more thoughtful. Much more able to implement or pursue the political legacy of his father."
Before long Bashar was put in charge of Syria's affairs in Lebanon. And around the country, iconic images of the doctor became nearly as familiar as those of his father. He seems to have picked up at least a few of his father's hardball tactics. When his uncle Rifaat--who was exiled to Europe after a failed coup attempt--started questioning Bashar's ability to lead last fall, the younger man's allies led Syrian forces in a raid against an "illegal" coastal stronghold owned by Rifaat.
Changes within the Syrian government started accelerating earlier this year as the elder Assad's health began to decline. A general who had questioned why another Assad should become President was retired, and a former Prime Minister was arrested on corruption charges. Soon after, the entire 37-member cabinet resigned en masse, allowing Bashar to recommend suitable candidates for some jobs in the new cabinet. "An improved administration is the key to this process," he told Al-Hayat, a London-based Arabic paper.
Still, Bashar has positioned himself as more reformer than strongman. As president of Syria's computer society, he has recruited technocrats to help broaden Syria's cyber horizon--this in a country where only 2,000 people are officially allowed access to the Internet. (King Abdullah of Jordan, who knows Bashar well, calls him an "Internet youth.") Bashar also reportedly wants more foreign investment in Syria--but whether that translates into closer ties to the West is anybody's guess. Bashar will need much of his father's cunning to put his own vision in place.
--By Christine Gorman. Reported by Aisha Labi/London and Scott MacLeod/Cairo