5 Key Things to Know About Syrian President Bashar al-Assad

Assad was never supposed to be president.

August 18, 2011, 10:19 AM

Aug. 18, 2011 — -- President Obama has called on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step aside and allow Syria's future to be determined by its people. Obama said Assad's "calls for dialogue and reform have run hollow while he is imprisoning, torturing and slaughtering his own people."

But who is the tall, blue-eyed, English-speaking man who has ruled Syria since 2000. Here are five key things to now about the president of Syria.

1. Assad Was Never Supposed to Be President

Assad became his father's chosen successor only after his brother, Basel, was killed in a car accident in 1994. Immediately following Basel's death, Assad left London, where he was studying ophthalmology, and returned home.

Khaled Mahjoub, who said he has known the Assads since he attended kindergarten with Basel, told Time that Basel's death changed Assad.

"He felt responsibility," said Mahjoub. "He was always responsible in his actions, but after Basel passed away, he had responsibility."

Upon his return to Syria, he was put in charge of Lebanon policy, according to Joshua Landis, director of the Center of Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

"The idea was that anybody who could learn to rule this unruly place of Lebanon ... could deal with Syria," said Landis.

In 2000, Assad became president at the age of 34 when his father died. In order to take office, the constitution had to be changed to allow an executive under 40 to hold power.

2. 'Brought Up With a Silver Spoon'

"Bashar was brought up with a silver spoon in his mouth," said Landis. "He wasn't brought up in the countryside in a small village in poverty. He was brought up in the best schools Damascus has to offer, in the lap of luxury in the city. He identified with the city elites."

Assad did not have to fight his way to power. Because of the easy path, Landis said, he "really didn't have a taste for the isolation and the toughness his father brought to bear on government." Although many thought he was ill-equipped and unprepared to rule the country, Landis believes he grew into the position.

"He was much savvier than most people believed he was and he was a fairly competent ruler within the very narrow constraints of this bad system," Landis told ABC News. "This is a fairly nice guy who was well brought up, who had the best education Syria could offer. ... He tried to do what he could, but he was handed a jail. The regime as it was constructed by the father was a giant prison and he became the prison guard."

The problem is that the authoritarian government in Syria is run by a small group of corrupt people at the top, Landis said, and Assad perpetuates the system in order to keep power. Landis estimated that if the government were to fall, about a million people would lose their jobs.

3. The President

Unlike other leaders in the region, Assad has few eccentricities and is not a sociopath, said Landis.

Ayman Abdel-Nour, a college friend of Assad and now a political enemy, told Time that there is Assad the man -- who he describes as respectful, engaging and warm -- and then there is Assad the president.

Assad the president "is not Bashar any more. Even his wife, his children, his brother mean nothing to him. He becomes the president of the Syrian Republic with all of this heritage of 7,000 years," he said. "Whatever measures are necessary for him to take, he will take them with no emotion. He has no heart."

Mahjoub told Time that Assad does not "manage by crisis. He works based on importance, not urgency, and has a very clear, pragmatic and critical thinking that he uses. ... He doesn't like to talk to impress, he likes to talk to achieve."

4. The Reformer

Assad promised Syrians that he would globalize the economy and move towards capitalism and a free-market system. He wanted to follow China's model, reforming the economy while keeping the same political system.

"[He] brought in all these social networking mechanisms -- Facebook and the Internet," Landis said. "The Internet had been band in Syria. He brought in newspapers. He legalized satellite TV. He allowed Syrians to connect with the world, become educated to the ways of the world and begin to see the flaws in the Syrian system. ... By opening up Syria to the world, a very closed society, he didn't realize he was sowing his own demise ... and that's why there is revolution today."

The protests are not against Assad the man, Landis said.

"It's not around his personal character, it really isn't. And one of the tragedies of this is you've got a fairly decent guy who's trapped in a really bad regime," he said. "Syrians liked him, many Syrians did, as a person. They didn't like the system. ... They found him sympathetic and they were hoping that he would be able to put a chicken in every pot."

5. The Family Man

Assad is married to Asma Akhras, who he met while studying in England. According to CNN, she has a degree in economics and is the daughter of Syrian expatriates.

The couple married in 2000 and has three young children. It is believed that Asma and the children have been living in London since the uprising began.

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