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Bashar Assad Marks 20-Year Anniversary as President, but Syrian War Shows No Signs of Dying Down

© AP Photo / Syrian Presidency FacebookSyrian President Bashar Assad speaks to dozens of Syrian diplomats, in Damascus, Syria (File)
Syrian President Bashar Assad speaks to dozens of Syrian diplomats, in Damascus, Syria (File) - Sputnik International
When Bashar al-Assad became president of Syria, he managed to implement a number of economic reforms that promised his country a brighter future. However, amid the 2011 Arab Spring, Islamic extremists put Syria's very existence on the line, and he's been fighting to preserve his nation ever since.

Now fighting for his survival, the leader is facing a number of challenges that threaten his rule, one of which is Washington's wide-ranging sanctions.

When Hafez al-Assad, who ruled Syria for three decades, died in 2000, his son Bashar found himself in the position of the country's president several months after his father's burial.

But he was not his father "natural heir". Initially that job was secured for his elder brother Bassel, who had a relevant military background, but after the latter died in a car accident in 1994, the family had to find an alternative

Consequently, Bashar was recalled from London, where he practised ophthalmology, and enrolled into a military academy in the Syrian city of Homs, where he mastered all the ins and outs of his new job, moving quickly through the ranks and becoming a colonel in just five years. The "training period" was over when his father passed away.

Coming to Power

Soon after, the Syrian parliament lowered the minimum age for a presidential candidate from the original 40 to 34 so that Bashar could be eligible for the office.

In July, after a referendum, Bashar was chosen for a seven-year term, receiving 97 percent of the votes, becoming Syria's president and commander-in-chief, as well as the leader of the Ba'ath party.

For many, his coming to power was viewed as a ray of hope. Unlike his father, who had ruled the country with an iron fist, Bashar was considered a young and educated leader, who would be able to transform Syria; this is exactly what he attempted to do during his first years in office.

Hope for a Better Future

To start off, he connected his country to the internet and introduced cell phones and satellite television -- things that Syrian society had had no access to in the past.

He also invested in higher education, making sure universities remained free for everyone eligible and establishing a number of private institutions

On the financial front, the new leader opened six new banks, established a stock exchange and reformed taxation. Later on, he opened the commodities market to Syrian and foreign investors, eased the government's control of trade and steered the country towards a free market economy despite the fact that it contradicted the principles of his Ba'ath party, which had traditionally been associated with socialism. 

However, that was not enough to get Syria out of the economic abyss the country was in. The situation started to worsen in 2003, when the US and its allies invaded Iraq, prompting an influx of Iraqi refugees seeking asylum.

Assad gave the green-light to accommodate the refugees, but Washington interpreted the move as a sign of support for Iraq's former ruler Saddam Hussein, who had been the head of his country's own Ba'ath party,  and imposed a number of sanctions on Damascus, shaking the already faltering Syrian economy.

To make matters worse, problems arose on the political front. In 2005, after Syria withdrew from Lebanon, ending its 30 year long occupation of the neighbouring country, opposition forces including Islamists, Marxists, liberals, and Arab and Kurdish nationalists started gaining momentum. 

Putting their differences aside, in 2005 they organised the largest gathering in the history of the Ba'ath party in Syria, where they pressed for reforms and democratic change.

Their unity didn't last long, and one year down the line, that coalition broke into groups. Each pursued its own agenda, they shared the goal of opposing what they considered a repressive regime.

Never-ending War

Then in 2011 came the Arab Spring that toppled governments in North African countries. Opposition groups saw it as an opportunity to get rid of Assad. Thousands took to the streets, demanding reforms and calling on the government to resign.

Assad was determined to stay, saying he was fulfilling the will of the people who wanted to see him remain in power - a move that prompted elements within Assad's military forces to pick up arms against the long-term ruler

Those who defected from the Syrian military formed the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which aimed at toppling Assad and establishing a Muslim yet secular democracy like Turkey.

But soon it turned out that the FSA was largely divided, something that prevented them from securing large territorial gains despite support from Turkey, Qatar and several western states.

As the war dragged on, the FSA splintered into competing factions along sectarian lines, and reports emerged that more and more foreign fighters were arriving in the war-stricken country, cementing their presence in the area, particularly militant Islamists.

Assad, however, wouldn't capitulate. He enjoyed the support of minorities who feared his ouster would lead to the creation of a hardline Islamic state, with all the dire consequences such a move would entail. These included his fellow Alawites, a sect of Shiite Islam that controlled Syria's military; it also included the country's Christians, who play a dominant role in the economy; Assad managed to stay afloat despite challenges.

The help of Iran and Russia also played a pivotal role in keeping Assad in power. Moscow was eager to protect its key ally in the region, partly because it was important to curb the global spread of Islamic terror groups, whose radical activity could spill over into Russia and its Eurasian Economic Union allies.

For Iran, the war in Syria carried a broader meaning. By establishing a Shiite axis with Syria, Iraq and the Lebanese group Hezbollah, the alliance challenged the West, specifically Washington, and sent waves of panic through Israel, which remained mostly concerned about the growing influence of Iran on its doorstep.

It was for this reason that throughout the years, Iran has allegedly invested some $30 billion into bolstering President Assad, sending not only military personnel and ammunition but also cash to allow his economy to stay afloat amid Western sanctions.

While that strategy showed results, reports now suggest that Assad's position has become shaky again.

Several days ago, Washington announced the implementation of its 'Caesar Act' that imposed a series of wide-ranging US sanctions against President Assad and those who surround him; whereas Israeli media reported that the minorities who backed Assad in the past have started to show him their teeth.   

The Alawites have been angered by their deteriorating economic conditions, whereas the Druze have expressed their dissatisfaction with Iranian troops active in their territory, as well as his lack of retaliatory action after Daesh kidnapped and enslaved several Druze women.  

And while the future looks bleak for Assad, he still plans to run in the presidential race set for next year, hoping that his third term in office will finally bring the resolution of the nine-year-old war.

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