BEIRUT, Lebanon — Syria’s President Bashar Assad, poised to return to power in Tuesday’s vote, is an autocrat with a courteous appearance, a cross between family man and warlord.
Unlike Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, now both ousted and killed after decades in power, the gangly Assad hardly resembles the stereotypical Middle East strongman.
With their rugged features and stern looks, Gaddafi and Hussein were often pictured in military fatigues or traditional Bedouin clothes.
Assad, 48, tends to appear in smart suit and tie, looking more like a senior civil servant or bank manager than the head of state of a country at war.
The former ophthalmologist’s fate changed radically when elder brother Basel, lined up to inherit power from Syria’s strongman Hafez Assad, was killed in a 1994 road accident in Damascus.
Bashar Assad had to leave London, where he had met his wife Asma, a British-Syrian and Sunni Muslim who worked for financial services firm JP Morgan.
He took a course in military studies and was tutored in politics by his father, a former military man who ruled Syria with an iron fist from 1971 until his death in 2000.
During that time, the younger Assad became a key figure in the Middle East, especially on the Arab-Israeli file.
He inherited his father’s cold, enigmatic character.
When Hafez died, his son took over as president, following a referendum. A second vote — also with no rival candidate — was held in 2007.
On Tuesday, he will run against rival candidates for the first time – MP Maher al-Hajjar and businessman Hassan al-Nouri, little-known figures seen as token rivals.
The Assad clan hails from the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, in a country with a large Sunni majority.
When Assad first came to power, he started out by relaxing some of the heavy restrictions on freedom that existed under his father.
But months later, the reforms evaporated and leaders of the “Damascus Spring” movement for political change were jailed.
When the Arab Spring reached Syria and protesters took to the streets in March 2011 to demand change, he launched a brutal crackdown and the revolt swiftly turned into an armed rebellion.
Over the course of Syria’s war, which has killed more than 162,000 people and forced nearly half the population to flee their homes, Assad has not wavered and shown no inclination to step down.
Behind a timid smile, he is determined to crush a rebellion he brands a “foreign-backed plot” waged by “armed terrorist groups.”
Assad heads the Baath party, which has dominated Syria for half a century.
He and his supporters believe the war is a Western and Gulf plot aimed at breaking the “axis of resistance” against Israel.
“After three years of war, he doesn’t have a single wrinkle, or a single white hair, because he is sure he is right and that he will win,” said a Syrian businessman with close ties to the regime.
Assad has two sons and a daughter, and says he has not changed any of his habits despite the war.
He says he still lives in his Damascus home, drives the children to school and goes to work in his downtown office.
Other than for formal events, he stays away from the grand People’s Palace commissioned by his father.
“It’s too big. He prefers the intimacy of his office. The palace was built by the Saudis and has nine bedrooms. But … he only has one wife,” joked a man from Assad’s entourage.
He appears to only show emotion when discussing his children.
In an exclusive interview with AFP in January, he said his children ask difficult questions.
“‘Why are there such evil people?’ ‘Why are there victims?’ It’s not easy to explain these things to children,” he said.
Assad says he has never thought of leaving the country.
“Fleeing is not an option … I must be at the forefront of those defending this country and this has been the case from day one,” he told AFP.
Assad rejects all allegations by the United Nations or rights groups of responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Rights watchdogs have reported massacres by Assad’s forces, as well as torture and the jailing of tens of thousands of people.
But he insists the army has not committed massacres, blaming armed rebels for all the violence.