Bashar al-Assad, Syria's iron-fisted president

Sworn in at the age of 34, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was widely seen by Syrians pining for freedoms as a reformer. PHOTO: AFP

BEIRUT (AFP) - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, an ophthalmologist by training who has overseen one of the century's bloodiest conflicts, is expected to renew his stranglehold on power in elections on Wednesday (May 26).

In appearance - whether in person or in the many portraits in the capital Damascus - he usually eschews the military garb favoured by former strongmen such as Iraq's Saddam Hussein or Libya's Muammar Gaddafi.

Instead, he opts for a sharp-cut business suit and sober tie.

In official meetings, during interviews and even on the front lines, the cold and enigmatic 55-year-old can almost appear timid.

But he speaks calmly but firmly, pausing briefly at moments to flash a coy smile.

Even at the height of the war, Dr Assad was unwavering in the belief he would crush a rebellion that he says was waged by "terrorists" seeking his overthrow with assistance from the West and Arab Gulf countries.

His matter-of-course win - the second in a decade - will be a slap in the face of foreign and domestic opponents.

'Hope through work'

With his campaign slogan, "Hope through work", Dr Assad has cast himself as the sole architect of a reconstruction phase for the war-ravaged country.

One journalist, who met with Dr Assad on several occasions before and after war broke out in 2011, told Agence France-Presse the President is a "unique and complex figure".

"Each time I met him he was calm... even during the most difficult moments of the war," the journalist, who declined to be named, said.

Dr Assad has "the same qualities" as his father Hafez al-Assad, who ruled Syria with an iron fist for nearly three decades until his death in 2000, he said.

"In politics, it's important to know how to shuffle cards, not just how to arrange them," the journalist added. "Assad has mastered the shuffling game."

Dr Assad's life changed radically when his older brother Bassel, who was being groomed to inherit power from their father, was killed in a road accident in 1994.

He quit his studies in ophthalmology and left London, where he had met his wife Asma, a British-Syrian and Sunni Muslim who worked for financial services firm JP Morgan.

Back home, he took a course in military studies and was tutored in politics by his father. When the latter died, Bashar became president by referendum, running unopposed, then winning a second term in 2007.

Sworn in at the age of 34, Dr Assad was widely seen by Syrians pining for freedoms as a reformer, who could do away with years of repression and introduce economic liberalisation.

In the early days, Dr Assad would be seen driving his own car or having dinner at restaurants with his wife.

He relaxed some of the heavy restrictions that existed under his father.

From 'reform' to crackdown

But his efforts at reforming Syria quickly evaporated as the authorities arrested and jailed academics, intellectuals and other members of what was then known as the Damascus Spring movement.

When the Arab Spring reached Syria in March 2011, peaceful demonstrations broke out calling for change.

Dr Assad, who is also commander-in-chief of the armed forces, responded by ordering a brutal crackdown on the protesters and civil war swiftly ensued.

Throughout the war, which has killed more than 388,000 people and displaced half the population, Dr Assad's position has not changed and he has shown no inclination to step down.

Those who know him say the father-of-three - two boys and a girl - is a man of habits.

"He often helps his children with their homework," said the journalist, who has met him several times.

"He insists on being close to them, without interference from a nanny or other helpers."

A Syrian researcher in Damascus, who asked to speak anonymously over security concerns, said: "Assad's personality played an undeniable role in his survival."

His "persistence and rigour" played an especially important role in helping him "consolidate decision-making powers, and secure the army's full support", he added.

Dr Assad also had military backing from staunch allies Iran and Russia, who helped him score a string of military victories and regain control of nearly two-thirds of the country.

Ahead of the polls, Dr Assad's election campaign published several pictures of him at work, including archive photos where he is seen visiting a factory, or meeting soldiers on the frontlines.

"Bashar al-Assad, short of his death by natural or unnatural causes, is poised to be the once and future president of Syria," said Mr Nicholas Heras of the Newlines Institute in Washington.

"He and his allies are doing everything possible to push that fact into the face of his foreign and domestic opponents."

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