Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is the son of a brutal Syrian dictator who rose to power from an impoverished and colorful family.
Bashar is married to a British citizen, with whom he has three children, and he’s from a family with many siblings, although one of his brothers – the presumed heir – died in a car accident.
Assad has earned the scorn of many countries after being accused of using chemical weapons in an attack that killed men, women, and children, and his brutal crackdowns on the rebel opposition in the Syrian Civil War has turned much of the world against him.
Assad retains the support of Russia, which is rattling rhetorical sabers after U.S. President Donald Trump launched missiles to demolish a Syrian airfield he said was used in the chemical weapons attack.
Assad’s regime has carefully packaged his image as a father and husband even down to photo releases of his children’s birthday parties.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Assad’s Father, Hafez, Was a Military Man Responsible for the ‘Hama Massacre’
Assad is the scion of another Syrian president – Hafez al-Assad – and like his son, the elder Assad was known for his brutal crackdowns to hold onto rule.
Hafez al-Assad “rose to the Syrian presidency from an impoverished Alawite family,” the New Republic reports, saying that the elder Assad joined the Syrian Ba’ath party in 1946, “the same year Syria gained its independence.”
He seized power through “a series of coups,” and the overthrow “of his former friend and ally, Syrian leader Salah Jadid, in 1970,” The New Republic reports.
The elder Assad was a regarded as an authoritarian and “military man,” according to The New Republic, which says he “was unafraid to use brutality to maintain this power,” notoriously cracking down on Muslim Brotherhood protesters in the 1982 “Hama Massacre,” which killed tens of thousands of people.
2. Assad’s Mother, Anisa, Hailed From a Family of Financiers
Assad’s mother, Anisa, born Anisa Makhlouf, died at the age of 86 in 2016, according to BBC.
BBC reports that Anisa Assad, the former First Lady of Syria, married Hafez al-Assad in 1957, and bore him five children.
Anisa came from money; she “was born into a wealthy family from Syria’s Alawite minority from Latakia and rarely appeared in public after her marriage,” BBC reported.
According to CNN, Anisa’s birth family, the Makhloufs, have garnered great riches in “telecommunications, banking and oil.” Anisa’s nephew, Rami, “is regarded as Syria’s wealthiest man, worth some $5 billion,” CNN reports.
Anisa was regarded as “the mother and father and mentor of the family,” exerting a great deal of influence over Bashar, CNN reports.
3. Assad Is Married to a British Citizen Once Profiled as the ‘Rose of the Desert’ in a Controversial Feature Story
There was a time when Assad was seen as a modernizing influence on Syria with western sympathies, and much of that early depiction derives from his marriage to a British citizen, his glamorous wife, Asma, who was born in England to Syrian parents. However, Assad long ago shattered that narrative with his brutal crackdowns on rebel forces, including the gassing of children.
The Assad regime has denied chemical weapons attacks and insisted it’s fighting against radical Islamic terrorists and ISIS fighters, but experts say otherwise.
In 2012, there were rumors that Asma had fled to Moscow with the three Assad children, but they proved unfounded. Asma has an Instagram account which posts repeated photos of her with Syrian women and children in an attempt to craft a more positive narrative.
According to the UK Telegraph, the Assads have carefully managed their public image, even posing for family images at birthday parties with their children. Assad married Asma in 2000; “Beautiful, intelligent and stylish, she threw herself into charity work and won over the hearts of many Syrians” – at least initially, reports the Telegraph.
A 2000 much criticized Vogue Magazine story called her the ‘Rose of the Desert’ and said she was born in London in 1975, getting to know Assad when he trained as an opthalmologist in London, according to The Telegraph. Asma was an investment banker until she married Assad, reports The Telegraph.
4. Assad Has Three Children & His Eldest Son Called American Soldiers ‘Cowards’ on Facebook
Publicity about Assad’s three children with Asma is strictly controlled. He has three children: Hafez Al-Assad, named for Assad’s father; Zein Al-Assad; and Karim Al-Assad. Not much is known about the youngest children.
However, Assad’s oldest son gave the world a rare glimpse into his mindset when he posted a scathingly anti-American post on Facebook in 2013, in which he urged the Americans to attack Syria.
At the time, the boy was 11-years-old.
The New York Times reported that the post, said to be penned by Hafez, was “liked or commented on by several people who appear to be the children and grandchildren of other senior members of Mr. Assad’s government.” It said, in part:
“…They may have the best army in the world, maybe the best airplanes, ships, tanks than ours, but soldiers? No one has soldiers like the ones we do in Syria,” the boy wrote. “If you ask me what rank I would rank American ‘soldiers’ I wouldn’t rank them the worst because the worst are soldiers, but America doesn’t have soldiers, what it has is some cowards with new technology who claim themselves liberators, so they said they supported the ‘revolution’ but actually they made it, right now we’re all Syrian it doesn’t matter if your (sic) with or against because that’s democracy, the ability to express yourself in your own way…”
He added, “I just want them to attack sooo much, because I want them to make this huge mistake of beginning something that they don’t know the end of it…”
5. Assad’s Sister Fled Syria as the Civil War Rages & His Brother Is a Ruthless General
Although Anisa and Hafez Al-Assad had five children, only three of them are still living, and some of Bashar’s siblings have fled Syria.
According to the BBC, Bashar’s sister, Bushra, fled the war-ravaged country to live in the United Arab Emirates after her husband, the country’s defense minister, was killed by a bomb in 2012.
Bashar’s other living sibling, Maher, his younger brother, serves as a general in the Syrian Army, BBC reported. CNN reports that Maher Assad is regarded as ruthless and moody as he is powerful, once being accused of shooting “his brother-in-law, Asef Shawkat, in the stomach during an argument in the presidential palace in 1999.”
Two Assad siblings died young; Bassel, as the eldest brother, was supposed to assume the presidency but perished in a 1994 car crash in Damascus, BBC reported, and another brother, Majd, died at age 43 of an undisclosed illness in 2009, according to BBC.