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As the successor to his father, Hafez, Bashar al-Assad has continued with his father's brutal rule of Syria.
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He stated early on that democracy was "a tool to a better life," though he added that democracy couldn't be rushed in Syria. In his first year as president, he promised to reform the corruption in the government, and spoke of moving Syria toward the computer technology, internet and cell phones of the 21st century.
When Bashar took the reins of government,
Syria's economy was in terrible shape. Lost were the decades of support from the Soviet Union after its collapse in 1991. A serious recession in the mid-1990s was exacerbated by Syria squandering its oil revenues on its second rate army. However, by 2001, Syria was showed many of the signs of a modern society—cell phones, satellite television, trendy restaurants and Internet cafes.
Nevertheless, economic reform proved difficult to achieve in the nation's state-controlled economy. After his first year as president, many of Bashar's promised economic reforms had not materialized. The grossly overstaffed and largely corrupt government bureaucracy made it difficult for a private sector to emerge, and Bashar seemed incapable of making the necessary systemic changes that would move Syria and its 17 million people into the 21st century.
In international affairs, Bashar was confronted with many of the issues his father faced: a volatile relationship with Israel, military occupation in Lebanon, tensions with Turkey over water rights, and the insecure feeling of being a marginal influence in the Middle East. Most analysts contend that Bashar continued his father's foreign policy, providing direct support to militant groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad, though Syria officially denied this. Though a gradual withdrawal from Lebanon began in 2000, it was quickly hastened after Syria was accused of involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri. The accusation led to a public uprising in Lebanon, as well as international pressure to remove all troops. Since then, relations with the West and many Arab states have deteriorated, and it seems that Syria's only friend in the Middle East is Iran.
Despite promises of human rights reform, not much has changed since Bashar al-Assad took office. For nearly a decade, he successfully suppressed internal dissention, due mostly to the close relationship between the Syrian military and intelligence agencies. In 2006, Syria expanded its use of travel bans against dissidents, preventing many from entering or leaving the country. In 2007, the Syrian Parliament passed a law requiring all comments on chat forums to be posted publicly. In 2008, and again in 2011, social media sites such as YouTube and Facebook were blocked. Human rights groups have reported that political opponents of Bashar al-Assad are routinely tortured, imprisoned and killed.
Following successful regime change in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, protests began in Syria on January 26, 2011, demanding political reforms, a reinstatement of civil rights and an end to the state of emergency, which had been in place since 1963. Outraged by government inaction, the protests spread and became larger.
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