Bashar Assad Has Entrepreneurial Skills But Little Leadership Experience

The Western-educated Bashar Assad comes from a new generation of computer-savvy entrepreneurs who could help modernize Syria, but the former eye doctor has yet to be tested in the shifting sands of Middle East politics.

In the two days since the death of President Hafez Assad, the Syrian leadership has significantly pumped Bashar's resume and plastered more portraits of him along the streets of Damascus signs that the 34-year-old will likely take his father's place in a matter of weeks.

On Sunday, he was named commander in chief of Syria's armed forces a post his father had held and was promoted from army colonel to lieutenant-general. And the ruling Baath party nominated him for president a day after Parliament conveniently lowered the age bar for president from 40 to 34. Bashar turns 35 in September.

It's an unlikely ascent for a man who, until 1994, was quietly practicing ophthalmology in Britain, where he had pursued specialized studies after graduating from Damascus University's medical school.

The sudden death of his elder brother, Basil widely believed to have been his father's first choice as heir in a 1994 car crash, brought Bashar home.

If, as expected, the Parliament approves Bashar's nomination to the presidency, the untested leader will find himself thrown into intermittent peacemaking with Israel, a new reality in Lebanon with the withdrawal of Israeli forces last month and disputes with neighbors over borders and water rights.

But his years away from this closed-off nation sandwiched between Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq have left the son of a 30-year ruler open to challenges and with few allies.

His support among the military is uncertain, and his uncle Rifaat, who attempted a coup against Hafez Assad in 1984, may still harbor lust for leadership.

In a country where leaders, including his father, were groomed through the ranks of the military, Bashar who was a colonel after undergoing military training never embraced military life.

Instead, he pushed for modernization in a country where Internet access is available only to the elite and satellite dishes are banned, although the government largely looks the other way these days. He is the patron of the Syrian Computer Society a quasi-government organization that trains ordinary Syrians in computer skills and runs computer labs for the public in villages and urban centers.

But Socialist-style red tape still slows commerce in Syria. As the president's son, Bashar Assad made only limited headway with calls for Syria to catch up economically with its neighbors.

He is fluent in Arabic, English and French and has made a favorable impression on business leaders and young people.

He is often counted among the younger crop of Arab leaders on whom many pin hopes for social and political reform in the region. He and Jordan's new King Abdullah are friends.

Bashar Assad's trim mustache and well-cut suits have become familiar in recent years as he traveled the Arab world and beyond, carrying messages for his father. Diplomatic sources in Damascus say he has also been introduced to some ambassadors as part of his grooming.

Bashar Assad is unmarried. He has two younger brothers and an older sister.