DAMASCUS: Syria’s President Bashar Assad marks his 48th birthday Wednesday with the threat of U.S.-led strikes against his regime in response to an alleged chemical weapons attack apparently receding.
A Syrian pro-regime site called on residents of the capital Damascus to demonstrate their support for Assad by joining a convoy of cars in the Mezzeh district to honor him.
Assad, a British-trained ophthalmologist who has three children, succeeded his father Hafez, who died in 2000. He came to the position of heir unexpectedly, after his brother Bassel was killed in a car accident.
Once considered a potential reformer who discussed the need for political and economic openness after he took office, Assad has responded with an iron fist to an uprising that began in March 2011.
More than 110,000 people have been killed in the violence that erupted after his forces cracked down on demonstrators calling for his ouster, according to the opposition-aligned Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
He marks his birthday as the threat of imminent U.S.-led strikes against his regime appears to have waned.
The strikes, which were intended to punish the regime for allegedly using chemical weapons on Aug. 21, appear to be on hold as a Russian proposal that Syria hand over its chemical weapons is discussed.
Inside Syria, Assad is believed to have a firm grip on his regime even more than two years after the uprising began.
“He is even more the ‘boss’ than before, even if he can’t act without the support of the military and security apparatus,” according to Nikolaos van Dam, a Dutch diplomat and author of a book on Syria.
“He listens to his advisers, but he takes the decision by himself,” adds an expert based in Beirut.
Assad’s confidantes include his brother Maher al-Assad, a colonel who heads the division in charge of Damascus, as well as his wife Asma.
His inner circle also includes his uncle and cousin Mohammad and Rami Makhlouf, two businessmen, and Hafez Makhlouf, his security chief in Damascus.
Most of his inner circle, like Assad, hails from the Alawite minority, although his wife Asma is Sunni. He also counts Druze among his closest advisers, including Presidential Affairs Minister Mansour Azzam and Louna al-Shibi, a former journalist.
Others close to him include Alawite Hussam Sukkar, a general and his presidential security adviser, and two senior Sunni intelligence officials – Gen. Ali Mamluk, who heads national security, and Gen. Rustom Ghazaleh, head of political security.