Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad was a humble person when he was a medical student and no one expected him to be the cause of the war in Syria, his former classmate Zaher Sahloul said on Tuesday.
“My perception of him [Assad] when he was in medical school that he was a humble person, he did not have issues, he was not perceived as brutal or ruthless or arrogant but most of us did not expect him to be the way that he is right now,” Sahloul said in an interview with CNN.
“He is perceived as overseen the disruption of half of his country, the killing of a half a million people, displacement of 12 million people in Syria, destruction of many cities and historic landmark in Syria. No one expected him to be that brutal.”
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Sahloul is the founder of the American Relief Coalition for Syria, a coalition of humanitarian organisations that provide multi-sector relief inside Syria and humanitarian assistance to Syrian refugees.
He is a practicing physician in pulmonary and critical care medicine. Currently, he serves as a senior advisor to the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), a humanitarian advocacy group that provides medical relief to Syrians and Syrian refugees.
Assad and Sahloul were classmates who had casual conversations many times while studying medicine. Assad went on to graduate from Damascus University in 1988 and started to serve as a doctor in the Syrian army.
In 1992, he went to London to specialise in ophthalmology, but he was called back to Syria after the death of his elder brother Bassel Assad and became the heir apparent to the Assad throne.
When he was asked about Assad’s stance after the 2011 uprisings at the onset of the war, Sahloul mentioned that his former classmate began laughing about a child who had been tortured to death:
“One of my friends asked him about Hamza el-Khatib. He was a child who was tortured to death in Deraa. He [Assad] looked at him and said ‘Do you know how many brothers Hamza el-Khatib has?.’ My friend was surprised by that question. And then Assad said ‘he had 13 brothers’ and then he started laughing. And my friend thought at that time that this was not normal.”
“This is the way he was thinking, I guess, that sometimes you lose children, but it is not important if you are looking at the bigger scheme.”
Sahloul also recalled Assad once told him that he would have preferred to be a physician rather than being a president.
In the past, eye surgeon Edmund Schulenburg, who trained Assad in London’s St Mary’s hospital, also said he should have remained a doctor.
"When he left in 1994 after two years, I remember thinking that he was really better suited to being an eye surgeon than a leading politician. I thought he was not strong enough. I don't think he is a strong leader," Schulenburg said in a statement two years ago.
Bashar al Assad took over the Syrian leadership after his father Hafez died in 2000, having ruled the country for 30 years.
In early times, it was hoped that his rule would bring democratic reforms and economic developments to Syria.
Instead he preferred to continue his father’s authoritarian regime. In March 2011, Syrians started an uprising against his regime, calling for freedom, dignity and better living conditions.
Assad ignored the calls and continued to suppress the protests by imposing punitive measures.
The uprisings evolved into a civil war with different factions fighting for domination. Since 2011, hundreds of thousands of people have been killed, while nearly half of the country’s population has been forced to flee their homes.