In an interview for the British Daily Mail, South African-born Edmund Schulenburg, who trained Dr Bashar, as he was known at the Western Eye clinic at London’s St Mary’s Hospital, said: ‘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.
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‘I thought he was not strong enough. I don’t think he is a strong leader.’
Assad in surgeon training
Contrary to the Syrian President’s image as a thug and a murderer, Mr Schulenburg remembered ‘a sensitive young man who was incredibly polite and punctual’.
‘Everyone who worked with him found him that way,’ Mr Schulenburg told the Daily Mail. ‘He wasn’t arrogant. You would never have guessed he was a president’s son.
‘He was quiet and never really spoke about his family. But if anyone asked him a direct question he very politely answered it honestly.’
Assad spent 18 months in London, living on his own in a rented flat, avoiding any obvious signs that he was the son of a powerful Middle Eastern dictator. He was fond of Phil Collins and Whitney Houston
music, and thrilled by technology and computers.
Assad family. Sitting: Hafez Assad. Second from left: Bashar. Center: Basel (Photo: EPA)
But in 1994, after the death of his older brother Basel in a car crash, Bashar was recalled to Syria and groomed for the role of President. In June 2000, after the death of his father, he took over the role of
At first he appeared to want to introduce modern, democratic reforms. But in recent years his methods of controlling rebels have become increasingly desperate.
According to the Daily Mail, Mr Schulenburg said Bashar was well-skilled. ‘He did minor surgery in accident and emergency such as incising and draining cysts on eyelids or around the eye.’
The pair met again in 2002 when Mr Schulenburg was invited to a dinner with Bashar and his British-born wife Asma at Lancaster House in London, organized by the Syrian Embassy.
It was December and Bashar had become the first Syrian President to have an audience with the Queen. It was the first time Mr Schulenburg and his wife Inge had met Asma, who they found ‘charming’.
The Syrian President gave the Schulenburgs an open invitation to visit them in Damascus.
In 2005, they took it up. ‘A presidential car was sent to collect us from the airport,’ Mr Schulenburg said. ‘But on the night we had dinner, Bashar drove us himself to a local Syrian restaurant.’
Bashar and Asma were the epitome of the glamorous jet-setting couple. Bashar had talked to the western world in precise English – smoothly describing his plans to make Syria a modern democracy.
He had already made political enemies with neighboring countries, but on this evening he appeared relaxed and happy.
Mr Schulenburg said: ‘We talked about politics, democracy and of course Syria. He struck me as someone who felt he had a job to do.’
In the wake of the chemical weapons attack that has prompted international revulsion, Mr Schulenburg said: ‘Remembering the young man I knew, the whole situation fills me with sadness and disbelief.
‘Using chemical weapons is not a decision I could imagine would have been made by the man I knew. But it could have been made by other people in the regime.
‘I am against bombing Syria – I wish the factions would talk. I also feel Bashar has few choices now. That he is no longer in control of his own destiny.’
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