|Al-Assad was propelled into the presidency even though he had shown little interest in politics [EPA]
Bashar al-Assad inherited power in July 2000, a month after his father Hafez al-Assad died.
The senior Assad had ruled for three decades and his son inherited a government led by the Arab Socialist Baath party and dominated by Alawites - a Shia sect that makes up between five and 10 per cent of the population in a predominantly Sunni country (74 per cent).
Founded in Damascus in 1947, the Baath party was a originally a pan-Arab secularist party opposed to what it saw as "Western imperialism". Its motto: "Unity, liberty, socialism".
|Hafez al-Assad, left, died June 10, 2000
after three decades in power
Bashar al-Assad, who graduated with a degree in ophthalmology at Damascus University in 1988, and went to London in 1992 to further his studies, was propelled into the presidency despite showing little interest in politics.
He was forced to return to Damascus, the Syrian capital, from London after his older brother Basil - who was initially groomed for the presidency - was killed in a car crash in 1994.
Assad went on to become a tank battalion commander in 1994, then lieutenant-colonel in 1997, before being promoted to colonel in January 1999.
He was elected to the top body of the Baath party at its first congress in June 2000, and parliament passed an amendment to the constitution, scrapping the minimum age limit of 40 to allow al-Assad to run for president.
He was elected president, officially with more than 97 per cent of the vote, and took office on July 11, 2000.
Many had viewed Basil, who was chief of presidential security and often appeared in full military uniform at official events, as a man that would rule with an iron fist like his father.
Bashar, who on the other hand was viewed as a modernist, was greeted with much more optimism.
He promised to inject new freedoms and open up the Syrian market.
But the package of reforms he began, known as the "Damascus Spring," proved short-lived, as members of the old guard stifled his initiative and steered him toward more orthodox, authoritarian policies.
With little room for manoeuvre, Assad soon began to speak of "economic reform before political reform".
Under the rule of his father Hafez al-Assad, thousands of political opposition members were imprisoned under emergency laws implemented in 1963.
Those powers, which deny citizens "the right to form associations, organisations or political parties in order to express or defend their opinions," remains in place today.
Bashar al-Assad has released around 700 political prisoners since becoming president, boosting hopes of a major improvement in human rights. But there still at least 4,000 in prison and authorities continue to arrest political and human rights activists, censor websites, and detain dissident bloggers. Many Syrian expats and activists have been monitored, threatened and punished for their activities, even overseas.
Critics say Assad's inexperience has hindered him from establishing Syria's place in the new world order [AFP]
According to Human Rights Watch, as of 2009, Syria’s human rights situation, one of the worst in the world, had "deteriorated further".
The government's response to protests that started on March 16, only reflected the "poor" human rights conditions.
Assad had insisted that Syria was immune to the uprisings that spread throughout the Arab world and toppled governments in Tunisia and Egypt in early 2011.
But anti-government protests calling for a "revolution", the "downfall of corruption" and the release of political prisoners, have since spread throughout the country, with rights groups reporting that over 2,000 had been killed and by the sixth month of the protests.
Critics say his inexperience in politics has made it difficult for him to establish Syria's place in the new world order.
"Syria has become a dictatorship without a dictator," a European diplomat in Damascus said.
He previously rejected comments by some observers that he does not hold full power in Syria, saying there is no logic in accusing him of being a dictator on one hand and lacking authority on the other.
"You cannot be a dictator and not in control. If you are a dictator you are in full control ... I have my authority by the Syrian constitution," he said in an interview.
A muted response
In the first eight months of the protests, as the number of deaths in Syria mount and a growing number of refugees
escape to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, Assad has kept a low profile, speaking less than a handful of times in public.
His speeches generally make reference to the need for a national dialogue while touching on the protests being the work of foreign agents of disruption.
For instance, during his June 20 speech at Damascus University, Assad stressed the "historic" nature of the current crisis, promising his "total commitment" to wide-ranging reforms in several sectors, including the media, for which he promised more freedom.
He said that his country had been the target of "foreign conspiracies" for "geopolitical and [...] other reasons", and that those who were taking part in the current unrest were divided into three broad categories, in his opinion: those who were peaceful and had legitimate concerns; those who were "vandals" and "outlaws" [he said there were 64,000 of these]; and finally "radical and blasphemous intellectuals".
His government, he said, was being hit by a political conspiracy.
"Conspiracies, like germs, reproduce everywhere, every moment and they cannot be eradicated," said Assad.
"Yet we have to fortify our immunity. What we have seen through the media and political positions does not require a great deal of analysis to prove that there exists a conspiracy."