Middle East

Syria profile - Leaders

President: Bashar al-Assad

In power since succeeding his father 2000, Bashar al-Assad is fighting for control of his country after protests against his rule turned into a full-scale armed rebellion.

He inherited a tightly controlled and repressive political structure from long-time dictator Hafez al-Assad, with an inner circle dominated by members of the Assad family's minority Alawite Shia community.

But cracks began to appear in early 2011, in the wake of the "Arab Spring" wave of popular dissent that swept across North Africa and the Middle East.

Following successful uprisings against authoritarian rulers in Egypt and Tunisia, pro-democracy demonstrations were held in Damascus and several other cities.

President Assad responded with a mixture of small concessions along with a brutal crackdown, accusing his opponents of being "terrorists" funded by enemies abroad. But the attempts at repression - as well as international mediation - failed, and the conflict turned into a fully-fledged internal war.

Mr Assad's government continues to enjoy strong diplomatic support from Russia and traditional ally Iran, amid persistent reports that they also supply it with arms. The president's troops have been bolstered by fighters from Lebanon's Iranian-backed Hezbollah militant group.

Rise to power

Bashar al-Assad would probably have been working as an optician had his brother not died in a car accident in 1994.

The death of Basil - groomed to succeed Hafez al-Assad - catapulted the younger brother into politics, and into the presidency after his father died in June 2000.

During his six-year political apprenticeship, Bashar al-Assad completed his military training, met Arab and other leaders and got to know the movers and shakers in Syrian politics.

On taking office he ushered in a brief period of openness and cautious reform. Political prisoners were released and restrictions on the media were eased. Political debate was tolerated and open calls for freedom of expression and political pluralism were made.

But the pace of change alarmed the establishment - the army, the Baath party and the Alawite minority. Fearing instability and perceiving a threat to their influence, they acted not only to slow it down, but to revert to the old ways.

A referendum in 2007 endorsed Bashar al-Assad as president for a second seven-year term, and in 2014 he won a presidential election conducted in areas still under government control. This election, although it featured two nominal opposition candidates for the first time since independence, was recognised only by President Assad's allies abroad.

More on this story