Who he is: Bashar al-Assad is the current President of the Syrian Arab Republic and the Regional Secretary of the Ba'ath Party. Upon the death of his father in 2000, Hafez al-Assad, ruler of Syria for 29 years, Bashar assumed the presidency. Today al-Assad is under evident attack from the West, which is helping organize bloody protests against his regime. Iran is apparently backing al-Assad with funds and weapons. It is not clear as of this writing whether the West will succeed in ousting Bashar.
In 2000, Bashar inherited governmental power from his father. Most people in Syria considered him a youthful new president that could bring about change in a region filled with aging dictators. As a well educated man, Bashar had the ability to transform his father's iron rule into a modern leadership. He had all the ingredients to interact successfully on the world stage.
But an American expert on Syria, David W. Lesch, said in his 2005 biography of Bashar: "Power is an aphrodisiac, and it corrupts absolutely," Lesch also said: "In the end, he became more of a product of his environment rather than a transformational figure who could change that environment."
Bashar al-Assad has been criticized for corruption, human rights violations, and economic inconsistencies. Assad has always been an outspoken critic of Israel and the United States. Bashar was expected to take a more liberal approach than his father, and had said that democracy in Syria was 'a tool to a better life,' but he also said that democracy could not be rushed.
Syrian life has not changed much since Bashar al-Assad's first election in 2000. Economic reform in Syria has been limited since industry is still state-controlled, but some changes like the introduction of private banking and foreign involvement in the country's oil business gave some people hope that things were beginning to change. It now appears those moves were smoke screens.
The Assad family developed a political safety net by integrating the military into their political regime. In fact, the military, the ruthless secret police and the ruling elite are so connected that it's impossible to separate the security establishment from the Assad regime.
Bashar's regime and his loyal forces have been able to deter fearless oppositional activists for years, but the 2011 bloody government backlash has tarnished Bashar's image as a reformer, and his reaction to the protests shows his real colors as a brutal dictator in the eyes of most Syrians.
Several human rights groups claim that Assad's forces have killed about 2,000 people since the uprising erupted in March of 2011. But Bashar sees himself as a philosopher-king, and some Westerners believe the only way to manipulate him is by playing to his intellectual pretensions in order to gain his confidence, which may be a time-consuming process.
Background: Bashar al-Assad was born in Damascus on September 11th, 1965. In the beginning, Bashar had no intentions of entering into the political world. Instead, Bashar attended the University of Damascus, Faculty of Medicine in 1988. He concluded his ophthalmology residency training at the Tishreen Military Hospital of Damascus before he went to London, in 1992, for subspecialty training at the Western Eye Hospital.
Al-Assad speaks fluent English as well as casual conversational French, having studied at the Franco-Arab al-Hurriyah school in Damascus. He was recalled to Syria in 1994 after his older brother's death and subsequently entered into the Syrian army. Assad attended the military academy at Homs, north of Damascus, where he was pushed through the ranks quite quickly. Assad became a colonel just five years later, in January 1999.
Bashar, now his father's heir apparent, was selected as leader of the Ba'ath Party as well as of the army upon his father's death. He was elected president, unchallenged, with what the administration claimed was by considerable popular support. Assad held 97.2% of the votes. The Majlis Al Sha'ab, Syria's Parliament, accomplished Bashar's presidency by swiftly voting to lower the minimum age for candidates from 40 to 34, Bashar's age when he was elected. In May of 2007, Bashar was accepted as president for an additional seven-year term, based on the official result of 97.6% of the votes in a ballot lacking any other candidate.
In 2005, Bashar was accused of involvement with the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Bashar maintained that Syria's ongoing extraction of troops from Lebanon, beginning in 2000, was precipitated as a consequence of the event and ended on May 2005.
Bashar al-Assad restored affairs with the Palestine Liberation Organization, but dealings with other Arab states, mainly Saudi Arabia, have deteriorated. This is partly due to Bashar's persistent interference in Lebanon and his alliance with Iran.
Bashar made an official state visit to Russia during the South Ossetia War in 2008. During an interview with the Russian TV channel Vesti, he declared that "one cannot separate the events in the Caucasus from the US presence in Iraq," which he maintained was an imminent danger to Syria's security.
In 2011, Bashar gave an interview to the Wall Street Journal, in which he asserted that he was "anti-Israel" and "anti-West." Because of these policies, he believes that he is not in any danger of being ousted.
That remains to be seen.